When New York’s stay-at-home order went into effect in March, Siobhan O’Loughlin immediately panicked. Since 2015, she had been touring around the world for her theater project Broken Bone Bathtub, which usually takes place inside of a bathroom in someone’s home for an audience of however many people can fit—usually, five to 12. How could an artist whose work hinged on such immersive experiences survive the age of Zoom?
O’Loughlin understood that her gigs would be cancelled at least through the summer. “But the first thing I felt is something that a lot of independent artists can relate to,” she said: “How am I going to stay relevant during this time?”
Since March, O’Loughlin has been doing a series called “Please Don’t Touch The Artist” (PDT) from her very own home in South Brooklyn. The series aims to soothe feelings of isolation and confusion during the pandemic. As part of PDT, “My Heart Goes Zoom” in particular tells the true story of O’Loughlin trying to find love during quarantine. The story is based on her experience taking a film class through Zoom, where even within all the constraints of the platform, she began to catch feelings for a fellow classmate. Not deterred by the online classroom environment, O’Loughlin attempts to signal her feelings to the person virtually.
When 120 people showed up for a performance in May (the next ones are July 17 and 18), it became clear that, in a time when no one could be together, “My Heart Goes Zoom” had become a valuable way to stay connected and express love.
While O’Loughlin plays herself in this romantic comedy, she invites viewers to engage as much as they can, whether it’s improvising as other characters in her story or reacting to how the story unfolds. Whoever volunteers to play a character receives the scripts and improv prompts through Zoom’s private messages, then they act it out in real time with O’Loughlin. “I set up the Zoom room as the classroom, and different participants play ‘the instructor’ or ‘the guy’ himself,” the artist describes. Those who want to actively participate without playing a character are encouraged to use the Zoom chat, or react to the show with up-twinkles and down-twinkles whenever the artist asks for opinions.
For O’Loughlin, immersive performances allow for a whole new level of communication and connection, blurring the line between the artist and the audience. “There’s such a magical feeling of being in the presence of other human beings, which I think is why live performance and entertainment is so important,” said O’Loughlin. “I think it restores us.” She added that she is committed to discovering how to transcend the technological obstacles of togetherness, even if it means a lot of experimentation, spending time scrolling through the screens, calling people by name or leaving space for awkwardness.
Her efforts seem to have paid off. Gary Jackson, a regular based in Asheville, North Carolina, who has been following O’Loughlin’s work even before the pandemic, praised the “immediate intimacy” of the experience and described it as a “cooler version” of Black Mirror’s choose-your-own-adventure episode, Bandersnatch. Sarah Weissman, who watched the show from Baltimore, Maryland, said that it was the closest she had felt to being in a theater since the quarantine started. “[O’Loughlin] is just so vulnerable and she’s so public about it, which really resonates with me,” Weissman said. “It was just like a little burst of joy, which I think is really needed right now.”
“My Heart Goes Zoom” is one of many examples of performance artists finding ways to innovate during this time. While they have had to sacrifice the physical connection of everyone being in a room together, this format allows for more viewers to tune in, regardless of their geographical location. “There [have been] people in San Francisco and Sydney, Australia and Belfast, Ireland, who would not be able to come to the same show but now they can talk to each other,” said O’Loughlin.
Another regular, Kit Baker, first heard about O’Loughlin when she came to Colorado for the Broken Bone Bathtub immersive project. “She has thought deeply about how you reach out over the cold digital medium when she’s so used to human contact,” said Baker, who watched the show from Denver.
For some, the show has become part of a routine of their week. Stephen Winburn of Flushing, Queens, has been out of work due to the coronavirus crisis. Not having had a routine in months, Winburn said attending O’Loughlin is one of the ways he’s keeping track of time and staying sane.
“You’re allowed to participate, you’re allowed to talk, you’re allowed to say what you feel,” he said. “It is a safe space for you to be emotional.”