Siobhan O’Loughlin is no stranger to unconventional performing arts spaces. For the past few years, her theaters have been neither proscenium nor black box. Instead, the venue for her interactive performance piece Broken Bone Bathtub (which came through Asheville last summer) is—you guessed it—a bathtub. The size of the BBB audience is dictated by how many souls can squeeze into a local volunteer’s bathroom, with the toilet naturally serving as the seat of honor.
I found Broken Bone Bathtub to be shockingly fresh, moving, and satisfying. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to see Siobhan (pronounced Sha-von) try her hand at a new performance space, this time virtual.
Please Don’t Touch the Artist is a series of Zoom Room livestreamed interactive performances. Each week, Siobhan, with the help of Producer and Performance Artist Dennissa Young and Technical Director Brendan Leahy, spins a different real-life tale, enlisting willing Zoom participants to join her in telling a story.
This iteration of PDTTA, titled My Heart Goes Zoom, premiered in mid-May and will be performed several more times in the next few weeks. Over the course of two nights, O’Loughlin relays the funny, relatable, and oh-so-now story of her crush on a boy in her COVID-era Zoom class. The nitty-gritty details of how this infatuation played out—the Zoom messages, the emails, the furtive digital glances—are spelled out in hilarious detail.
But the specifics of My Heart Goes Zoom, though entertaining, are not really the most notable feature of the piece. Rather, it is Siobhan’s amazing ability—unmatched, among the virtual theater pieces I’ve witnessed thus far in the pandemic—to create an authentic collective experience in a virtual space.
Since the soul of live theater is creating a living event between performer and audience, I don’t believe this achievement can be overstated. As of now, YouTube livestreams and Zoom staged readings have felt rather sterile to me. But My Heart Goes Zoom was exciting. As the live chat scrolled and I gazed into the homes of my fellow Zoom audience members, I felt a genuine sense of connection.
Perhaps the critical difference here is that O’Loughlin isn’t just using Zoom as a platform, she’s utilizing it as a medium—using its unique technical capabilities for dramatic effect.
For instance, Producer Dennissa Young encourages us early on to view the show in “Gallery Mode” meaning that you can see multiple faces at once. This not-exactly-eye-contact made me feel like I was experiencing the same show at the same time as all these people, which of course, I was.
Another critical feature is the Zoom Chat, which a more fearful artist surely would have disabled for fear of trolls and Zoom-bombers. But Siobhan and Dennissa wisely choose to leave the chat feature on, allowing a sort-of simultaneous live tweet of the entire show.
At the start of the show, Siobhan and Dennissa explain the concept of “up-twinkles” and “down-twinkles.” This is a physical gesture similar to jazz hands or spirit fingers. If Siobhan asks something to which we believe the answer is yes, we lift our fingers and twinkle to show our support. Down-twinkles for no, and even, in cases of ambivalent reaction, the innovative up/down-twinkles, where the right and left hands are pointed in opposite directions.
Frequently, Siobhan will pose a question: what male name do you automatically associate with “hot guy”? Was my email to my Zoom crush flirtatious enough? What do you think his response was to my message? It’s enormous fun to see all the participants’ answers in the form of up twinkles, down twinkles, or chat messages. Even though I started the show determined not to participate (critical distance, or something), I was irresistibly drawn to participate by the social pull of the up-twinkles.
Most important, Siobhan and Dennissa use volunteer audience members to help tell the story of My Heart Goes Zoom. Using a combination of emails and jotted-down notes, Siobhan creates little scripts that describe—sometimes in a magical-realist manner—interactions that took place between her and her crush, her friends, etc. By layering in audience participation, My Heart Goes Zoom becomes a much more dynamic performance than if Siobhan had simply spoken the entire time.
Of course, the glue that holds this whole virtual smorgasbord together is Siobhan herself. Sprightly and fashion-forward, sporting dark lipstick and sparkly eye shadow, Siobhan has a personality of such force that I would probably watch her read the phone book for two hours and never get bored. Aside from her iridescent nature, Siobhan takes pains to personally connect with just about everyone in the Zoom Room—no easy feat, considering there were about 100 audience members both nights of the performances I attended.
If the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us any lessons, it is that social distancing should not and must not equal isolation. Live theater is uniquely suited to bring strangers together in a cathartic collective experience.
Maybe this sensation is impossible to recreate exactly over YouTube, FaceTime, or Zoom. But Siobhan O’Loughlin is the artist who, thus far, has come closest to creating an intimate virtual theatrical experience. That’s enough to make me give a yellow Thumbs Up.