Like many of us during the COVID-19 quarantine, I am nostalgic for the times when we could go to the theater and socialize freely. But at the same time I am thrilled by the response of the artistic community: even under the challenging conditions of physical isolation theatre is being created and it finds its audience across many digital platforms. Take This is Not a Theatre Company, for instance. It has produced not one, but two shows meant to be enjoyed remotely: Play In Your Bathtub: An Immersive Audio Spa For Physical Distancing and Life on Earth. The New-York based company usually produces site-specific pieces and has taken their audiences to a cafe, Staten Island Ferry and a pool.
I vividly remember the first production of the company that I attended in 2017, Pool Play 2.0. It featured a collection of scenes, monologues, and dance numbers all centered around the topic of various bodies of water. The cast of seven performed in the middle of a large swimming pool, while the audience members sat on the edge, dangling their feet ankle-deep in the water. I am reminded of this moment of joyful public gathering as I am filling up the bathtub at home three years later in anticipation of the company’s new piece, Play In Your Bathtub. This show, unlike the Pool Play, is meant to be enjoyed in solitude, in a private bathtub (a bucket or any container for a footbath will also do). With public spaces being closed for the time being, producer and writer, Erin Mee, turns one’s bathroom into the location for her new site-specific project.
Following the instructions from the email sent prior to the experience I gather the “props”: a cup of tea (can be wine or any beverage), a washcloth soaked in warm water and a candle. The list also calls for aromatherapy source, which might be a scented candle, bath oil or herbal brew which you prepare in advance. For that purpose, I picked up a few twigs of a pine tree which turned out to be the single greatest idea of the week. The pines provide a pleasant smell and fun haptic experience. Necessity is the mother of invention but so is boredom, if anything the quarantine taught me that much. Don’t worry if you don’t have everything on the list, this won’t affect engaging with the piece. The key factor is comfort, so whichever way you choose to immerse yourself in the water, it should feel pleasant and comfortable so you can fully relax your body.
Play In Your Bathtub is an audio track that can be played from any device at any time. The date and a start time that you choose upon getting a pay-what-you-can ticket online is more of a suggestion, and I wish it was emphasized by the company. So don’t be discouraged if the offered times don’t work for you or if you are running late. Although the start time turned out to be nominal (hypothetical) I did like the idea of keeping an appointment with myself and entertained the fact that probably several people are doing exactly the same thing at that moment; getting into the tub and immersing themselves with the sounds of Play In Your Bathtub.
The 25-minute experience features a collection of poetic monologues and interactive prompts. “Drink from the well of yourself to begin again” – whispers a female voice, followed by a gentle rustling of ice-cubes in a glass, something straight from an ASMR seance. Then it cuts to a woman offering me to give myself a head massage. In a similar manner, contemplative fragments that are meant to engage the participant intellectually and emotionally are mixed with the prompts to interact with the scene physically. I am invited to trace the patterns of the water with an index finger or the tiles with one’s thumbs. My favorite part was harmonizing along with the narrator, which gave me a strange sense of joy and liberation. I am not a singer and don’t even sing in the shower, so hearing my own voice reverberating against the tiled surfaces was an entirely new experience for me.
Like other productions by This is Not a Theatre Company, Play In Your Bathtub is a busy eclectic collage, switching between the genres and moods in a heartbeat. Like a curious, restless child, Erin Mee invents one game after another and plunges in full-heartedly, only to forget about it altogether in a few minutes and jump on the next adventure. If I wasn’t familiar with the company’s work, I might have felt disoriented, overloaded and confused. Treating the experience as a game and having a little fun enhances it. After all the world “Play” in it stands for both dramatic work and activity for enjoyment and recreation.
I’ve learned that the best way to approach This is Not a Theatre Company’s productions is to treat them as a chocolate sampler: you might not love every single piece but you will have a unique opportunity to try a bunch of different flavors and maybe discover something that will stick with you. For me, it is harmonizing in my full voice in the bathroom and playing with pine twigs. Savoring each moment and experimenting with daily rituals like bathing might open new horizons of perception and re-introduce yourself to you. Play In Your Bathtub turns the limitations of quarantine into a precious gift. It reminds us that self-care, curiosity, and playfulness are more important now than ever before and that we are only limited by our imagination.
Another component of keeping sane during these trying times is to support each other. Hence the second show in the repertoire of This is Not a Theatre Company, Life on Earth, is dedicated to social life in the times of physical distancing. This adaptation of Charles’ Mee play, Heaven on Earth started at 8 pm on April 3rd and ended around 4:30 pm on April 5th. Over a hundred participants were tuning in from all over the world, including Argentina, India, Nepal, Turkey, and China.
There is a Bot moderator, who starts and wraps up the sessions, occasionally throws in prompts and has the power to ban those who are not respectful of others. Early in the experience, Bot posts photos of ruins of ancient civilizations: Greek temple, Mayan pyramids, Stonehenge and others. The set is concluded with a photo of people wearing surgical masks cramped in what appears to be a shelter. Bot quotes from Heaven on Earth:
the world has come to an end–
life goes on;
This sets up the tone for the dialogue on the public forum, dedicated to “Earth Matters”. Videos of different artists performing at home are organized in accordance with the original script and become a part of the live conversation. An inspirational video from Napoli of people singing in unison from their balconies is followed by sharing of exciting things that everybody saw lately, a picture of durian fruit and more vocal and dance performances recorded by the participants in their quarantine corners. At this point the moderation is minimal and there is a lot of confusion in the audience that came to see “the performance”. “Is anything not a performance ;)” – comments one of the participants.
The surreal, absurdist text of Charles Mee lends itself perfectly into the format of a chat-room. Life on Earth, the play that inspired our collective Discord journey proved to be so flexible enough to accommodate the participation of people who have no clue in what’s going on. A narrative within a narrative, Heaven on Earth is itself like a beautiful ruin, on which the vines of our personal experiences climb freely. At some point, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between a character in the play and a participant. Is an emoji of a woman in a red dress an homage to Heaven on Earth? Some fragments are direct quotes but they blend in so seamlessly in this multi-cultural dialogue that it’s impossible to tell where the original text ends and the improvisation begins.
More dances, songs, and short videos of everyday activities like yoga or doing chores are added to the chat. Participants share encouraging quotes and comment on each other’s contributions. The rule of thumb that everybody adopted unanimously and without the enforcement from the outside is that you are not supposed to post while everybody is watching a new video offering. As somebody noted: “Less speaking and more listening might help us all understand the dramaturgical structure of the piece”, a good rule for life in general, I might add. Less speaking and more listening might help us understand each other better.
Life on Earth has concluded but is available in its entirety on Discord, complete with a recipe for carrot cake, a tutorial on how to build a sheet fort and Charles’ Mee original text. To our disappointment or amusement, life today does resemble an absurdist play with a fatal twist. Life on Earth comes remarkably close to depicting reality, messy but, in the end, so beautiful.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.