“Prime” and “Play in Your Bathtub” both reflect an exciting and unconventional new use of audio for theater in the absence of physical theaters.
They are different in many ways, and also remarkably alike.
Heather Christian’s “Prime: A Practical Breviary,” is a rocking riff on a monk’s morning prayer; it launches Playwrights Horizons’ new original play podcast Soundscape, which plans to present a new original play by one of their staple of prominent playwrights every two weeks, on their own site and simultaneously on most podcast platforms.
“Play in Your Bathtub: An Immersive Audio Spa for Physical Distancing,” is the latest intimate experiment from Erin Mee and her This Is Not A Theatre Company theater company. It takes place in your own bathtub, where you listen to a Soundcloud that is meant to be calming.
Both shows last a little more than a half hour, are offered for free (although they welcome donations), and rely heavily on music and poetic language.
Neither are easy to describe; both feel just right for the medium, and for the times.
It’s important to note that online audio plays are nothing new: both LA Theatre Works and Playing on Air have been producing them for years. (Check them out on my roundup of online theater.) And then of course there is the commercial enterprise, Audible Theater, which records stage plays, and sells them as audiobooks.
But neither “Prime” nor “Play in Your Bathtub” could be mistaken for conventional radio plays.
“Prime,” which imagines the prayers performed by Christian monks early in the morning, is a glorious, sometimes sweet, sometimes hard-charging 10-song cycle that is less a drama than a concert by a vocal quartet, a six-piece band (including composer Christian at the piano), and a 14-member choir. There is some dialogue in between the songs (“This day of struggle and fasting must be turned into a day of joy”), which enhances the singing by giving it a context. But, whether spoken or sung, this is largely ancient prayer as contemporary poetry:
“Maybe uncertainty is a constant
and faith is a verb
like excavate, like fight, like doubt, like hunt, like hide and seek.
Only there’s never a period at the end of it.”
“…I’m not gonna lie and tell you it’ll all be ok
but if we can get through today baby it just might.”
If there is a plot or larger point in “Prime,” I missed it, and don’t quite care that I did. Ars Nova had been planning a high profile production of Christian’s “Oratorio for Living Things” at its Greenwich House Theater. I’m going to guess that it’s a similar musical landscape that could also work as audio online.
For “Play in Your Bathtub,” you’re sent an e-mailed with instructions to fill your bathtub with water (or, if you prefer, a footbath) and suggestions (none of which are mandatory) to bring along scented bath oil or bubble bath, a candle, and a beverage that relaxes you, whether wine or green tea.)
You’re sent a link for the specific day and time that you selected. This is not a shared experience in any direct way; you’re not broadcasting to any of the other audience members. This is just you and the Soundcloud, which includes soothing music, lines of poetry (by Neruda, Bukowski, etc.), a couple of original meditations and monologues (Marisa LaRuffa: “Why does the noise of the ocean make us so calm?…The ocean takes up 71% of the planet and my worries, my issues, are but .000001 of that. “) There are even a couple of unusual dances in which ”theatergoers” participate, including “Variations for Small Appendages” to Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat. A voice instructs: “With your eyes closed, wiggle your toes in the water. Let your toes trace the lines between the tiles, the space where the tub connects to the wall, the water spout. Let the sensations of different textures (water, tile, metal, towel) resonate through your limbs to your center.”
“Play in Your Bathtub” gives a new literal meaning to immersive theater.