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WalkUpArts presents a radically intimate solo show in an unlikely venue
Philip Santos Schaffer pulls back the curtain and introduces himself as "your server and savior" to me and the only other spectator. After chatting idly for a while, he asks if we're thirsty. "Tonight, we're serving only the finest NYC tap," he declares as he turns on the faucet and water comes pouring out. Forget the fourth wall -- there's not even a stage for this solo show because The End of the World Bar and Bathtub is performed in a real New York City bathroom. Interested audiences of two make an appointment and supply the tub; Schaffer shows up and delivers the hour-long experience.
Produced by WalkUpArts, The End of the World Bar and Bathtub is one of a series of pieces collectively called Small Plays for Giants. Schaffer, one of the innovative theatre company's four co-artistic directors, penned all five works and calls them "highly interactive solo performances written for intimate audiences."
Three of the shows ran earlier this year at The Tank, a traditional Off-Off Broadway theatre. (I caught The Jester and the Dragon, which presented as a children's fairy tale but was actually a multilayered play about an aging, arthritic finger puppeteer giving her final performance.) The final installment, the in-development Baby Jessica's Well-Made Play, will be performed for an audience of one in a New York City closet of the theatregoer's choice.
In the interim, The End of the World Bar and Bathtub, which debuted in March, can be ordered for a bathroom near you. Schaffer plays Philip, who lives in the bathtub 24/7 because "the world is ending soon and this tub is the only place to survive." He cooks his dinner there, usually rice or pasta ("If you can't make it in water then I haven't had it in a while"). He laments that there isn't enough room to pace, which he likes to do since it helps him think. On the other hand, "everybody always says their best thoughts come to them in the shower, and here I am in the shower all the time, which means all my thoughts are my best thoughts all the time."
Despite the character's end-of-days musings, the evening is quite amusing and optimistic. Schaffer says the play's a chance to "share an imagined experience of hope" as the monologue evolves into a dialogue, with Philip asking his guests a series of thought-provoking questions. The show's also an excellent example of WalkUpArts' commitment to mounting shows that "create a space for people to make eye contact," a rarity in conventional theatre.
When Schaffer began writing the play about three years ago, "all I knew was that I was excited about the idea of performing in a bathtub." He worked out the specific contours with director Audrey Frischman and dramaturg Anna Woodruff. Together they decided it would be so interactive that the audience would help guide what happens.
It should be noted that The End of the World Bar and Bathtub is not the first interactive solo show performed in a NYC bathtub. Siobhan O'Loughlin's semi-autobiographical Broken Bone Bathtub, in which the performer asked the audience to help her bathe, predates it by a several years. But Schaffer's work is smaller (two audience members instead of four to eight) and more open-ended, as the conversation can go almost anywhere.
Schaffer realizes prospective theatregoers might find this idea of such intense intimacy intimidating, but he says that "mainly we're just having a chat." Indeed, he's a convivial host and easygoing conversationalist apt to put audiences at ease. And if you need a little help loosening up, there's wine in the shampoo bottle.
"There have been nights when audience members have gone from not talking to me at all, to having long, deep conversations with me," Schaffer says. "The more we do the show, the more I learn how comfortable I have to get with letting go of my preconceptions of what is 'supposed' to happen in order to embrace what is actually happening. Every time we do the show, it is a totally different experience."
Top image: Philip Santos Schaffer in The End of the World Bar and Bathtub. Photos by Charlotte Arnoux.
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