Since its New York City debut last May, Say Something Bunny! has been the talk of the town, selling out shows for eleven months straight and earning a coveted spot in Time Out New York’s Top 10 Theatre Productions of 2017, where musicals such as Hamilton typically dominate the spotlight.
Created and performed by Alison S.M. Kobayashi, Bunny! is an imaginative one-woman show that centers around a found audio recording of a 1950s Jewish American family from Long Island. The nearly seventy-year-old wire recorder that captured the sound is almost impossible to hear, but through extensive historical research, Kobayashi uncovers the mysterious dialogue and delights audiences with her surprising discoveries told through theatrical performance, hilarious videos of her reconstructing scenes and fascinating archival material.
The show is heartfelt and unforgettable which is why we had to ask the artist and charismatic storyteller a few questions. Below, Kobayashi sheds light on this profound work, and her obsession with found objects and thoughts on our hyper-digital age where everything can be easily recorded and sent out to the world in an instant. (But will it be remembered?)
Since your New York City debut last May, Say Something Bunny! has earned stellar reviews from theater critics. Heck, even David Byrne showed up to see your show! Did you ever imagine this project would receive so much success being it your first major production?
Like most people would, I imagine both scenarios: what I hoped for — that Say Something Bunny! would resonate with an audience and they’d find a connection with this narrative, and then also what I feared — that they’d all find it confusing or boring. Lucky for us, it’s been the former. My collaborator, Christopher Allen and I have managed to pinpoint why this found audio recording originally captivated me and translate that to very open minded audiences. It’s such a New York story that it makes sense to me that people here would appreciate the humor, the site specificity, the references and the characters.
How would you best describe your work and how long have you been performing as an artist?
I’ve been making work using found objects since undergrad. I’ve always collected items that I’ve found curious or unusual and first starting making videos based on their narratives in 2006. Like Say Something Bunny! these objects were mundane in nature, things that many of us make unintentionally as documents of our lives: a letter to a crush, notebooks, a shopping list. For instance, I would collect answering machines that were donated to thrift shops and listen to the tapes accidentally left behind. One of my earliest videos, Dan Carter was based on the unedited contents of one of those tapes. I re-enacted each caller who left a message on Dan Carter’s machine. I created the life that I imagined these strangers lived, solely based on the contents of the found object. So unlike Say Something Bunny! which is deeply researched, these earlier works were more speculative.
What sparked the idea of creating a performance out of a found audio recording and where did you find it?
Say Something Bunny! really combines many of my previous practices: performance, video, illustration, experimental storytelling and documentary. Live performance seemed to provide an opportunity for these forms to exist together in one piece. The format was also inspired by my archival research, which revealed that one of the characters became a scriptwriter and playwright. In addition to always being on the lookout for interesting material to work with for projects, from time to time people have given me items that they thought I might find compelling. That was the case with this project. The audio recording was all of the things I loved in a found object, it was incredibly ordinary while also containing humour and tenderness. It was love at first listening.
Your research and detective work behind Bunny is truly remarkable. You’re a modern day Sherlock! How long did it take you to decipher the recording and piece together the story?
The whole process was six years and I’m still hearing new things as we perform it. Through repetitive listening, I began to decipher voices and then characters. Over that six years I was working on many other projects like the performance Defense Mechanism and Living Los Sures produced by UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art where I work on Special Projects, but I’d always return to this audio recording. It really stuck with me. As for the story, I spent a lot of time digging through archives and records. I kept recognizing these links between conversations heard in the recording and public documents that I was accessing. The work is based on research but much of the performance is: how can I imagine a history when all I have are traces and incomplete records?
At what point in your discoveries did you feel compelled enough to turn your research into a performance, and would you do anything differently?
Christopher and I were on a road trip (which is often when we do most of our best thinking on projects) and were talking about what to do with this audio. I had always wanted to make a book work and loved the simple act of spending time listening to these voices. So, the format of the performance was realized somewhere on I-95 between North Carolina and New York where we conceptualized the performance as a ‘cold read’ of a play. We ask the audience to engage with this material in a deep and unexpected way by treating them as actors preparing for a future role. We never wanted to ask them to actually participate, but thought this scenario would make for an engaged spector.
I don’t think I’d change much about the process, I’ve had the chance to work with and meet so many amazing people and have new collaborators from this process. It’s one of the joyful and enriching aspects of working on performance.
Without any spoilers, did you have any notable "aha!" moments in your research process?
There are dozens of these, but I’m afraid they are all spoilers! I may have already said too much. I appreciate when an audience member enters the space knowing very little or nothing at all about Say Something Bunny! There’s much to be gained by entering a performance without expectations.
The voices captured in the wire recording range from a few old married couples to disaffected teenagers and family pets. You do a magnificent job of bringing these characters to life. Is there any one person (or animal!) in Bunny that you would identify with most?
Perhaps the family’s bird, Peppy, who is present in the room yet doesn’t participate in the conversation. Peppy’s an observer of the scenes unfolding but a non-participant. Plus there’s a little bit of singing in the performance so that seems the most fitting.
We live in a hyper-digital age now where everything can be easily recorded and sent out to the world in an instant. What are your feelings on that?
Say Something Bunny! shows us that self-documentation isn’t new, people have been doing it for a long, long time. I’m curious about whether future generations will be interested in seeking out the profiles of ordinary people and what they’ll surmise of our lives. In 50 years, how will our selfies and food photos be perceived? The majority of these documents will surely not be seen and mostly forgotten. This project has made me think about what happens to a legacy, if you decide to not have heirs to preserve it? What do we leave behind?
There is so much fodder for storytelling out there and it’s growing exponentially. Say Something Bunny! tells one of a billion possible tales. If someone were to create a performance about your life 100+ years from now, what medium or recordings of yours would you want memorialized?
You could play documentation of a performance of Say Something Bunny! on loop which would represent my life the foreseeable future... we just extended [the show] until September 2018! I’m still pinching myself that people are excited to be part of this performance we’ve created.
Performances of Say Something Bunny run through September 2018 at 511 W. 20th Street, 2nd Floor in New York, NY. For tickets and info visit www.saysomethingbunny.com.
top photo by Lanna Apisukh
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Lanna Apisukh is a Brooklyn-based photographer specializing in lifestyle and documentary photography. She draws inspiration from places she visits and the people she connects with and aims to create authentic stories through her images. Lanna is also a skateboarder and has worked with organizations such as Skate Like A Girl and Girls Riders Organization to empower females and help them build confidence through skateboarding. Follow her on instagram @apisukh and visit her website http://apisukh.com and her photography website http://lannaapisukh.com.