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An Immersive Performance That Transports Audiences to 1950s New York

Experiences

Sarah Burke | November 22, 2017
Based on a found wire recording of a midcentury Long Island family, Say Something Bunny! brings audiences into the lives of 1950s New Yorkers through an intimate multimedia experience.

If a Broadway performance is an extravagant present tied with a perfect bow, Say Something Bunny! is a minimalist time capsule that erupts all over its audience. The immersive one-woman performance by Alison S. M. Kobayashi uses text, vintage photographs, music, caricature, live video, and census reports to bring the nearly incomprehensible tale of a Long Island Jewish family in the 1950s to two and a half hours of dazzling life. With an audience capacity limited to 24 — each of whom has a role to play — the multimedia performance piece has been running in Chelsea since May and was extended through at least January of next year. For good reason.

Kobayashi, a Brooklyn-based video, performance, and installation artist hailing from Ontario, has long been a collector of ephemera. So when a friend came across an old wire recorder at an estate sale in 2007, it eventually found its way to her. While Kobayashi has listened to many a found recording, she told Per La Mente that, from the start, this one felt different. The voices she heard had incredible New York accents, like something out of an old film, and they teased and chatted with each other in a way both timelessly familial and vividly particular to a distinct historical moment. “Immediately, I was like, this is something,” Kobayashi said. “I didn’t know what form it would [take] or what it would become, but I was just like, this is something really special.”

Over the next four years, Kobayashi slowly transcribed the fuzzy, richly layered recording. She also began identifying some context around the document, based on little clues left behind in the conversation — a specific football score would eventually reveal a date, for instance. But the identities of the speakers were more difficult. Everyone referred to each other by nicknames, and only one of those was ever followed by a surname: Bunny Tanenbaum.

Kobayashi assumed she would be left to fictionalize the stories of the people in her audio snapshot. But in 2015, that last name helped her track down a 1940 New York City census report that matched the rest of the cast — the Tanenbaum family and their neighbors, the Newburges — and became her key to filling out their past lives through a mixture of public records, cultural references, and just a little imagination. “The true story ended up being so much more interesting than anything I could have made up,” she said.

Say Something Bunny! is the culmination of Kobayashi’s research, developed into a performance through a collaboration with her partner, UnionDocs founder Christopher Allen. The show brings audiences into (the exciting parts of) Kobayashi’s “addictive” investigative process. Attendees are seated around a circular table, and each is presented with a “script” and assigned to “play” a person who appears in the recording. Audience members aren’t actually expected to speak — don’t worry, introverts — but they are asked to read along as Kobayashi plays bits of the 45-minute recording, digressing every minute or so to dissect cultural references that provide a taste of what it was like to live at that time, or to indulge in a tangent about one character’s past as an actor in silent films or another’s future making erotic ones. For these bits, Kobayashi surprises with costumed monologues and comedic props, using expert timing to tease out a fascinating family portrait.

In a cultural moment filled with extravagant aesthetics and sensational stories, Say Something Bunny! is a welcome ode to the seemingly banal. It’s a piece that relishes the specific annunciatory tendencies of a Long Island accent in 1954, the super-subtle dynamics between a grandfather and his grandson, or the timid tone with which a family member discusses his illness that not everyone present knows about. It’s a piece that proves that enough ordinary details can paint an extraordinarily touching picture — one that, in Bunny’s case, culminates in a graceful, emotional reveal.

“It’s been really fun figuring out that process of how to share all this information,” said Kobayashi, “and have it also felt by asking [viewers] to become these characters temporarily.”

The intimate format of the show also allows for each iteration to have idiosyncrasies determined by the audience. In a recent performance, the script for the recording’s grandfather figure was randomly assigned to an elderly man who chuckled and chimed in throughout the show, emphasizing the serendipitously perfect casting. And when Kobayashi explained that the “character” of Larry sounds a bit different in a later recoding because she presumes that he has a cold, Larry’s assigned counterpart remarked, nasally: “I do have a cold!” Kobayashi likes that casual atmosphere, which aligns with her intention to evoke a live script-reading among actors.

“It’s a space where you can kind of be yourself,” she said, “but also be other people, I suppose.”


For another unique experience, head to Fernet-Branca


All images courtesy of Alison S. M. Kobayashi

Sarah Burke is a journalist, critic, and curator based in Brooklyn. You can find more of her work at sarahburke.works.

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