In 2011, a friend gave Alison S. M. Kobayashi a wire recorder, a now obsolete form of audio technology that used steel wire for magnetic recordings. Included with the estate-sale find were two unlabeled spools, each dense with unidentified voices. As Kobayashi listened, characters and narratives emerged from the distortion, and, based on offhand comments about culture and holidays, she gradually traced these unmoored ghosts back to the early 1950s. They were the Newburges, a Jewish American family who lived on Long Island, and the older son David had recorded two of their gatherings. The decades-old sound became the basis for Say Something Bunny!, a performance that’s part one-woman show and part live documentary, as the audience joins in an excavation of this sonic artifact.
“For the past decade, I’ve been working with found material,” Kobayashi told Hyperallergic. “It’s often somewhat banal or something ordinary, or something that we all have. One of my first projects was collecting answering-machine tapes that people donated to thrift stores.”
That focus developed into the 2006 video Dan Carter, in which the artist performed as people leaving messages on a man’s machine. For the 2015 Personality Unlimited, she responded to a 1943 self-improvement book with new choreography, and the 2014 Mrs. Florence Hazel Davis Bland featured an interactive website that explored a woman’s life through her book collection.
While this previous work involved video and gallery installations, Say Something Bunny! is a two-act theatrical experience in which the audience sits at a circular table in the UNDO Project Space in Chelsea. It was first staged in 2016 at Toronto’s Gallery TPW, and is being performed in Manhattan through April 29. The shape of the table echoes the shape of the wire spools, and at every seat is a script for a character. There’s no actual participation, however, except Kobayashi speaking directly to attendees as if they were actors at a table read.
Kobayashi created Say Something Bunny! with her husband, UnionDocs cofounder Christopher Allen. Its title references a line directed at a reluctant audio participant named Bunny (Kobayashi evokes her presence as a stoic Simone de Beauvoir-quoting college girl, one of several imagined reenactments in the show). “It’s a very unusual and bold performance situation to have to look people in the eye,” Allen said of the staging.
One woman at the performance I attended was very enthusiastic about putting on the dog mask for her barking canine character, but mostly the table setting adds to the intimacy of this archival investigation. Props such as a dictionary of Yiddish slang, and sherry glasses for a holiday toast, emerge like artifacts at a séance. By the time Liza Minelli sings (she is played with aplomb by Kobayashi, as is each character in Say Something Bunny!), it feels like an organic culmination of this unearthed story on midcentury American life, and its “little moments of humor, or moments of heartbreak” that Kobayashi discovered in the audio. And it’s the appreciation and pathos for these moments that makes the experience so compelling.
The theatrical format is partly a tribute to David Newburge, who made the recordings and later became a playwright and lyricist. “It’s something he would have experienced many times in his life, having the actors gathering for the first time,” Kobayashi said. “We were really interested in how that would change the dynamic of how the audience related to the characters.”
Newburge most notably contributed the racy book and lyrics for the Off-Broadway Stag Movie, one of the adult musicals popular in the 1970s. He later wrote an erotic 1977 film called Big Thumbs. Yet when Kobayashi first listened to a young David on the recordings, she had no idea who he was. Census records, newspaper clippings, alumni magazines, and immigration documents fleshed out the family; jokes about 1950s Broadway suggested an inherited passion for the performing arts. “It’s akin to a radio drama or a forensic oral history project,” Kobayashi said of the piece.
There’s a haunting hint of why David was keen to preserve these mundane conversations. Between the first and second recording, he had survived a serious car crash; in the second spool, his dad mentions his declining health. Indeed, only a few years following that recording, David’s father would be dead. Perhaps he knew that even idle talk about his new girlfriend, about a relative’s bead business, was fleeting.
David Newburge himself died in 2007; the wire recorder was in his possession until the end. After they’d completed the script, Kobayashi and Allen made contact with Larry, David’s younger brother who is heard in the audio, and the sole person on the recordings who survives. An addendum slide show at Say Something Bunny fills in gaps and makes corrections at the conclusion, but they chose to keep the performance as the investigative piece.
“The performance for us was really about the process of figuring this out without having that first-person account,” Kobayashi said. “It was about what can you understand and philosophize about people when you don’t have them around anymore, what can we understand from them just from the recording of their voice.” She added, “It was an everyday object, but very interesting in how much was revealed about this man’s life, at this time.”
Say Something Bunny! continues through April 29 at UNDO Project Space (511 West 20th Street, Second Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan).
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