Film In Conversation
ALISON S. M. KOBAYASHI and CHRISTOPHER ALLEN with Tess Takahashi
Alison S. M. Kobayashi’s new multimedia performance piece, Say Something Bunny!, first shown in Toronto at Gallery TPW this past winter, combines found and invented documents, theatrical staging, costumes, props, and multiple screens. Kobayashi and Allen’s striking re-imagination of the life and times of a Jewish family is based on a fragment of whose story was captured on a wire recorder in the 1940s. Out of this found recording emerges not only the chronicle of an era that reaches into the 1970s, but also the surprising story of David, to whom this unusual device once belonged.
Say Something Bunny! grows out of both Allen’s organizational and documentary work as founder of UnionDocs and Kobayashi’s performance-based videos, which playfully bring to life the intimate experiences of those connected to a variety of found documents: a note between high-schoolers that Kobayashi once discovered on the road in From Alex to Alex, and an old answering machine cassette that once belonged to the recently divorced Dan Carter, which features the voices of his son, his wife, and his new lover. In a similar vein, Say Something Bunny employs humor, pathos, and imagination combined with meticulous historical research and innovative staging to produce an audience experience that’s both great fun and seriously thought provoking.
In what follows, Kobayashi, Allen, and I explore their process of turning a nearly illegible seventy-year-old recording into a concrete and moving multimedia experience.
Tess Takahashi (Rail): Can you tell us a little bit about what a wire recorder is and what it looks like?
Alison Kobayashi: It’s contained in a very heavy luggage-like box and was used as a dictation device in the ’20s. It was reintroduced to consumers after World War II, although it was quickly replaced by magnetic tape, which was more convenient and less finicky. The same machine can record and playback audio, allowing users to immediately hear their recordings. The audio is recorded onto a spool of wire, which is as thin as a piece of hair and is very easily knotted.
Rail: Alison, could you tell us about the process that you went through with the wire recording?
Kobayashi: The first time I listened to it, I was astounded by how humorous and well-preserved the audio recording was. Found materials from the postwar period of domestic life (which I was familiar with) and home movies from that time are so often silent. But here I had a forty-five-minute self-made audio recording of a family gathering, including their banter, jokes, and private conversations. While I didn’t have access to the visual identifiers that could have helped me locate the recording in time, I did have the voices of the various speakers and their conversations to decode through cultural references, jokes, and asides.
The other mystery was that the wire was unlabeled and contained no clues to lead me to the original owners. You hear, “Hey Grandpa” and then later that voice responds to someone calling them “Sam” but you’re still not sure whether they’re the same person—or two people, even. Those recorded also never refer to one another by full given names, with the sole exception of “Bunny Tanenbaum,” whose surname is actually a nickname for Barbara. Much of the audio was faint, garbled, or contained overlapping conversations, so much of my time was spent transcribing and trying to isolate dialogue.
Rail: Your decision to have a full transcript for all of the participants in your show is a brilliant move, because otherwise the recording sounds like a bunch of jibberish to the untrained ear.
Christopher Allen: For me the tape was entirely impenetrable. One of Alison’s remarkable skills is her ability to identify different voices and piece details from the material together. You couldn’t have just handed this over to somebody who’s mechanically transcribing.
Kobayashi: There were moments in the recording where characters’ remarks sounded impolite and even rude, making me guess, Oh if this person is telling someone to “shut up,” then they actually must be very close. When I finally located the family in a U.S. Census, understanding the many subtleties of how they spoke to each other was reinforced by learning about their familial roles, how long they’d been married, the age difference between siblings, etc.
Allen: Without understanding the relationships between the speakers all the subtext is lost, so when Alison found the actual census document that defines them, it shifted our understanding of what’s being said in the context of relationships—mothers, fathers, siblings, etc. That gave the material so much more depth.
Rail: You make each of the audience members in the room characters, so that there were real embodied human beings that we could associate with the voices we were hearing. Christopher, you mentioned this being inspired by something called “the memory palace?”
Allen: From what I remember, the poet Simonides is at a dinner where the roof falls in and kills all the guests at the dinner table. However, he’s able to identify—for the people investigating—who was actually killed because he remembers where everyone was seated. The bodies are disfigured from the collapse, but he’s able to identify them using spatial memory. From that experience, he develops a system of memory that uses architectural images as spaces in which memories can live.
We thought about that in a very literal way when thinking about how a table could function as both set and audience seating. Because there are fifteen characters, it could be hard to remember who’s who, but we use the physical space of the table to orient the audience. It does something different in your brain that’s more diagrammatic rather than literal.
Kobayashi: The large circular table also invites the audience to watch not only me as the main performer, but also each other. When I cast the audience as characters from the original recording, I’d see them glance at each other from across the room and have moments of identification like, “You’re my Dad!”—or I’d see them perk up the first time they heard their character in the recording. That was really joyful for me—seeing those subtle moments of connection. The “casting” is arbitrary—where you take your seat determines your role in the performance, but that isn’t revealed to you until after you sit down. Roles aren’t defined by gender, age, or real-life relationships, so the date you came with might be cast as your mother, or your pet parakeet.
Allen: Absolutely. You get a sense of who people are connected to when they sit down at the table, but this kind of casting allows those relationships to be played with a little bit.
Kobayashi: Most of that strategy came together when we were driving between North Carolina and New York and listening to the audio.
Allen: The format was really undefined beyond the starting point of the audio tape itself. When we finally came around to thinking about the transcript of the recording as a text, we thought it would be interesting for people to just listen and read along.
Kobayashi: We were originally talking about making a video, almost like an illustration of the tape, more in the vein of an earlier video work I made, Dan Carter, or some of my previous work where I reenact found narratives. However, I didn’t want the simple pleasure of listening to the audio and letting your imagination of a scene play out fully in your mind to be lost.
Allen: At first, the idea of having Alison play all the characters felt natural because of her previous work, but it also felt very confining. I think Alison was more interested in the work of the imagination that came before the actual physical construction of a scene or characters. In that sense, the decision to focus on the script itself allows the audience to build the visuals in their minds without us having to stage every element of this period piece.
Rail: The use of the script as a physical object to help anchor the imagination works really well. You also provide anchors for the imagination through the props, which you lay in front of audience members at different points. It might be just a big piece of cake, or a dog mask, or an empty sherry glass, but those simple props open up whole realms.
Kobayashi: Those props changed as we did the show over the two weeks we presented it at Gallery TPW in Toronto.
Allen: Yes, a lot of elements emerged in the process of rehearsal and seeing what was working. I think the props were always part of it, but how they came out and when they came out, was something we discovered by doing it over and over.
Rail: You said there are over 1,000 cues in the performance to guide the audience. Can you talk about how you organized the cues in relation to the space?
Kobayashi: Even though there’s a lot going on technically, I see this as a very minimal performance. Very early on, I imagined it much more theatrically, with big sets and lots of props, but I became much less interested in the historical accuracy of 1950s-era objects and much more interested in character development.
Allen: I think of it as minimal too. At each moment there’s just one thing that we’re asking the audience to do, whether it’s to read and listen, or to watch these interstitial videos on a monitor, or something else. But the actual production of each of these elements was pretty extensive; just the script alone was an enormous effort, not only in the transcription but also in terms of the design on the page. What is the best column width for the eye? Where in the script do we insert the illustrations from Alison’s research material? The script itself could have been the whole project.
In terms of space, the circular table organizes the performance environment—audience on the outside rim and Alison inside the middle of the table. Alison was set on having the table be a container for all of the props and scripts. And of course the sight lines were also an important consideration.
Kobayashi: I eventually discovered that the main character and owner of the wire recorder, David, was a playwright. We thought this was so thematically connected to his personal history that we initially wanted to stage the performance as a cold reading with a downtown New York ’70s actors’ aesthetic—folding tables and ashtrays. That would have been much closer to David’s own experience. But then we thought, Why not make a gigantic fourteen-foot table? [Laughter.]
The proportions of the table we ultimately built is a direct reference to the wire spool itself that contains the original audio recording. If you look at the table from an aerial view and put a wire recorder beside it, they mirror each other.
Allen: The circle also makes sense, in that it suggests a family uniting at a table for a meal.
Kobayashi: Immediate family sits next to uncles and aunts and neighbors. The relationships between people (both audience and characters) flow better, no one is in a corner, sightlines are uninterrupted.
Rail: You said you used the lighting to direct audience attention, at various points turning the lights off so that we would listen, or look at the screens, or focus on Alison.
Allen: The thing about this performance is it’s not just like entering into a theater where you automatically know what to do. Because this isn’t the sort of spectatorship scenario most people will have experienced, we use the performance, the light, and the sound in order to help ease the audience into the situation. There’s a transition period in the beginning where we felt it was important to train people how to respond. So hopefully when the overhead lights snap on and you hear a click, there’s a bit of a Pavlovian response to look back at the script.
Rail: Those cues felt intuitive to me as an audience member, even something as simple as having the page number flash on a tiny monitor in front of me and hearing the little click. It’s like Oh, okay, I’m turning the page.
Kobayashi: Having the physical script to ground the audience in the performance made it possible to depart from an ordinary theatrical experience. At those points when I break away from the transcription, I might be talking to them directly, or singing, or jumping into a commercial from the ’50s, and it all makes sense because those diversions are informed by something you had just read or heard on the wire.
Allen: A lot of the work that went into the script was deciding what to reveal when and how to build suspense, but also how to create a certain amount of play. There are basically two scripts: the transcript of the original audio and Alison’s script. And both of those needed to have an arc.
Rail: You transform this audio recording into a really compelling drama about this family, but particularly about the character of David and his relationship to his own writing and creativity, as well as this theater community in New York. You also produce a number of mysteries along the way that have us asking, Well what’s going to happen now?
Kobayashi: In the first act David is more or less given the same significance as the other characters in terms of how much you know about him. It’s only at the end of the first act that David is recognized as the main character. Then the second act delves into his personal life and his journey.
Allen: Because Alison has this unbelievable knowledge of the characters, sometimes it was difficult to make decisions about what was most important to bring into the script.
Rail: They say you have to swallow a locomotive to produce a bolt. It’s like that here. There’s so much here that you’ve interwoven in this piece: the stories of individual characters, of the family as a whole, of the larger historical context, and of the research process.
Allen: There’s also the story of physical objects. I think one of my favorite parts is the story that explains how that blank spot in the recording came to be. It’s totally plausible but completely made up.
Kobayashi: That’s in line with my understanding of knowledge in general. All of the narratives I propose are directly presenting research, or are educated guesses based on clues found in the archive, but nothing is just completely out of left field. The format of the performance is me directing the audience/“actors” through this text so we can produce our own interpretation. This scenario allows space for artistic intervention as to how the narrative and history is told. When you see a play about a historical figure you understand as an audience member the set is a set, the script by a playwright, and fiction is always present in the act of adaptation.
Rail: Right, which is how all research works when you think about it. Did you always know that you were going to narrate the research process?
Allen: We defined the different roles that Alison could take on: Alison as a director of a show; Alison as a researcher; Alison as one of the characters in the show; Alison as a performer. In each of the sections we thought about whose voice would let that material best come through, and then we wrote it in that voice. We were also trying to alternate it a bit so that it would feel like your relationship to this performer was shifting.
Rail: In doing that you also make the audience shift into various roles. For example, audience member as audience member, or actor, or family member, or character in the show.
Kobayashi: In the course of researching I rented a DVD about the history of Jewish New Yorkers and Angels in America. In it, Tony Kushner was talking about how in Yiddish theater they assume that audience members are really intelligent so you don’t need to dumb things down. Making that assumption meant that I could deconstruct these events in ways that were complex and also really funny.
Allen: Humor really drives the way Alison approaches the material, in that she discovers the latent humor in the material rather than imposing something on it. We also knew there was gonna be a certain amount of awkwardness and silliness in the idea that this person in the audience is “playing” a character, even though they never have to speak or “perform.” We used that to create funny situations that made people feel invested, not simply in the narrative but in the experience itself, in being there with other people.