I wrote recently about the types of live shows I enjoy the most: those without a fourth wall. That rules out a lot of traditional theatre, and especially much of “experimental” theatre, where “experimental” is often code for insufferable and self indulgent. But I’m happy to report on an experiment that succeeded amazingly well: Say Something Bunny, which—as far as I can tell—uses an entirely new form of theatrical performance to tell a fascinating story.
As you can see from this blog (and my instagram feed), I try to stay on top of this kind of thing happening in NYC, but somehow this show ran below my radar; it’s been running since 2017. But I was listening to Penn Jillette’s podcast (episode 467), and Penn raved about it after a recent trip to NYC. We have similar tastes in many ways, so I paused the podcast mid episode and bought tickets. Other than reading the logistics in the emails sent by the production after buying tickets, I went into the production completely cold, and if you want to do the same—while there’s not really any significant spoilers below—you should stop reading now and buy tickets for yourself.
The show is based around a single performer, the amazing, talented, and charismatic Alison S. M. Kobayashi, who created the show as “director, performer, researcher, co-author, [and] co-producer“ along with Christopher Allen, who is credited for “co-author, co-producer, dramaturgy, [and] technical design“. In the show, Ms. Kobayashi tells a story of obtaining an old wire recorder; inside were two wire recordings. Listening to these recordings hundreds of times, she embarked a dogged (obsessive?) detective process that led to the discovery of amazing details about a NY area family.
I’ll leave the rest of the family details for you to discover by seeing the show (or via reviews, like this excellent one from my friend and colleague David Barbour), but I had two overall thoughts about the family’s story as told by Ms. Kobayashi. First, it's kind of amazing what kind of story she could draw from old, mysterious recordings (the story gets so outlandish by the second act that I started thinking that she had made the whole thing up, which would have been an incredible achievement in and of it self; I did some post-show googling, and it seems the story is true.) But secondly, listening to this 1950s family, sometimes recorded surreptitiously (something I did to my family with a cassette recorder as a kid in the 70s), I was also thinking about how mundane family stuff and relationships are a universal theme, and that every family has some interesting story and/or drama. But talking after to my friend who I took to the show—who had a pretty disastrous and abusive upbringing—she couldn’t relate to the family dynamics at all. But she liked the show and was—like me—fascinated by the form and the telling.
The show is built into a studio space way out on the west side of Chelsea, which these days is the land of expensive art galleries and the touristy High Line. You enter by pressing a buzzer on the street, walk up some stairs next to a neon sign for an adjacent hairdressing studio, and then you’re let into a little waiting area. At showtime, a curtain is drawn back and you see the playing space: a large round table, and a few seats on risers in the back with home made music stands containing scripts. There are only about 25 seats total, and seating is done by order of arrival; we got seats on the risers. As soon as I saw the script, I thought about heading for the exit, thinking this was going to be some twee, forced participation “immersive” theatre piece (immersive being the theatre buzzword of recent years); however I didn’t think Penn would have raved about the show if that were the case. Each person is eventually given a character name and a script, and Ms Kobayashi immediately puts everyone at ease by saying—twice if I remember right—that no one will in the audience will be saying anything. Instead, each audience member is assigned a character in the show as a way of tracking and identifying with the characters, and the script is a way to follow the story.
In reality, this setting/audience/script/character structure is the core, brilliant performance device that draws in the audience, and—as we soon see—gives Ms Kobayashi, alone on the stage, people to perform with and to as she tells the story. Given the conference-room style setting, there never really is a fourth wall, and she eventually performs directly to each member of the audience. I’ve seen a lot of experiments with this kind of thing (like my friend Christene Jones’ excellent and powerful Theatre for One that we hosted at my school 10 years ago) that can be awkward or uncomfortable for introverts like me; but in the safety here offered by Ms Koybayashi I felt totally at ease.
As she starts delving into the story, we hear snippets of the wire recordings, and she supports the stories of her investigation with a tight, rapid-fire array of audio, images, video recordings, live video and simple light cues which all lay out evidence for the story, like an artistic court room presentation. She sometimes presents things directly; other times she uses props, live and recorded video and costume changes to tell the story. She also moves around the wire-reel shaped table to bring the story to everyone.
The woman who checked us all in was sitting next to Ms Kobayashi, and had her hands under the table; I suspected that she was running everything via QLab. At intermission I confirmed this (see photo); she is credited as the “operator”.
One thing I’m writing about on my sabbatical this semester is the maturation of show technology; my premise is that our array of show technologies which have matured in the last 20 years or so has given us a robust technological story telling toolbox that we can now use to enable really sophisticated and cost-effective high-tech storytelling, and I would argue that Say Something Bunny has benefited significantly from (or exists because of) this maturation.
The tech here is smooth, very well integrated, and an important core part of the production, but there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been done 25 years ago. However, back then the technology required would have been expensive and needed a large crew, and all of that would have required a truck load of money. Instead, today, everything in this show—audio, video, and lighting—was controlled using one laptop running the very affordable QLab software which is very easy to program. Having this cost effective, mature tool makes shows like this practical financially, and enabled the creators to develop this on their own in a truly DIY fashion.
So in the end, I would argue that this new form of performance storytelling is built on three important foundations. 1) The brilliant device of assignment of characters to audience members and using the script and the conference room setting. 2) The availability and affordability of mature show technology (even for the wooden table itself, designed by graphic designer Michał Dudek, and was, I would guess, drawn on a computer and CNC-cut). And, most importantly 3) The creators’ creativity, determination and persistence.
As much as the show worked, I think the creative team could benefit with collaborations with theatrical designers; there were issues with speaker placement, sound score, lighting, and video that I think could all be addressed and improved to make the story telling even more powerful. But none of that takes away from what Ms. Kobayashi and Mr. Allen have created: a remarkable show powered by a new, compelling, and truly engrossing form of storytelling. This work is so specific to these creators and this story that I’m not sure how this form can be used for other stories (or should be), but I’m fascinated to see what comes next and inspired by their accomplishment. The run is limited (as of this writing it’s extended to July) and the audience is tiny, but so go see Say Something Bunny soon if you can.
If you can’t get to the show, I’ve embedded a couple video clips below. If you are going, it’s better to skip these and let this magical production surprise you.