Utopia Theatre’s Anne Yumi Kobori talks children’s stories, growing up, her new play ‘Every Day Alice’

A group of people hold a tea party.
Utopia Theatre Project /Courtesy

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Bay Area theater professional Anne Yumi Kobori’s resume stories a prolific career. A brief skim reveals acting, directing and playwriting credits, along with not one, but three forms of stage combat. And with “Every Day Alice,” a new play written by Kobori and produced by the company she founded, Utopia Theatre Project, Kobori shows no signs of slowing down.

The play explores classic characters from children’s books — Alice from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and Peter from J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” — in a modern-day setting, aiming to consider what it means to be an adult and an artist in the modern world.

The idea initially came to Kobori in an adaptation class: “We were adapting short stories and novels into plays, which is really fun and nerdy,” Kobori said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I thought, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to take these childhood stories … these characters (that) I think really resonate with a lot of people. … Wouldn’t it be fun to combine them?’ ”

In the play, this combination takes the form of a romance between Alice and Peter, which Kobori mused is a surprisingly fitting pairing.

“Peter is very cyclical,” she said. “He has a pattern where he meets a girl at her window, and they go on an adventure, and it doesn’t really work out, so she wants to go home, and he takes her home. And then he’s like, ‘Great, I’ll be back at spring cleaning.’ And then he goes away, and she expects him to come back, like, next year or whatever, and he doesn’t come back for like 20 years!” She laughed. “And so, I think Alice fits well into that — she’s just another girl who he, like, found on an adventure and then, you know, maybe it doesn’t work out.”

The inconstancy of romantic relationships and the societal canon that seems to govern them are focuses of Kobori’s play. For her, moments in the original “Peter Pan” stories wherein Peter and Wendy play at being husband and wife signify some concerning undercurrents in how children conceive of adult relationships.

“Peter gets very tyrannical when he’s the husband,” Kobori said. “I think there’s sort of a dark idea there (about how) when you try to grow up, what is your idea of a marriage, and (of) an adult relationship? When you’re a child, all you can see is the disagreements.”

The fraught passage from childhood to adulthood features heavily in “Every Day Alice,” which scrutinizes the rigidity of society’s definition of being a “grown-up”: get married, get a job, get a house and get used to lots of rules. According to Kobori, the play questions how we navigate that transition.

“(The plays digs into) this idea of being (an) adult and still wanting to have an active imagination and be creative but having to have adult responsibilities. (It asks) whether it’s possible to preserve your spirit of youth but still be a responsible human.”

So does Kobori, an artist and certified adult, think it’s possible?

“I don’t know,” she admitted with a chuckle. “I think it’s sort of like dealer’s choice.”

With Kobori, at least, the dealer seems to have been feeling generous. Kobori doubles as both playwright and actress in this production, dual roles that she admitted sometimes come into conflict.

“(The rehearsal process) has been walking that line between, well, sometimes I’m the playwright, but sometimes I just need to be an actor in (a) scene,” she said. “I think … as a playwright, I have a different stake in the play than as an actor. … I have to be pretty flexible.”

Though cultivating that flexibility can present its own challenges, Kobori was nevertheless effusive about the collaborative climate of the rehearsal process.

“It’s pretty fluid,” she described. “We’re getting a lot of feedback from actors. It definitely is really nice to hear from people who are invested in their character.”

Kobori continued: “Everyone’s been really supportive. And I would rather get their feedback and make the changes than try to preserve something that doesn’t need to be preserved.”

And, of course, Kobori aims to produce the kind of art that deserves preservation — for herself and for the audiences that will soon be invited to contemplate “Every Day Alice.”

“I think for me, as an artist, a lot of the times it’s a question of, ‘Is what I’m spending all this energy on relevant or necessary?’ And I think it is. I think artistic expression is always relevant. Even if you’re just sharing it with a few people or just doing it for yourself, I think it’s important for people to do that.”

One imagines that the characters in Kobori’s play — plucked from children’s stories and full of imagination — would agree.

Grace Orriss covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].