Faculty Profile: Austin Bunn
Finding books and news articles about closings of automobile manufacturing plants on which he would base his recent documentary play, “Rust,” wasn’t a problem for Grand Valley State University assistant professor of writing Austin Bunn. “The play is about what happens to people who make things when we stop making things,” Bunn said of the show that debuted to positive reviews at Actors’ Theatre of Grand Rapids in September 2011. “It’s the true stories and voices of people affected by the close.” Culling his research for bits and pieces around which he could write the play was a bit more laborious. “It was actually a struggle to get out from under all the research we did for the show,” he said of the extensive background work he did to bring the story of the 2008 closing of the General Motors metal-stamping plant in Wyoming, Michigan to the stage.
Bunn and undergraduate writing majors James Walsh and Thomas Mervenne spent hours tracking down GM employees who had worked at the plant, and recording and transcribing extensive interviews with them. “People had worked there for 30 years,” he said. “They couldn’t contain their experiences in a few sentences.”
Bunn also located out-of-print books on the topic at the Steelcase Library on the Robert C. Pew Grand Rapids Campus and used the university’s digital databases to uncover relevant news articles. He used data from Grand Valley’s Community Research Institute on population changes in Wyoming, Michigan to round out his research.
Bunn’s research for the play is dramatized in the performance. The play tells of the plant closing and its effects on the town and former employees through Bunn’s portrayal of himself as the interviewer. Information is also shared with the audience as data on a large projection screen and through clips from GM films. A bibliography of Bunn’s research for the play was distributed to playgoers in the lobby after its premier performances.
An excerpt of the play was published in the January 8, 2012 issue of the New York Times magazine; a tour of the show began in Three Oaks, Michigan and will continue in Detroit and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, as well as Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Janesville, Wisconsin later this year.