What It's Like Adapting Haruki Murakami's Surreal Fiction

An experimental performance visualizes the Japanese novelist's magical world IRL.
23 November 2017, 8:45am
Brad Culver, Jiehae Park, Takemi Kitamura (on floor). Photos by Julieta Cervantes.

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami isn't afraid of mystifying readers. His tales are grounded in just enough reality that they're plausible, so when supernatural forces inevitably intervene, the effect is disorienting. Because they're intended to flummox us, Murakami's stories are best when not logically analyzed, but intuitively felt. They take readers on a metaphysical journey, appealing to something primal and experiential.

It's this quality that also makes Murakami's world perfect for performance. When Rachel Dickstein, director and founder of Ripe Time, first read the novelist's short story "SLEEP_,"_ she thought, I have to put that on-stage. She connected with the story’s strong female lead, but something more instinctual compelled her to adapt "SLEEP." “[Reading Murakami] is such a visceral experience,” Dickstein says. “The challenge of how do you do that in the theater was really exciting to me.” Her adaptation premiered in Philadelphia last month and comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on November 29.

"SLEEP" is a story about a woman who hasn’t slept in 17 days. But she doesn’t feel tired; she feels alive for the first time in her life. As her body drifts through her routine as a mother, wife, and caretaker during the day, her mind runs free through the world of Anna Karenina, the Tolstoy novel she pours over each night. "SLEEP" draws the reader into her surreal world, where all separation between wakefulness and sleep, life and death, internal and external have collapsed. It creates a dreamscape both hard to picture and immediately recognizable to anyone who has stayed up all night on pure adrenaline.

JiehaePark, TakemiKitamura

To adapt the novel's mystical world to the stage, Dickstein assembled a world-class group of artistic collaborators, starting with playwright Naomi Iizuka and Ripe Time company members. She felt strongly that the cast should be an all-Japanese ensemble. “I wanted to collaborate with artists that were connected to the culture. I had faith that through their imagination we would find a kind of truth that Murakami had tapped into,” Dickstein points out.

Unlike traditional plays that have a set script, Ripe Time specializes in devised theater, which relies on improvisation and invention. The artists started by conducting extensive research, curating reference images, drawing architectural renderings of spaces in the story, watching Japanese horror films, reading scientific journals about insomnia, and reading multiple versions of Anna Karenina, including a Japanese translation.

The research provided the fuel for Dickstein’s devised work sessions, where the team moved scene by scene, trying out ideas from all of the artists involved. They tackled challenges like representing anxiety through sound design, or trying to visualize emotion through projections. The final play slowly emerges through rigorous, exhilarating workshops, providing a unique framework for creativity.

The process makes writing a script difficult, however. “I think you have to be willing to throw out 30 pages that you’ve written because they’re not just right,” says Iizuka. “A willingness to let go is a very good thing for a writer.” Because SLEEP is a devised collaboration, dialogue and stage directions can’t be set in stone; they need to be open and flexible. In other words, Iizuka's challenge was to provide just enough written guidance that the artists could understand the intent of a scene, but leave enough room for playfulness.

Another challenge of adapting Murakami is that his worlds defy logic and reason, and can be interpreted any number of ways. To decide what worked and what didn't, Dickstein and Iizuka set up a fluid system of checks and balances. When someone presented an idea, the entire team evaluated it on relevance, clarity, and most of all, gut feeling. Pressed to articulate what that gut feeling is, Dickstien and Iizuka describe it as “faith,” “intuition,” and “reptilian brain.” In a Murakami-esque way, it's fitting that a story about the subconscious can only be adapted by the subconscious.

Jiehae Park, Akiko Aizawa

“Everybody at different points of the process felt it: it was in the groundwater of their psyche. This story gets under your skin and you can’t shake it—it’s very much in your soul,” says Iizuka. The cast and crew of SLEEP used this feeling of connection to “take the temperature” of each improvised moment.

For example, at one point in the play, a stranger visits the main character while she’s in bed. It’s unclear whether she’s dreaming or awake as the stranger begins pouring water over her feet. Reacting to the water, her feet start washing themselves like hands might, cupping and scrubbing. The effect is terrifying, like something out of The Exorcist. But Iizuka's script never contained a stage direction that dictated: Her feet should move like hands. The movement evolved naturally during rehearsals and was unanimously accepted and added to the production.

SLEEP is a surreal, seamless patchwork of magical moments like this, woven throughout the story with the hope that if the artists found something transcendent, an audience might too. But unlike a written story, devised theater never fully settles. Between each performance, it exists in limbo—half on the page, half in the minds of the cast and crew—and continues to change. This flexibility is essential for making something physical out of the fractious sinews of the subconscious. Grab hold of anything by Murakami too tight, and it disappears.

SLEEP comes to BAM in Brooklyn as part of the Next Wave Festival from November 29-December 2. Learn more about Ripe Time and the production here.

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