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

An experimental performance visualizes the Japanese novelist's magical world IRL.

Adam Beal

Brad Culver, Jiehae Park, Takemi Kitamura (on floor). Photos by Julieta Cervantes.

Anyone who has read Haruki Murakami knows what it’s like to freefall. His stories create the illusion of reality. They’re based in familiar settings and situations so that when supernatural forces inevitably intervene, the reader’s footing vanishes. The real world dissolves into Murakami’s world. It’s borderless and mystical, leaving readers to journey on without the guiding light of reason and logic, and instead feel their way through.

It's this quality that 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 primal 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 at the Annenberg Center Live 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 group of world-class collaborators, starting with playwright Naomi Iizuka and Ripe Time company members. Then she began searching for Japanese dancers and actors to add to the 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.

Once assembled, the artists began by conducting extensive research, sharing references to paintings that captured SLEEP’s emotion, architecture drawings of rooms that captured its confinement, examples of lighting that captured its mood. They started researching Japanese horror films, diving into scientific journals about insomnia, and reading through multiple versions of Anna Karenina, including a Japanese translation.

All of this research provided fuel for Dickstein’s devised work sessions. Unlike traditional productions that have a set script and spend their time workshopping delivery, devised productions rely on invention and improvisation. Dickstein and her team moved scene by scene testing out ideas from the entire ensemble. Collectively, they answered questions like, How does anxiety sound? What would fear look like if it were a projection? The final performance slowly emerged through rigorous, yet exhilarating workshops.

While this method of collaborating increases creativity, it makes writing a script difficult. Because SLEEP is a devised collaboration, dialogue and stage directions can’t be set in stone; they need to be open and leaning. In other words, Iizuka must provide just enough written guidance that the ensemble understands the intention of a scene, but has enough room to make it their own. Achieving the right balance took three years and a reserve of reliance.

“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.”

But identifying right from wrong is another challenge. Murakami’s mystical worlds resist such clear-cut interpretations. So to make decisions, Dickstein and Iizuka created 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. When pressed to articulate that gut feeling, Dickstein and Iizuka described it as a combination of “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 the stage direction: Her feet 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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