The “Book-It Theatre style” takes compelling literature and adapts it for the theatre stage in a way that preserves the narrator’s voice, as well as the voices of the characters in dialogue.
Next up at Book-It is an adaptation of Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being. Adapted by Laura Ferri, this production will be directed by Desdemona Chiang in her Book-It debut.
“Book-It and I had been circling around the idea of working on a production together for a while now, and we had considered several options before landing on this book,” Chiang said. “I hadn’t heard of Ruth or her books prior this project, but I’m a big fan now.”
Chiang has been involved in the production from its inception. “I met with adapter Laura Ferri very early on, before the writing process even started,” Chiang said. “The book itself takes over 14 hours to read (based on the length of the audiobook, which Ruth Ozeki herself narrates), but we only have two hours in the theatre to tell the story.”
That constraint immediately required tough choices. “The first thing Laura and I talked about was what we would decide to focus on for this production, and what we had to be willing to cut,” Chiang said. “It was important for us to set clear parameters for focus. It’s tough when there’s so much that you like, but we had to be diligent about it.”
Part of this collaborative process required Chiang to wear multiple hats. “I would essentially act as dramaturg and give Laura feedback and questions, and she would act as playwright, cutting, writing and rewriting scenes,” Chiang said. “A month prior to rehearsal, we had a ‘working draft’ that we workshopped with the cast over the course of one week, where we could hear the words in the actor’s mouths.”
Most of the actors in Tale for the Time Being were previously unfamiliar with Ozeki’s work, but are enthusiastic about their roles.
Mi Kang, who plays the protagonist Nao, a Japanese teenage girl, finds her character inspiring. “While reading A Tale for the Time Being, I was completely absorbed as it ties different subjects like quantum physics and Zen Buddhism into an almost ‘coming-of-age’ type story,” Kang said. “The book and script are both beautifully written, and the story, personally, gives me a lot of hope.”
Likewise, actor Kevin Lin, who plays Haruki, appreciates the community-oriented opportunity. “I am excited to work with so many Asian American artists,” he said. “Opportunities like these are few and far between!”
In addition to inspiration, the actors have been energized by the challenges of this production. Actor Khahn Doan plays multiple characters, including Jiko, a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist Nun.
“Because I go in and out of different characters of varying ages, we decided not to use aging makeup, but to imply her age with the way I walked, facial expressions, voice, and manner,” Doan said. “This is probably one of the most challenging roles I’ve had to play, but it’s very fun.”
Actor Annie Yim, who plays Tomoko, Nao’s mother, and Babette, Nao’s friend from the maid cafe, as well as various chorus characters, has found challenges in the Japanese language and in mastering the Book-It style. “Learning the Japanese has been a challenge, and I don’t even have as much as other characters! I would sit with my ear buds and repeat words over and over to myself,” Yim said. “Now my entire family knows little bits of Japanese!”
Likewise, Yim wasted no time in studying the Book-It theatre style of presentation. “I had never seen a Book-It production, since I am new to Seattle, so I immediately went to see The Brothers K in order to understand the style. It was pretty mesmerizing!” she said. “I was immediately drawn to how the writing style allowed the audience to feel as if you were taking the ride with the characters because you could hear some of their inner dialogue being spoken, and then there were times when what was not spoken filled a moment.”
Director Chiang emphasizes that this style must always support and benefit the story being told. “Book-it has unique style that leans towards narrative, but at the end of the day, we’re still making a piece of theatre,” she said. “I’m still directing characters who need to play actions, in situations with circumstances, problems and obstacles. I don’t think adding the occasional ‘he said, she said’ should ever change any of that. I don’t ever want the audience to feel like the actors are just standing onstage, saying the book to them.”
At the same time, Chiang and the actors wrestle with how to present this story, which unpeels itself like layers of onion and unwinds itself toward new discoveries, none of which are ever complete. “It touches on so many ideas—bullying, suicide, honor, Buddhism, and the fluidity of time and space,” actor Doan said. “It’s unlike most other books I’ve read in both the breadth of subject matter and the style of storytelling.”
Chiang wants her audience to be ready for a journey. “I thought the book was deeply spiritual and very contemplative,” she said. “It touches on the big ideas I often want to explore when I make theatre—questions about life and death, interconnectivity, personal worth, and our ability to impact others when we least expect it.”
‘Tale for the Time Being’ runs from September 14 to October 9 at Book-It Repertory Theatre, The Center Theatre at Seattle Center, 305 Harrison Street, Seattle. For more information, visit book-it.org/2016-2017-mainstage-season.
Correction (9/12/16 at 12:42 p.m.): The quote, “It touches on so many ideas—bullying, suicide, honor, Buddhism, and the fluidity of time and space. It’s unlike most other books I’ve read in both the breadth of subject matter and the style of storytelling,” was incorrectly attributed to Annie Yim instead of Khanh Doan in a previous version of this post.