A Tale for the Time Being

Mi Kang (Nao) and 
Mariko Kita (Ruth). Photo by John Ulman

Book-It adapts a novel brimming with culture and questioning.

In Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being, Nao, a Japanese American teenager living in Tokyo, cocoons her diary in a Hello Kitty lunchbox and an array of Ziploc bags, and pitches it into the sea. It washes up on a distant, desolate Canadian shore and into the hands of Ruth, a novelist in a fallow period. The story opens Book-It Repertory Theatre’s 2016-17 season, transformed into a work of theatre by longtime Book-It adaptor Laura Ferri and first-time Book-It director Desdemona Chiang. They spoke to us about the play and the process.

On A Tale for the Time Being
Chiang At first I thought it was this cute, coming-of-age story about a young girl in Japan and a Japanese American writer in Canada. The tone has a very nonchalant feel because the protagonist is a 16-year-old girl, but underneath that there’s a great deal of—“pain” isn’t the right word, but a sense of smallness in the face of a world that’s very large and unknown. I’m trying to capture this larger question of how do we reconcile really, really big things when we’re such small people? It’s also a play with no curse words and no blood, so I thought it was about time I did something that wasn’t totally nihilistic!

On Adaptation
Ferri A novel can ruminate, but a play has to have a clear and steadfast trajectory or the audience will get bored. This is a very different book for Book-It because half the novel is diary and letters, and the other half is a traditional book that goes off on tangents about ecology, philosophy, Zen Buddhism, quantum mechanics. An audience can’t go back and re-read, so the challenge is making it dramatically interesting and clear. Different cultures are also an important part of the book, so you’ll hear French, Japanese and English throughout the piece. So much of this novel takes place in Japan, and we need to hear the language. If we want to value this culture, we need to value its language as well.

On Being Ruthless
Chiang As soon as you get precious about anything, it becomes this Pandora’s Box. So you have to get unsentimental really quickly. Ultimately this story is about Ruth the writer, who’s in a place where she’s feeling stuck and isolated, and Nao’s book washes up on her shore and awakens her in the way that small mysterious things sometimes manage to have great impact on our lives.

Ferri One of the rules is, “If you can show it, you don’t say it.” The novel itself is more than 400 pages, and it’s quite dense. We have to think about what’s driving the action. And when it came to deciding what to include, the question is, is it part of Ruth and Nao’s story? If not, it has to go. Anybody who’s read this book will go, ohhhh I love that person, why did you cut that person? But you can’t include everything.

A Tale for the Time Being
Sept. 14–Oct. 9
The Center Theatre, Seattle Center Armory