Interview: Stephen Earnhart - Director of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

This article is from 2011

Interview: Stephen Earnhart - Director of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Haruki Murakami adaptation centrepiece of Edinburgh International Festival

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Stephen Earnhart’s stage adaptation of a novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, epitomises the International Festival’s desire to explore connections between East and West, writes Mark Brown

Stephen Earnhart, New York-based director of the stage adaptation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (a novel by Japan’s most widely read author, Haruki Murakami), is acclaimed both as a filmmaker and a theatre director. This fact, as many fans of Murakami’s fiction will attest, is deeply significant to his decision to transpose such a defiantly non-naturalistic novel to the stage.

In Murakami’s book, the wife of the protagonist, Toru Okada, simply vanishes, leading the man to undertake a journey through a world suspended somewhere between reality and dreams. Reading this and other Murakami novels brought to Earnhart’s mind the work of American filmmaker David Lynch. To his great delight, when he met with the Japanese writer to discuss staging The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the theatre director discovered that Murakami shared his passion for the creator of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.

‘One of the first connection points between myself and Murakami was David Lynch,’ Earnhart recalls. ‘What Murakami shares with Lynch is a dream logic. He is very into points of contact; they can be very serendipitous or literal, but, sometimes, they don’t make any logical sense at all, in the way that your dreams mix reality with imagination. When I was reading Murakami I started dreaming about the characters; I’ve heard other people saying they had a similar experience.’

Earnhart has been working on his adaptation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (which has its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival) since 2007, and lived much of that time in Japan. He remembers his initial discussion with Murakami with pleasure and some surprise. ‘When I first talked to him about adapting the novel for the theatre, I said to him, “I imagine you will want me to originate the production in Japan.”

‘I was trying to be sensitive to the fact that I’m a white guy from America adapting this novel. I expected that he would want the project to be very saturated with Japanese culture. In fact, it was the opposite. He didn’t want me to start from Japan at all. “No, no, no,” he said. “Your country.” He’s very interested in the Western perspective on his work.’

The writer’s attitude should not come as a surprise. As Earnhart observes, his interest in Western culture is long established. ‘Murakami is very interested in the West and its people. He wrote the novel when he was living in Massachusetts, and he wrote a lot of it in English, later translating it into Japanese himself.’

Murakami’s cultural attitudes are very much in-keeping with the central idea of this year’s International Festival, which is that the programme not be seen as an ‘Asian festival’, but rather as a place where artists and audiences can explore the ‘intercultural’ connections between East and West (what the cultural theorist Homi Bhabha calls ‘hybridity’). Earnhart believes that his show epitomises this notion ‘in both content and process’.

The cast of the play is a mixture Japanese performers, Asian-Americans who were raised in the States and non-Asian Americans. There is even a member of the cast who, in Earnhart’s words, ‘rides the line’ between Japan and the US, having lived considerable parts of his life in both countries. Bringing together such a diverse group of actors with an American director was itself an example of ‘interculturalism’ in practice.

‘I’ve done workshops with Japanese artists, both in Japan and in New York, and they have a completely different way of working’, the director comments. ‘It might seem very stereotypical to say this, but the relationship between a director and actors in Japan is very much one in which the director is like an emperor in the room. Everything originates from him and you’re told what to do, and there’s not a lot of room for improvisation. It’s a way of working which can produce very good results. When Kurosawa made films, he was expected to be in charge of everything, from the lighting, to the photography and the direction.

‘I work in a very different, very collaborative way. I will ask my actors to go away for 15 or 20 minutes and think about how to work a jellyfish into the scene, then come back and show it to me. For Japanese actors – especially those I worked with in Japan – that was very scary. There were a range of reactions. Some actors thought I was asking for their input because I simply didn’t have the answer myself; because that’s what they expect of a director. Others would say, “We’re happy to improvise, if you tell us exactly how we should do it.” It took a while for the Japanese actors and I to get used to each other.’

However, if Earnhart’s way of working was foreign to many of the Japanese actors, the distinctiveness of their philosophy of performance was very attractive to the director. ‘They have such a different training. They are very rooted in physical work, in subtlety and the unspoken. They express from a very different place than we do in New York, where we’re openly expressive all the time. There’s a style of inverted expression in the Japanese aesthetic that I really wanted to tap into.’

The result of all this cultural interplay is a theatre work which has, literally, travelled across continents, from Tokyo to New York. Combining video, puppetry and acting, it is also a hybrid of cinema and theatre. ‘I wanted to bring everything I love about cinema and combine it with everything I love about live performance’, Earnhart says. ‘In the cinema everybody is in the dark, watching these big images that are very close to dreams. In the theatre everything can be so real and immediate … Ever since I left college I’ve wanted to make multimedia theatre which brought those elements together.’

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 20-24 Aug.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - Edinburgh International Festival 2011

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

  • 4 stars

World premiere of a new production written and directed by Stephen Earnhart, adapted from Haruki Murakami's novel of the same name that deals with an everyman character who loses first his cat and then his wife, the ensuing search leading him across the threshhold of his dreams and into a world where the dark forces…

Elsewhere on the web