13 Apr Bringing Kurt Vonnegut to the Stage – An interview with Ben Rock
Bringing Kurt Vonnegut to the Stage – An interview with Ben Rock
If you had to pick the one Kurt Vonnegut novel least likely to be adapted for the stage, The Sirens of Titan would be the go-to choice, but that didn’t stop the Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles from launching its production in 2017. Directed by Ben Rock from a script by Stuart Gordon (and a co-writing credit from Vonnegut himself), The Sirens of Titan brought Malachi Constant’s journey through space and time to L.A. theatergoers in a production praised as “wildly imaginative” (KPBS) and “an impressive accomplishment” (Stage Raw). Robert Weide, longtime Vonnegut friend and co-director of the Vonnegut documentary Unstuck in Time, called it “a faithful adaptation with a terrific cast and impressive product value.”
In the following interview, Rock shares his thoughts on the challenges in bringing an inter-galactic sci-fi novel to the theater, his long quest to direct a Vonnegut play, and the potential controversies in Vonnegut’s work that required the most care.
Q: In 2017 you directed an adaptation of The Sirens of Titan for the Sacred Fools Theater Company in Los Angeles. How did you become involved with the project?
This goes back to 1991. I was 19 years old and living in Orlando, Florida and working in a local theater that closed a couple years ago called Theater Downtown. One of its founders, Frank Hilgenberg, had been a member of the Organic Theater in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s. Notoriously, the founder of the Organic was a frigging genius named Stuart Gordon. Stuart’s known to horror movie fans as the guy who made the HP Lovecraft adaptions, films like Re-Animator and From Beyond.
What a lot of people didn’t know, but what I learned from Frank, was that Stuart was also a huge innovator in theater. He directed the first professional production of a David Mamet play. He was extremely influential. There’s a huge laundry list of people who came out of the Organic and went on to have big careers, people like Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz, and Keith Szarabajka, who was involved in my production. So one day I’m working on this play as a makeup artist doing blood and gore because that was my passion, and when I found out that Frank had worked with Stuart, I wanted to hear everything. I was constantly pumping him for information.
I had recently become obsessed with Vonnegut. I started with Slaughterhouse-Five but was going through all his books. I would say Sirens then and now might be my favorite. Timequake had just come out and I was reading it in hardcover. Frank walked in and saw me reading it and said, “Hey, we did a Vonnegut play at the Organic back in the day. We did The Sirens of Titan.” I said, “You did? Oh my God. I want to know everything.” But it was the early 90s and there wasn’t that much information available. He didn’t have the script, and there was no internet to search.
So flash forward to about 2012 or 2013. I had been involved with Sacred Fools Theater at that point for about 10 years. I was one of the artistic directors, and Jenelle Riley gave me a script. We were choosing the season, and she said, “Here’s a script you guys are never going to do.” It was attached to Stuart Gordon as director, a play called Taste. I was like, “Holy shit, Stuart Gordon!” I did everything in my power to jam it through, and it won several awards. I don’t usually do this in theater because I’ve been directing for a long time, but I asked Stuart if I could assistant direct for him. While I was working with him, I asked him about the Sirens production, and I found out that not only had he done an adaptation of Sirens in 1976, but he had given his adaptation to Vonnegut and got notes from Vonnegut himself on the adaptation.
I think Vonnegut even came to see it. They did it in Chicago in 1976. I would’ve been five years old at the time. So I asked him if he had a copy and he said, no. So I started looking for it, but the Organic Theater didn’t have archives of all the shows they’ve done. But I found it at the Chicago Public Library; they did have an archive of all the Organic plays that had been done in the 1970s.
I’m skipping over one detail, which is that I asked Stuart if I was able to find it, would he consider letting me direct it? And he said, absolutely. So I went to that archive and got the script. My wife was one of the artistic directors at the theater at that time and she ended up being our contact for the Vonnegut estate. I had originally reached out to Vonnegut’s lawyer (Donald Farber) but he had passed away. There was so little information about the play. If you looked it up on Wikipedia, you would see that it had been done, but that was it. Interestingly, when Vonnegut gave Stuart the rights to adapt it, Stuart got co-writing credit on the script itself. Even though it’s a very faithful adaptation of the Sirens of Titan, Stuart had co-ownership. So I had to get permission from Stuart, which was no problem.
We also had to get permission from the Vonnegut estate, which took a little bit more doing, but Bradley Yonover was the main executive of the estate and he really wanted it to happen. So he enabled us to do the show. That’s how it came about. I probably got the script in 2015 and we mounted it two years later. In addition, Stuart went back into the script and made some minor additions to make it even more faithful to the book.
Q: Unfortunately Stuart has passed away, but how would you describe your collaboration with him?
It’s a cliché, but they say never meet your heroes. Well, one of my heroes was Stuart Gordon and I couldn’t be happier that I met him and got to work with him twice. He was just a wonderful, generous, creative guy who had this enormous wealth of experience. He was in Chicago starting theater, before Steppenwolf, before a lot of the other Chicago theaters opened. He had a wicked sense of humor. He was just a wonderful creative genius, and I don’t throw that word around lightly. He had done collaborations with Roald Dahl and Ray Bradbury, with Vonnegut. He told me that at one point, Jerry Garcia had the rights to adapt The Sirens of Titan and he flew Stuart up to San Francisco to hang out with him for the weekend and talk about doing his adaptation and working with Vonnegut. He just had amazing stories.
When we were getting ready to do our production there were concerns about the character of Beatrice/Bee not really having agency. Stuart’s original adaptation was more focused on Malachi. We asked him if we could include some other scenes from the book about Beatrice to make her a more well-rounded character. We also did that with the Boaz character who is also a little tricky to do in a modern time. He’s an African American character as written by a white guy who grew up reading a lot of Mark Twain. It’s a little tricky to make him feel like a full person and not something that was probably outrageously progressive for its time but now needs to be more careful in navigating.
Stuart gave me some slides from his 1976 production, which was really visual and psychedelic because that was what was the thing at the time. But I was going for a very different feel. He said that in his version, Rumfoord was FDR, and Vonnegut really appreciated the fact that he saw Rumfoord as FDR and Beatrice as Eleanor Roosevelt. Dennis Franz played Rumfoord in his production and he had him dressed up as FDR. To somebody in 1976, that would resonate, but in my production in 2017, I wasn’t focused on that at all. I was looking at it as science fiction from the late 1950s with modern touches so that it would feel more appropriate for what was going on now.
Q: You mentioned that The Sirens of Titan may be your favorite Vonnegut novel. What is it about the novel that resonates with you?
I first read Slaughterhouse-Five. Like a lot of people, that was my gateway to Vonnegut, and Slaughterhouse-Five really moved me. I loved how anarchic it was and how it went against the orthodoxy of the books that I was being forced to read in high school and early college. It wasn’t The Great Gatsby where I had to figure out what the lighthouse means. Vonnegut just tells you his intention, and I love that. I was going through all his books but going backwards through them. What I loved about Sirens is that it was a more conventional narrative compared to his other books. I’ve read all of them, but I liked the conventional science fiction of it and how he built this theme into it.
The first time I read the book, when I got to that last line, when Malachi Constant’s vision of Stony Stevenson says, “I don’t know, old sport, I guess, somebody up there likes you,” I broke into tears. I was like 19 or 20 reading this book and it really affected me on a visceral level. I don’t know that I’ve ever had that experience while reading any other book in my entire life.
Q: Sirens is the most traditional sci-fi of his novels and seems very difficult to translate to the stage. What were some of the challenges that you had?
My two single biggest challenges were Kazak, the dog, and Salo, the alien on Titan, and figuring out how to have an actor do those things. I was lucky to meet a brilliant puppet maker named Russ Walko. He didn’t know me from Adam, but he agreed to help us. He made a dog suit and this orange ball with three legs that our actor, Jesse Merlin, who’s just a brilliant physical actor, was able to make look like it was really moving around. He looked like a ball with legs and then his head would come out and his head was sprayed metallic orange. To me, those were probably the two single biggest challenges.
We had a lot of video projection. I think we might have had five video projectors pointed at that stage in different directions. So coming up with a Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum, and how we were going to have people go in and out of it, was also a bit of a challenge. My producer, Shaela Cook, helped me enormously to figure that out. She had a great idea of the material and we went to this place in LA that sells wacky theatrical materials, and we were able to make it and do a rear projection on it. It was a cool visual element. Our set designer, Krystyna Loboda, had figured out a way to have this thing that was always on stage, but you weren’t staring at it. What’s that thing going to be? So that was our permanent location of the Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum.
There were other things, like whether we were going to show the Sirens, and ultimately, I think the right choice was not to show them. So they were placed, imaginatively, in the audience. At the end of it, when Malachi and Beatrice arrive on Titan and he sees that the Sirens are just statues, they’re looking into the audience.
There were also the normal challenges of doing a play with a sizable ensemble and a lot of locations. The cool thing about theater is that audiences will allow you to have the same set with different lighting and different props and different set pieces be multiple locations. We had a screen that folded down center stage and stuff would happen on the screen. There’s a scene that Stuart wrote where you have a teacher explaining what the harmonium is. We had a slideshow that came up and showed that.
When Mars attacks Earth, that was done with video and my friend, Kays Alatrakchi, who is, among other things, a pretty amazing visual effects artist, made a very 1950s looking UFO and animated them going through the city streets and blowing stuff up. We made a whole sequence out of that. There were a billion little technical challenges that we had to figure out how to solve within our pretty limited budget.
Michael Teoli wrote a full original score for us. He took Vonnegut’s “Rented a tent” idea and built a military-style war theme around it and contrasted it against a surreal, psychedelic Pink Floyd-inspired soundscape that he created entirely for the show. He even wrote a siren song that we hear every time the sirens are seen. To this day I sometimes just listen to the score.
Q: To paraphrase, Vonnegut at one point said that the one thing that’s missing in film adaptations is the author’s voice. Was that a concern for you? Were there things that you did to try to capture Vonnegut’s voice within the play?
Stuart in his adaptation had pulled directly from the text for the parts identified as The Voice, and it’s Vonnegut’s voice. Keith Szarabajka, who’s a huge character actor and somebody who worked with Stuart back in the Organic Theater days, came and did voiceover. I feel like he’s the presence of Vonnegut. He’s the commenter on what’s going on. Could we have done more? Sure. But I feel like Stuart was a very economical writer and adapter of material and figured out how to thread that needle perfectly.
Q: The reviews seemed very positive. What were your thoughts about the reaction to the play?
I couldn’t have been happier. It was a hard play to put together and it was a race to the finish to get all the elements together. We even had to cancel previews because stuff just wasn’t ready. We had a lot of actors doing things in the back in the dark, and you need to make sure that it’s all safe so no one’s going to trip on something or get hurt. You need to make sure all the props are there. If you had asked me a week before the show opened, I would’ve said, I don’t know if this is going to come together because there was so many elements that were still hanging loose. I was doing everything in my power and not sleeping. I was living and breathing that play for the last several weeks until right before it opened. Maybe two nights before it opened, we had a run and I thought, “Okay, it’s all there. No one’s going to die doing this.”
So you rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse, and get it to where you’re happy with it. Then you give the actors costumes and props and suddenly they’re like, oh, this thing doesn’t handle the way I thought it would. Suddenly they’re thinking of logistics, and as soon as you throw all that at the actors, the performances wind back two or three weeks in quality because they can’t keep all the stuff you’ve been directing them to do and all this other new stuff in their head.
They have to get that as native to what they’re doing in the same way as learning all their lines. So maybe two days before the show opened, I was like, “Okay, it’s all there. It’s pretty good.” Opening night, it was just magic having an audience react to it. And I think for people who were familiar with the novel, it was fun. We really tried to make a faithful adaptation, though obviously interpreting costumes and visual style and elements that are not in the book.
It’s simultaneously serious and silly, it’s serious and absurd. It’s basically set in the 1960s. I set it in the time that it was written. There’s a chronology that happens, but assuming that it started in 1959, it ends in the 1970s or early 1980s when Beatrice and Malachi are old.
I think people really dug it. There were several people who came up to me afterwards, people who I didn’t know, and they said, “I’ve never read a Vonnegut book, and this makes me want to read everything he wrote.” I thought, then my job is done. If all you want to do is read some Vonnegut after seeing this play, then I couldn’t have asked for anything better because to me, all that work and stress and the anxiety is all about honoring a story that really moved me and hoping that I could get it to move other people.
Q: Is there any chance that there’ll be a revival?
I have no idea. I don’t know what stars would need to align for it to happen. Stuart is no longer with us unfortunately. I wish I would’ve known that was the last time I’d get to work with him. It was about two years ago. He didn’t die of COVID, but he died right at the beginning of it.
I would love to see it done by somebody else or I would love to even do it again, which is not usually the case with theater. But I’d love to do it again to have another bite at that apple because it’s just such a fun, insane, crazy show. And we even kept a lot. I still have the dog suit and the Salo suit in my house because Shaela, my producer, and I thought we might be able to get another run of it going.
I do wonder if, reading the room of culture, some of the things that are said in it might be difficult for audiences today. We got some pushback five years ago and I think it would be even more today. It’s funny because I remember sitting at a diner called Brent with Stuart and we were talking about the play before I even got the script. We were talking about our favorite parts of the book, and one of his favorites was the trickiest passage to get right, which is when Beatrice says to Malachi, “Thank you for using me.”
To Stuart, this meant that her life went on a completely different course because of him with all these crazy adventures, and for most of them, she wants nothing to do with him. The thing that makes it problematic is that before his (Malachi’s) memories are erased, when he’s a different person than he is for the rest of the story, he basically rapes her and any interpretation of it that which could be said to be, thank you for raping me, is going to be met with pushback.
I feel like you can talk about how it’s about World War II and FDR, and Beatrice, I think is a stand in for Vonnegut himself. He’s someone who was used up and crapped out by the war. Stuart said that Vonnegut had told him he wrote that book and it did okay but didn’t really kick his career off as he’d hoped it would, and then literally 10 years later, he wrote Slaughterhouse–Five, which to him was almost the same story. It’s very different, but there are a lot of parallels and that really hit.
But I feel like that the “thank you for using me” line was something that we took with a great deal of care. We talked to the actor about it. We talked to Stuart about it. My producer, Shaela Cook, and I talked at great length about it. My wife, Alicia, who was kind of a dramaturge for the play, was part of the discussions as well. I wanted to have as much of a woman’s position on it as possible, but still there were some people who singled it out. So could we do it again today? I don’t know how to contextualize. It’s so weird that it would come down to that one moment, but it’s hard to contextualize that for audiences right now. Will it come back around? I don’t know.
Q: Have you seen or read Happy Birthday, Wanda June? I’m curious about your thoughts on Vonnegut as a playwright.
I have read it and I’ve actually tried to do it before, though I have never seen it produced. I love Happy Birthday, Wanda June. When I first found Vonnegut, I read everything, and at that very same theater in Orlando, I tried to pitch me as the director for Happy Birthday, Wanda June and they weren’t into it. They ended up doing it maybe 10 or 15 years after I moved out to LA.
I think it’s brilliant. Of the great writers, his tone is easy to miss. I like the Slaughterhouse-Five movie, but I feel like it entirely sidesteps what makes that book amazing. It’s not a bad movie taken on its own merits. The first time I read it, I was Billy Pilgrim’s age (when he’s in Dresden) and the second time I was around Kurt Vonnegut’s age when he wrote it. And it hit me so radically different. A friend of mine had said, “Read Slaughterhouse-Five as if the alien stuff is all just his cover up for PTSD.” And I was like, “Really?” And then I read it and thought, “Oh, I think that’s actually the accurate reading of this book.” But it’s hard to make a movie where that’s clear.
I’m sure that an amazing filmmaker could figure out how to make that work, but the main character of Slaughterhouse-Five is barely in it. The main character is Vonnegut. Billy Pilgrim is a stand-in for him, but he also makes it clear that he (Vonnegut) was in the next room vomiting when Billy Pilgrim was doing X, Y or Z. He’s right around the corner from Billy Pilgrim the whole time, but really that book is just about his PTSD. I know that’s not an answer about Happy Birthday, Wanda June, but I do love that play. And insanely, I found out that Bob Weide had done a production of it in a theater space that is caddy corner to where we did Sirens, which Weide came to see. At one point, he had the option to make Sirens into a movie and he was nice enough to share his screenplay with me. So I was able to see what he was doing. I read it while I was in the middle of doing the play. Obviously, I had my one script in mind, but it was fun to see what was parallel and different, what things Stuart hadn’t used in his script that Bob did and vice versa. But he was nice enough to come out and see it. So that was awesome.
Q: If you could pick any other Vonnegut novel to bring to the stage, which might it be?
Cat’s Cradle. I think it’s another one that’s got a linear enough plot that you could hang a narrative on it, but you could still infuse it with that Vonnegut vibe. I know someone who was interested in turning Bluebeard into a musical and I thought, “Oh, that’d be interesting.” Bluebeard is so rooted in the voice in your head while you’re reading it. For me, what works about Vonnegut is his books feel like a normal story, but there’s several other layers going on and my brain is engaging and hooking into those. Later, maybe starting with Breakfast of Champions, and this obviously is just my opinion, I feel like he had enough of a readership that he didn’t have to give it a grounding; he didn’t have to give you the spoonful of sugar to get you to read the book.
But Cat’s Cradle has a conventional plot, although it is crazy and absurd and wacky in all the ways that I love Vonnegut. It also has some of my favorite ideas of his, that all religions are full of lies so you should pick the one that makes you happiest and follow it. I probably have lived by that. It has a lot to say narratively and it’s a funny story. It would also be an amazing movie, and I’m surprised that of all his books that that one didn’t get adapted. I’ve seen Bob Weide’s Mother Night. It’s probably the best movie adaptation of a Vonnegut book that I know.
Q: It’s been almost 15 years now since Vonnegut has passed on, yet he still seems very relevant and popular, whereas other writers of his stature from that generation, someone like John Updike, seems to have faded from public view. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a few things. Vonnegut is hilariously funny, and no offense to John Updike, but he’s not quite humorous the way that Vonnegut was. I’ll compare him a little bit to George Carlin, who probably died around the same time. George Carlin never really leaves the culture. I’m always on Twitter and Facebook seeing people posting segments of George Carlin’s routines and it’s because he had our number. He’s giving us the low down, holding a mirror up to who we are, and Vonnegut did that just brilliantly.
The band Run The Jewels have a song called JU$T and there’s a line in JU$T where E-LP, who’s one of the two guys in that group, says, “I’ve got a Vonnegut punch for your Atlas shrug.” It’s a great line, not just because I’m a Vonnegut fan, but in that I never really thought about Vonnegut as being in opposition to Ayn Rand, but absolutely. And I feel like Ayn Rand is someone who has, also in my opinion, outlived her usefulness, but people don’t give up on her ideas. Maybe people on my side of the ideological divide see the humanism in Vonnegut and don’t give up. If you pick up a copy of Breakfast of Champions today and you’ve never read it, it says some scathing and hard things about American society, and shockingly few of them have changed.
Vonnegut’s talking about big things that people can really identify with. Fifty years from now, people will probably only know him from Slaughterhouse-Five in all likelihood, and maybe that’s just fine. But what I loved, by the way, about the Kurt Vonneguys podcast was that they would also point out some of his ideas that didn’t age so well. That’s going to be the case with anyone who’s writing in their contemporary time and writing in such an open way as Kurt was.
Maybe it’s the absurdism in the same way that maybe Samuel Beckett outlives Tennessee Williams in terms of being a vibrant voice in the theater because he’s playing with bigger ideas and absurdism. Tennessee Williams was an amazing playwright, but he was very much rooted in his time. But what time does Waiting for Godot live in? What time does Slaughterhouse-Five live in? We have war right now. There are people in Ukraine who in 5 or 10 years will relate to what’s in Slaughterhouse-Five in profound ways.