115: Stuart Gordon, Kurt Vonnegut And 'Sirens of Titan'
April 18, 2017 3:58 p.m.
Episode 115: Stuart Gordon, Kurt Vonnegut and 'Sirens Of Titan'
Journey across the galaxy for a talk with Stuart Gordon about adapting Kurt Vonnegut's "The Sirens of Titan' to the stage 40 years ago and seeing it revived now at Sacred Fools Theater Company.
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Ms. Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of listener-supported KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. I'm Beth Accomando. Sorry for the delay with this podcast, but I've spent the last three weeks on the road, going to WonderCon, TCM Film Festival and Star Wars Celebration. Not complaining, but I just didn't have as much time or Internet connectivity as I had hoped for. But finally, I can now share with you the latest podcast, and it's going to take you on a journey across the galaxy.
Male Speaker: Saturn has nine moons, the greatest of which is Titan. Titan is only slightly smaller than Mars. Titan is the only moon in the solar system that has an atmosphere.
Ms. Accomando: Forty years ago Stewart Gordon adapted Kurt Vonnegut’s novel The Sirens of Titan to the stage. Now, Scared Fools Theater Company in Los Angeles is reviving that adaptation and finding it surprisingly topical.
Male Speaker: Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself, but mankind wasn’t always so lucky. Less than a century ago, men and women did not have easy access to the puzzle boxes within them. They could not name even one of the 53 portals to the soul. Gimcrack religions were big business.
Ms. Accomando: Cinema Junkie Podcast is thrilled to take you on another theater fieldtrip to look at how Sacred Fools unearthed Gordon’s 1977 play and mounted this new production. Gordon is probably best known for directing such cult horror films as From Beyond, and the classic Re-Animator.
Male Speaker: Herbert West brought a lot of dead people back to life, and not one of them showed any appreciation. HP Lovecraft’s classic tale of horror, Re-Animator.
Male Speaker: It will scare you to pieces.
Ms. Accomando: But initially he worked in theater before turning to a career in film. A few years back, he created a brilliant musical adaptation of Re-Animator called Re-Animator: The Musical.
Ms. Accomando: I became an avid fan of that show and followed it all the way to Scotland for the Fringe Festival. You can check out my podcast about that fabulous show in Cinema Junkie, Episode Number 41. But back in 1977, he adapted and then directed a stage version of Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan for Chicago’s Organic Theater. He even worked with Vonnegut on that adaptation and the novelist insisted that he not be overly-faithful to the original source material. In fact, Gordon recalled that Vonnegut suggested he treat the material as if the author had been dead for 10 years. For Sacred Fools, Ben Rock directs the new production. Rock and Gordon previously collaborated on the Ovation-nominated, cannibalistic love story, Taste, for Sacred Fools. I included my interview about Taste in the Cinema Junkie Podcast 113, on Gourmet Cannibals.
So in case you can’t tell, I love Stewart Gordon’s work. So make an effort to check out this new show that runs through the first week of May. Sacred Fools describes the play as a visually dazzling and darkly humorous science fiction epic about what happens when Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world, loses everything and sets out on an unbelievable journey through space and time and discovers nothing less than the meaning of life. The play also features Malachi’s wife, Beatrice, and Winston Niles Rumfoord, a former millionaire, who now, with his dog, has become a collection of particles ever since he drove his spaceship into a time tunnel or a chronosynclastic infundibulum. I think that’s how you say it. Now he materializes at regular intervals, and he has a plan to have his wife and Malachi marry to create a son who will play a role in the universe. And oh, did I mention, there’s also a Martian invasion of Earth.
Male Speaker: Earth’s casualties were 461 killed, 223 wounded, none captured, and 216 missing. Mars’ casualties were 149,315 killed, 446 wounded, 11 captured, and 46,634 missing. At the end of the war, every Martian had been killed, wounded, captured, or been found missing. As much butchering was done by amateurs as by professionals. Mr. and Mrs. Lyman R. Peterson of Boca Raton, Florida, remember.
Ms. Accomando: Sacred Fools’ production of The Sirens of Titan is wildly imaginative. Take actor Jesse Merlin, he had to use a crazy puppetry rig to play the decapitated Dr. Hill in Re-Animator: The Musical. And he has to do some major contortions in The Sirens of Titan to play his new character. And the play does boast some very clever staging that takes full advantage of the intimate theater space to bring you into the world Gordon and Vonnegut have created. After seeing Sirens of Titan on opening night, I went backstage to the dressing room to speak with Stewart Gordon, Ben Rock, and Alicia Conway Rock, who was one of the rotating artistic directors at Sacred Fools when Sirens was selected. So here’s a discussion of bringing Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titans to life for a new millennium.
Ms. Accomando: Stewart, so this is a revival of an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut that you did 40 years ago. So what’s it like returning to something like that?
Mr. Gordon: I had forgotten half of it. It’s great. It’s an old friend that’s come back. It seems as fresh as ever. That’s the thing that’s the most amazing to me. Something that’s 40 years old is usually like an antique. But Vonnegut is so far ahead of the rest of us. He’s never going to get old.
Ms. Accomando: For this production, did you make any changes to the adaptation that you had done? Did anything change for this one?
Mr. Gordon: I did a little bit. Ben and Alicia had some pretty good suggestions. Mainly it had to do with fleshing out the character of Beatrice a little bit more, giving her a little bit more to do. And I think they’re great ideas. I'm very happy with the changes.
Ms. Accomando: And Ben, what made you want to bring this back, to take something that was 40 years old and put it on right now?
Mr. Rock: Well, The Sirens of Titan has always been one of my favorite books. I read it when I was about 18 years old. And it was around that time, it’s maybe a year or two after that that I found out that The Organic had done an adaptation of it. And it was something that was on my radar all these years, but when I found out about it I was in Orlando, Florida, and there was no Internet; I didn't know how to find it. But then about three and a half years ago I worked with Stewart on a play that he directed called Taste and I asked him about it then. I really wanted to see it. To me it is kind of a timeless story that really hit, like when I saw it, you know, Stewart always talks about kind of the World War II overtones and stuff like that. I was reading it in the early 90s and that stuff wasn't what hit me about it, but learning about that kind of deepened it for me. But I thought that it had really universal -- the themes of it were very universal and as over-sharing as kind of an avowed atheist. There’s still a need to feel like you're a part of something bigger. And so to have a play that both refutes and underscores religion, somehow, in a weird way, it kind of speaks to our need for a higher purpose, even if there really isn’t one. And that’s one of the major themes that runs through the whole thing. So just finding the script was kind of a detective story, just getting it from the archive and then seeing it and being like, “Oh, my God, there’s something nobody’s done. I’ve never seen a piece like this in theater.”
Ms. Accomando: You mean you didn’t keep a copy of it?
Mr. Gordon: I couldn’t find it. It was really true. And I said I think there’s one in the Chicago Public Library in their archives and sent Ben off and looking for it. And he had to go through, jump through a lot of hoops; both of you guys did. Alicia had to deal with the Vonnegut Estate, who had completely forgotten that this ever was done. And then there’s always someone who wants to do a movie of this or television series or something. So it was like trying to get them to agree to let this old script come back to life.
Ms. Accomando: When you originally adapted it, what was it about the book that appealed to you, because Vonnegut does seem to be very difficult to adapt?
Mr. Gordon: Well, Vonnegut, you know, I got to work with Vonnegut, got to meet him, and that was the thing. When he first showed up we were being very, very careful to do everything exactly as it was in the book. And he said, “I wrote a book. You’re making a play. You’ve got to be ruthless. You’ve got to just get rid of this, move that, combine these characters. You don't need all of this stuff, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” He said, “You’ve got to pretend that I’ve been dead for 10 years,” was the line he said. And I’ve never heard a writer ever say anything like that before. Most of them are so worried if you change a comma. David Mamet would like to kill himself or kill you if you change any of his words. But Vonnegut was just the opposite, and it was such a pleasure to work with him. And now he has been gone for 10 years. I don’t have to pretend anymore. And I really missed him and it was great to be working on this because I kept sort of feeling like he was there, sort of whispering in my ear, you know, and in Ben’s. The work is brilliant and he’s still with us.
Ms. Accomando: You both mentioned how fresh Vonnegut’s work still feels. Is there something in particular right now in the current political climate we have --
Mr. Rock: What could you be angling for?
Ms. Accomando: That makes it especially appropriate for why you picked it?
Mr. Rock: When I proposed the show we were not in our current political situation so that wasn’t necessarily what was driving me. But I have to say that once our current political situation arrived, as it did, all of us working on it were constantly finding parallels to that kind of stuff. And we talked about trumping up Rumfoord, for instance, or even Malachi. Malachi, at the beginning of the play; this guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple and that sounds a little familiar. But ultimately I tried personally to let the story be the guide and to try to stick to what Vonnegut did. And if it finds resonance in that way then that’s awesome, but I would rather do that than try and nail it and kind of make it so specific to our time that five years from now when people look at pictures of it they’re like, you know. I feel like I hope this is a play that can be produced 40 years from now, again, frankly.
Ms. Accomando: And for you, is there anything particular you saw in this version that…?
Mr. Gordon: As Ben said, when we did the original production of it we really made it about World War II, which is what Vonnegut was thinking about when he wrote the book. He said nobody got it. He said he was amazed that we actually realized that Rumfoord is Roosevelt. And the idea that anyone thinks that World War II was a crazy, unjust war, that attitude has disappeared. But Vonnegut, he wrote Slaughterhouse 5, which essentially is the same book but making it really clear as to what he’s talking about; that he is talking about the war. Sirens was only the second book that he ever wrote, and people just didn't get what exactly he was going for. Now it seems to be so much about what's going on. It was funny. Even before Trump was president, people kept talking about how Trump seemed like a Vonnegut character. I think that in these days of Trump that we’re going to be seeing a lot more Vonnegut, something tells me.
Mr. Rock: Old comfort.
Mr. Gordon: Well, you've got to get the comfort where you can, you know, his days.
Ms. Accomando: The production was very clever in terms of a lot of, you guys, I mean it was a very like busy production in terms that things are moving in and out and there’s all sorts of activity going on. How much of that was kind of written into your actual play, and how much did you guys bring to this particular production? Like what’s the mix of that?
Mr. Rock: Well, we pretty much did Stewart’s script. As Stewart said, he did a couple of revisions for us and kind of looked at stuff, basically putting some more stuff back from the book into it, but it was really all very much in Stewart’s style. And we just wanted to kind of keep a moving stage picture, and our set designer, Krystyna Loboda, figured out a way, I think, to turn the plains of Mars into a spaceship. And we wanted it to surround the audience too, but that was really just me looking at Stewart’s script and realizing there’s two scenes where there’s like a clergy talking to a congregation, and there’s two scenes of a teacher, and there’s one scene of a demonstration. There’re all these things that can surround the audience, and to me it's not confrontational but it's in your face and I feel like that’s Vonnegut. What I love about Vonnegut and I think what makes him hard to adapt is that so much of it is about his authorial voice, but I think in Stewart’s adaptation he kind of managed to contain that voice and put it in there and crate it in such a way that it does feel like it’s sort of being told to the audience in so many places. That’s part of what I love about, the way he adapted it and the way that he kind of found -- and I think that that’s, again, what kind of makes it universal.
Mr. Gordon: I think it’s like in a way like Shakespeare. Shakespeare, he was writing movies before there were movies, essentially. He’s having big battle scenes, we’re jumping from France to England. Now most theater is like it takes place in a kitchen.
Mr. Rock: [Indiscernible] [00:15:58] taste.
Mr. Gordon: Yeah, exactly. And we’re going to other planets; we’re going through half the solar system in this show.
Mr. Rock: Because we were doing this in the very 1950s, 1960s sci-fi style, we were able to have the saucer crashing and stuff like that, which we were able to pull off with lights and stunts, lights and choreography. And it feels a little Star Trekky, but the style we were going for was very Earth versus flying saucers, Day The Earth Stood Still, in terms of the design aesthetic and I think that that kind of action lends itself to that. So it's not a ‘get out of jail free card’. It takes a lot of work to kind of stage it but it also enabled us to kind of just keep the story chugging along, because it's a busy, busy story when you sit back and think about all the things that happen in the story, there's a lot going on.
Mr. Gordon: And you're putting the actors to work, that's what I like, too. I mean, the whole sequence where the saucer is crashing and they're sliding on, they're hanging on for dear life. You really get a sense of the danger, which is, you know, it’s all the actors who are creating that.
Mr. Rock: Yeah.
Ms. Accomando: That was brilliant.
Mr. Gordon: Yeah. I love that.
Ms. Accomando: You are a filmmaker as well as somebody who's worked in theater. Did it ever occur to you to also try to do this as a film?
Mr. Gordon: Well, I have to tell you that I was once summonsed to San Francisco to meet with a guy who had bought the film rights, and it was Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. And he was planning on making a movie and he wanted to get Bill Murray to play Malachi Constant, the richest man in the world, which would have been fantastic. And he showed me a lot of the production designs that they had been doing and it was great. He had the rights for, I think, a dozen years or more, but unfortunately it never got made. Now, there's been talk of TV miniseries or this or that. And it’s a big production to do this thing. If you did it as a movie, this would be a one hundred million dollar movie easily.
Ms. Accomando: What is it about theater that you enjoy that’s different from film? What can you do on the stage that’s different from film?
Mr. Gordon: Well, what I like about the theater is that it puts the audience to work. The imagination of the audience is what you're really engaging and what they're going to do is -- we all create together as a group, the actors and the audience, is something far better than any individual or a movie could do. Movies, I think, are for the most part very passive. You sit in a chair and watch. A theater, you're with these people, you're in it and like a lot of Ben’s staging, where he’s surrounding the audience, you know, with the action.
Ms. Accomando: And you guys worked together on Taste, which was -- and both of these venues are small, very intimate. And when you talk about being in your face, you're like 10 feet away from the actors. Talk a little bit about kind of the different way that you engaged people with Taste versus this one, because Taste was very intimate and small with just -- I think it was only two actors, right?
Mr. Rock: Correct.
Mr. Gordon: Yes.
Ms. Accomando: And you could smell the cooking, as well.
Mr. Gordon: Well, the think again with theater is that you can, you know -- smelling and using the other senses, engaging those other senses. I love that about theater, that you're able to do that. You're all in the same space, breathing the same air. And sometimes the audiences forget that the actors are really right there in front of them and I always like to remind them. I love it when the actors touch the audience members and they jump out of their seats, you know, they're not expecting that.
Ms. Accomando: Well, Taste was very much in your face in a very surprising way.
Mr. Rock: Yeah. Far fewer penises were eaten in the production of this play. Still some, though. Yeah. I was one of the artistic directors at Sacred Fools when my friend Janelle Reilly gave me the script for Taste and told me that Stewart was attached to direct it, and it was one of the best scripts I've ever personally read to this day. I could not put it down. And the idea of Stewart directing it, again knowing of his work and knowing who he was going back to The Organic but also as a giant, raving horror fan boy, knowing his work from Re-Animator and stuff like that, the idea of getting to work directly with him and see how he put together a show like that, which was like just a magnificent piece of choreography and suspense and really touching and brilliant and actually emotional. Like a play that when people would describe it they would always talk about the cannibalism stuff, that really was a relationship piece. And how Stewart worked on that, it was a huge learning experience for me and an inspiration to see somebody with that kind of history as a director, as a theater director who's been doing it longer than I've been alive. And honestly, one of the best experiences of my life in theater, just seeing him work on that, what are the similarities between that and this. I mean, they're pretty different.
Mr. Gordon: Well, I think this is a very emotional show, too. I think this show is very, you know -- has a tremendous amount of heart and so did Taste. It was weird. Both of those plays did really kind of reach you emotionally.
Mr. Rock: That's definitely true. And to me the places where the book got me emotionally are the same places where I think that this play does. The thing about Taste that I thought was really surprising, though, was like the scene everyone would talk about in which the thing was consumed. When I read that script I was like, “There will be rioting in the streets,” and actually it was the most dependable laugh in the whole play. And by the time that happened, everybody was okay with it. It was really, really interesting how that went down.
Ms. Conway Rock: The way that we're structured, our artistic directors are on board for a term and then we move over and it's all an elected position. So as Ben said, he was one of the artistic directors when Taste was selected and then I was taking a term as one of the artistic directors when the show was selected. So the show was one of the ones that I was particularly excited about.
Ms. Accomando: And what was it about it that appealed to you that made you want Sacred Fools to be producing it?
Ms. Conway rock: I've always been a Vonnegut fan since I was a teenager and Ben had been talking to me about the show and his excitement about reading the script, because he knew about it but nobody had read the script. And when he finally got it, I actually read it before he did, which was kind of funny. It showed up and through a variety of weird circumstances he ended up handing me the script. And I read it really fast and he popped into the room after I'd read it and I said, “It's good. It's good.” Like I don't know you adapt this. I don't know now you do that. But I read it and I was like, “This is how. Who knew?” So when I read the actual script I was like, “This could be done,” and that's exciting. I mean, I didn't actually see how you could adapt Vonnegut and then to actually see it come forward. I was like, “Well, I think we should really talk about doing this.”
Ms. Accomando: Now, Sacred Fools and Stewart have partnered before, so what is it about Stewart that you guys like?
Ms. Conway rock: Well, what's not to like about Stewart? I think that Sacred Fools is good at --I think every company has kind of a flavor to it. And I think that the flavor of our company tends to be we're really good at kind of zany, quirky, crazy, wild ride types of shows. But it also works well if there's a certain amount of like humor and craziness, but then there's also real heart in it. And I think that balances something we do really well. And I think there's something about Stewart that apparently he sort of shares that flavor or something and it just seems to work out. I think that it's a pretty common feeling around the company that Taste is one of many people’s favorite shows that we've ever done. So it just seems like a good fit. And I know that when I was sitting on the artistic director team, because there were three of us serving at any given time – when I was sitting on the team I think we all valued our relationship with Stewart and we all felt like it was just a really good fit. And Vonnegut also, generally speaking, his voice is a really good fit. So the idea that there was a really reasonable adaptation of a Vonnegut show that also would take advantage of our relationship with Stewart, which we thought was really great, just seemed like obviously we're going to do this, right.
Ms. Accomando: And for a theater company, what are the challenges nowadays of trying to get people into a theater? There's so much competition for people's attention and so many different ways to get entertainment and download it in your home, how difficult is it to get people in and what kinds of things are you looking for to try and pull them in?
Mr. Rock: Well, I think that we're always looking for a ‘star,’ something that people would have known of. And I sort of feel like in this instance we kind of have two with Kurt Vonnegut and Stewart Gordon, and relate it in different ways. I think Stewart has a giant fan base and also his Re-Animator: The Musical was a humongous hit. But I also think that people who really know where he came from, they know that he came up with David Mamet. He directed the first David Mamet adaptation ever, right -- excuse me, first David Mamet script ever, right?
Mr. Gordon: Well, we did the first professional production of Mamet’s work and helped Mamet shape Sexual Perversity into the play that it is now. But I like Sacred Fools because it reminds me of my days at Organic. It really does. I also like the things that they do. They have this whole thing that they do on weekends, the Serial Killer shows where anybody in the company comes up with an idea for something and they can do it on a Saturday night. It starts at 11 o’clock or something. And if the audience likes it they vote to keep it going and they do the next part of it the next week, and I love stuff like that. Peter Brook was one of my heroes. He said, “All you need is an empty stage and an actor and you've got theater. You don't need much.” And I think that's what makes it so much fun.
Ms. Accomando: People are probably familiar with your filmmaking career. Can you give me just a little bit of background on you got into theater and what it was?
Mr. Gordon: Well, I was a theater student at the University of Wisconsin because I couldn't get into the movie class and I thought, “Well, it would be nice to learn something about acting.” And I got so hooked on theater that I ended up doing it for the next 15 years and realizing that I had thought that theater was sort of bad movies and then I realized that theater has the ability to do so much more than a movie does.
Ms. Accomando: Tell me a little bit about the theater company that you started.
Mr. Gordon: Well, it was started by my wife, Caroline, and myself, The Organic Theater Company, and we set it up. This was not a way versed [phonetic] [26:55:00] type situation. We paid our actors right from the beginning even though we weren't paying them much, but it was enough for them to be able to devote their energy entirely to theater. They didn't have to drive cabs or wait tables or any of that stuff. And we would try to keep an ensemble together and we focused on doing original work. That was really the way it started.
Ms. Accomando: And Sacred Fools kind of reminds you of that?
Mr. Gordon: Yeah, very much so.
Ms. Accomando: And you talked a little bit about what you kind of think defines the company. How would you define kind of the kind of work that you're looking for and the kind of theater that you're looking to produce?
Mr. Rock: Well, I think that when Sacred Fools is firing on all cylinders we do pretty carnivalesque work; that would be the word I would use. But that doesn't mean -- something like Taste is actually a very realistic play, for instance, but then we would do shows like Neverwhere. Actually this is one in several literary adaptations that we've done of genre stuff. We did Neverwhere, which is Neil Gaiman. We did Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which is Phillip K. Dick. We did a play called Bill and Joan that was about William S. Burroughs. We do a lot of stuff that kind of has, I don't know, I'll say a literary bent.
Ms. Conway rock: Gorey stories, too.
Mr. Gordon: Gorey stories.
Mr. Rock: Yeah, Edward Gorey. And I think that’s the kind of work that we tend to specialize in, but we're not limited to that. We don't just do dark stuff or just do light stuff. We try and hit different audiences. The show that we did previous to this was sort of a fairytale for grownups. And then before that was a black box show that Alicia directed, actually. That was kind of about a very dysfunctional family. We tend to play around in a lot of those ways, but I do kind of look at what I was aiming for with this in terms of the kinds of productions we do are like the Neil Gaiman adaptation or the Phillip K. Dick adaptation that we did. And to answer your question of earlier, that sort of is how you will find an audience because if I found out -- it's not an if -- a few months ago there was a play called Vonnegut USA, and I absolutely had to go see it. As a huge Vonnegut fan I will seek that stuff out. And so when you find something like that that has that much of a hook to it, it really is kind of catnip. And we do look for stuff like that because you're right, it's hard to get people to come to the theater.
And I've been told there's more theaters in LA than New York City, but that's not more good theaters in LA than New York City. And so it's hard to find the good stuff, and you want to be the good stuff, but also it's harder to do it, it’s harder to get people out. There are fewer fulltime theater critics these days, so you have to do something that kind of rises above all of that noise to get people out.
Mr. Gordon: I was also going to say that when you go to the theater in New York it costs a fortune. You have to really have a lot of money to go to a theater. Whereas coming to Sacred Fools it's like the same amount of money that you'd spend going to a movie, really. I love that, and I love the fact that the audience is young and energetic and want new things. They want to see something they have never seen before.
Ms. Conway rock: I will say to that end I think that we, as a company our culture has tended to be willing to go a little bit edgy. And I think that the reason that we're attracted to kind of risky or difficult or you know -- like this show is not easy to stage and I think it's a big risk, honestly, to say we're going to try put Vonnegut on stage. We're going to try to show this giant epic space adventure somehow magically on stage. I think that that's a calculated risk that we're taking, hoping that it will appeal to people and hopefully younger people who want to come out and see us doing something that's a little bit dangerous, hopefully.
Mr. Rock: Yeah, dangerous for us and terrifying because there's a thousand ways to do it wrong. It's easy to screw this stuff up. There're so many moving parts in a show like this. We have four different video projectors and a giant dog suit and an alien from Tralfamadore. It's like everything has to be working exactly right or it looks hokey. And I don't want to be embarrassed in front of a Vonnegut fan and I want to live up to whatever Stewart's expectations of, you know, the best of what his work could be. I want to give that to him.
Ms. Accomando: You guys mentioned New York theater, and I think when Re-Animator, The Musical came out at the same time that that was debuting, they were trying to mount the Spiderman production on Broadway. And it seems like some of the stuff that's being done on the big Broadway stages seems to be trying to imitate movies, whereas Re-Animator: The Musical and this seem to be embracing specifically what theater can do to engage the audience and kind of like filling in that gap rather than trying to be flashy and have all this. It's like, “No, we can leave things a little rough around the edges and you guys fill in the details.”
Mr. Rock: Well, yeah. I mean, you have to. We don't have the budget of Spiderman, Turn Off The Dark, and we're not trying to make a theme park ride here. To me, what Stewart said is absolutely true. You want the audience to kind of use their imagination and have a wild ride that's a lot of fun, that isn’t a movie. I don't want someone to be like, “Oh, man. Captain America sold out. What am I going to do? Oh, maybe I'll go to the theater.” That person doesn't exist. It's somebody who wants to come see something like this or who wants a different experience. And it does happen where someone's like, “I saw this live show” or “I saw this play and you've just got to see it. It'll blow your mind. It's completely unlike anything you've ever seen.” I mean, that's kind of what you have to do, because yeah, we don't have enough money to make this into a theme park ride. And I don't know if we did, I don’t know if it would be as engaging, myself.
Mr. Gordon: It doesn't matter to a movie if there's an audience or not. An empty seat is going to, you know -- but theater is all about that relationship between the audience and the actors. And it's the only art form, I think, where the audience helps create the art every night. And that every audience is different, so every show is different, every performance is different. And to me, that’s the kick.
Ms. Accomando: You mentioned there was another Vonnegut show going on. What is it for each of you that you think makes him stay so fresh and that keeps engaging an audience? Do you want to start?
Mr. Gordon: Gosh! I think it's -- what an imagination this guy's got. It's a real weird combination of cynicism and heart. At the beginning of this he's saying, you know, the guy says something about, “Somebody up there likes me,” and he's just sort of ridiculed for it. But with the play basically it ends with that line and you feel so differently about it when you get there and I think that's Vonnegut. I think it's underneath that crusty, you know, been there, done that. I mean, this is a guy who went through World War II. The stuff that he talks about in Slaughterhouse 5, where, you know, Dresden is bombed and everything is completely destroyed. It's like World War III. And he comes climbing out and there's nothing there and everybody's dead. He lived through these things, but somehow managed to keep his heart. And that's going to come through in his stories. His stories are tough, but there's a tremendous humanity to them.
Mr. Rock: While we were doing this I've been re-reading a lot of Vonnegut and one of the things I did hit with Slaughterhouse 5, because as Stewart was telling me kind of the thematic connections between Slaughterhouse 5 and Sirens of Titan. And when I read Slaughterhouse 5 I was 18 years old and I thought it was punk rock and I thought it was anarchic and I thought it was funny. And I re-read it about two, three months ago and I found it to be heartbreaking and emotional. And I started piecing together that Vonnegut's stuff, a lot of it comes from his own PTSD or whatever it was. Even Breakfast of Champions, which I think is his funniest book, maybe, or the one that is intended to be the funniest, is about a Pontiac dealer going insane and about a terrible, violent thing. And Vonnegut talks about his own personal suicidal thoughts in that book and puts himself into the book.
I think that there's something so present about his stuff. It's not like it's a product of the 50s or the 60s or the 70s or the 80s. It's like you're in this guy's head and experiencing life through his eyes in a way that I don't know of any other author who ever did what Vonnegut did in that way, that I've ever personally read. And it is weird, too, because reading it as a teenager and then reading it as a man in my 40s, it really is like two different sets of work. And I think that good work like that, like you keep seeing a different angle on it and it moves you in different ways than it did before. And this book was no exception, although this book really did emotionally move me when I first read it. When I re-read it, especially after talking to Stewart about his interactions with Kurt Vonnegut and how Vonnegut had kind of given him insight and he just had insight into the story that I never would have had in the first place, you start realizing it is a commentary on war, it is a commentary on all of these. There're so many themes that are running through it and the hardest part about like doing it as a piece was trying to choose the ones that you're going to focus on because you could make this whole thing about determinism if you really wanted to.
Ms. Conway rock: I think he had a really refined bullshit-ometer and I think that the clarity of that and combined with the fact that he's brilliant and was able to really wield words in an incredibly poignant way, I think that mix of things means -- there are things about the human condition and about what it means to be a person that are universal truths and that will always be true and have always been true. And I think Vonnegut saw right through all the BS and completely saw that stuff, and that is what he wanted to write about, what he wanted to capture. And so I think those things are timeless and they aren't specific to a time or a specific culture. They're specific to being human. So I think we all connect to it, even if we can't like, you know -- I'm not a guy who went to Dresden and got captured and had this World War II experience at all and yet I'd find myself relating so strongly to his perspective and his voice. And I think it's because he had an incredible uncanny ability to capture what it is to be a person.
Ms. Accomando: Do you have any specific memories of working with Vonnegut about working on the script or anything in particular that you learned from him?
Mr. Gordon: Well, one of the things was right after the war in Vietnam that just ended and I had been protesting against the war. Vonnegut said to me at one point, he said, “You know, you really can't speak out against the war because you didn't go,” which I thought was just one of those things you never forget. He said, “I can talk about World War II, which everyone thinks is this great, glorious war, but I think it was bullshit. And I can say that because I was there. I was in the war. My friends were dying around me. And you can't say that about Vietnam because you didn't go.”
Ms. Accomando: So is that the bullshit-ometer?
Mr. Gordon: Yeah, exactly.
Ms. Accomando: All right. Well, thank you all very much.
Mr. Rock: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Mr. Gordon: Yeah.
Ms. Conway rock: Thank you.
Mr. Gordon: Pleasure, as always.
[End of Interview]
Ms. Accomando: That was Stewart Gordon, Ben Rock, and Alicia Conway Rock talking about the new Sacred Fools production of Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan. It's currently running at Sacred Fools Theater Company and runs through the first week of May. Thanks for listening to another edition of listener-supported KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. Coming up next will be a discussion of Casablanca on its 75th anniversary, and a discussion of nitrate film projection. Cinema Junkie is also a proud sponsor of Landmark Theater’s Midnight Movies at the Ken Cinema. So make sure your late night plans for the weekend include a movie at the Ken. Harry Potter and Paprika are coming up next. So till our next film fix, I'm Beth Accomando, your resident Cinema Junkie.