THE BLOG
09/03/2014 04:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

War, Aliens and Porn Stars: Bringing Vonnegut's Children's Crusade to the Stage

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Photo: Sam Gurry

Adapting a book for the stage can be tough. Especially if the book jumps around in time and involves trips to an alien world inhabited by single-eyed beings bearing more than a passing resemblance to toilet plungers. Last year, True False Theatre decided to attempt the impossible: stage Kurt Vonnegut's seminal classic Slaughterhouse-Five.

Actress/artistic director Anni Weisband and playwright Daria Tavana founded True False Theatre in 2011 to create an outlet for original and experimental work. "Since we started the company," Daria says. "We've been looking for and successfully attempting experimental work... We'd only done original work until this point, so it was new for us and very exciting."

When asked why attempt such an unconventional and beloved classic, Daria explains: "There are so many obvious answers, the language is amazing, the characters are phenomenal, Kurt's message is all too relevant and all too scary, but what really appealed to me was that it is seemingly unstagable. That's really why we're producing it, people say we can't."

The author's personal relationship with the subject matter, from being a prisoner of war to surviving the Dresden bombing, also appealed to Daria: "I think that's one of my favorite parts about that book as opposed to all the other books he's written is that personal relationship that everyone knows he had to that work. It's in every word of the book."

With Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut introduced us to Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran who encounters beings from another world, becoming unstuck in time as the past and present bleed into one another. Slaughterhouse-Five has become a literary classic and an unconventional look at post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, to Anni and Daria, Slaughterhouse-Five is about much more.

"You can look at the story and say 'oh, it's about PTSD,' but I think it goes deeper than that. The reason why this story is so relatable is because it shines a light on what it is to be a human being and go through something that is traumatic and ask: How do we move on? How to we cope and adapt after we've been through a war of any kind? It's not just about PTSD, it's more universal," Anni says.

Daria approached Anni last year about adapting piece for True False Theatre: "Daria says 'I have this script I wrote in college, it's an adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five, do you wanna maybe submit it to the New York Fringe Festival?' Of course, I love Slaughterhouse-Five. Submitted it to the Fringe Festival last year and it got in. Then we had this sudden realization of 'Oh, we don't have the rights.' Within 24 hours we had the rights and that was through the stalking of Mark Vonnegut."

"He has a pediatric office in Massachusetts," Daria adds. "So I was calling there asking for Dr. Vonnegut five times day, they thought I was absolutely insane. Then I finally got Dr. Mark Vonnegut on the phone and he told me that his father's best friend/literary agent is the sole trustee of his work, so then I had to call Don Farber. Don was really helpful and very funny. He was really excited about it and very generous with the rights and that was reassuring."

Adapting the book offered a host of challenges for the theatre: "His experience in the war was not your All-Quiet-on-the-Western-Front-in-the-trenches experience. He went into the war near the end, spent a lot of time as a prisoner and lived through the bombing of Dresden. It's an unconventional war story. I like stories like that; stories that don't glorify war but make you ask: Why are these people even here? What is the point of this? That's hard to capture and stage but it was an exciting challenge. Also, I'm a 25-year-old New Yorker who's never been to war."

For the actors and particularly director Jenny Beth Snyder, staging the play proved to be quite intimidating. "It was a challenge to adapt this play and a challenge to stage in a venue that really didn't allow for that. With the Fringe, you have 15 minutes to set up and 15 minutes to take down and just two hours for tech. It was a huge undertaking. People called us crazy and that's how I knew it was perfect," Daria says.

"In the draft we did for the Fringe, there were 30 scenes and I played Montana Wildhack. Being in actor in that was very challenging, I had to make a spreadsheet to keep backstage to know where I had to be because there were so many scene changes," Anni says.

"Thirty scenes, some as short as half a page. One scene Billy's been tranquilized by Nazi guards and in the next scene he's sitting in his optometrist office and three minutes later he's having sex with a porn star on an alien planet. It was hard and we pulled out our hair a little bit. The challenge lives in staging these scenes and making each one unique and interesting, but the biggest challenge was the five seconds between the scenes. How do we have the transitions seamless and keep them engaging?" Daria adds.

While bringing Slaughterhouse-Five to the stage pushed actors, directors, and the writer, the audience was very receptive. "We were sold out every night," Anni says. "We got invited to the Encore Series, and when we finished that I think everyone realized we had something kinda special. Kurt had such a following and the story had so many themes that are timeless and relevant right now."

After the run at the Fringe Festival Daria and Anni, along with the rest of the team at True False Theatre, decided to bring the show to the main stage in 2015 with a limited off-Broadway run. On September 6th, the theatre will be hosting a free invited reading of Slaughterhouse-Five at 7 p.m. at the New York Theatre Workshop.