April 26, 2012 – The third floor atrium at Studio Theatre is a buzz with carpenters and interns, designers and directors, marketing folks and performing professionals, all putting the final touches on Studio’s newest production, The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc. Amidst the hurried tweaks and polishes, the play’s quietly collected director, Johanna Gruenhut, takes a refreshing few minutes with me to discuss this undertaking of generational proportions.
Joe: What did you think when you saw the script for The Big Meal for the first time?
Johanna: Well…I didn’t get it completely, at first. There’s a lot of information, in a sort of new form of story telling. Just in terms of the way the page is laid out. Your brain, your mind, has to scan a lot of…noise, I guess. In order to make sense of the characters, in order to see their through line, and also to be able to go on the journey with them. So, the first read like, “ Whoa, this is really cool. This is so new and an interesting way of approaching play writing.”
And then, on the second read, I was able to probe more deeply into what the story’s actually about or what touches me most poignantly about all the people within this family. Trying to get to the heart of that in a way that doesn’t get in the way, but also highlights the, sort of, new way that Dan approaches writing, at least with this play, became not only the challenge, but the exciting part of wanting to work on it. I guess, the inspiring way of wanting to jump in and being able to juggle the harmonics of the dialogue, as well as the harmonics of what it means to be in a family of so many people.
Yes, it reads like a flowchart and it reads like a musical score too. Forget about every scene having a rhythm, or every character having a distinct rhythm, in terms of tone and pace. Tempo. But, the way they feed into each other and where the overlapping needs to happen, and who’s story you’re really following at any given time becomes essential. Just in order for the audience to be able to say, “Oh, this means that, or this goes with that, I’m gonna pick this thread up over here…” you know it intellectually and you know it in your heart. The more time you spend with the play, when you actually put it on it’s feet, it takes on… it’s a whole different life form.
In talk-backs we often get questions like, “How do you memorize all those lines?”, or “What does a director do?”…
That’s a good question, I don’t know. (big laughs)
So, I want to get more about the process of creating theatre out there. What was your pre-rehearsal process like for Big Meal?
I was trained in the Viewpoints technique. So, a lot of the ways I approached thinking about the play, and also when we started launching into rehearsal, was through the lens of using the Viewpoints. I would think about space. It takes place in a restaurant so automatically I had the architecture. I was thinking about relationships between people, but also how they would use their chairs. How the chairs themselves could tell a story. What the tables mean when their pushed together, then pulled apart, when they’re separated. What the metaphors would be. And that was all this, sort of, intellectual hoo-ha in my head.
I also never want to storyboard a play, but with this one, I did do that. Just so that I’d have a rough blue-print of where I could potentially put people and then free-up in rehearsal so that I wasn’t completely overwhelmed with all of the other stuff I knew was gonna come up later. Basically, all the blocking could be changed; it was just nice going into the process feeling like I had some sort of sense of how things moved, when things shifted, with it still being subtle. I think that’s really important for the way that this story is presented.
What about the punctuation in the text?
I wanted to highlight the moments of punctuation, because there are very few moments of actual written punctuation. Periods, commas, exclamation points, question marks, they don’t come up that often in the play, so to try and find those moments and figure out what they mean, was very important to me…trying to find the moments of why, you know, why a punctuation mark here? There hasn’t been a punctuation mark in two pages. That must mean something.
It’s very specific.
Right, so I try to pop those out. I also am always interested, especially in a play like this that doesn’t have any room for breath, especially in the beginning, because you want it to move, trying to find the sounds of words that would give you that release.
There’s a lot of stuttering in the play, so what would everyone’s stutter mean? Some of the sounds start like, “Hhhhhhey” and “Hhhhhhi”, you know, and that’s important because those are entry points. Really paying attention to that, so that when we got into the space, we basically started Viewpointing. You know, everybody got on a lane and everybody came up with some gestures. Everybody shared all of that…great juice, as I like to say, that creative juice. Certain ticks that came up in that work appear now in the play and have become the actor’s own. It became a really personal way to track each character on their journey, each individual’s inter-generational lives. And that was work I didn’t have to do.
I’d point out, “This is a great gesture that you did… it was a beautiful moment, you should try to figure out how we can bring that from the, sort of, workshoppy work into the application of the “putting on the play” work”. And once we got into the groove of working with the script, we sort of, let the Viewpoints work slide a bit. In terms of letting everyone slide a little out of their lanes.
You know, gesture work and shape work, character nuance, I think all of that triggered a real ensemble. A way to really connect to each other and to the piece itself. It also made it a very easy way to give notes. I could say just one thing and the actors were able to adjust. We would all figure out a new way. That was the process. It’s been great.
This script sets very specific character tracks. Characters like, WOMAN ONE (OLDER WOMAN), WOMAN TWO (WOMAN), WOMAN THREE (YOUNG WOMAN). They play a generation. How do you cast a piece like this?
It’s hard. They’re all in one family. So, they all share a certain essence. I guess, highlighting the one character that you want to see the most, if you can see that little piece you hope that the other things just fall into place, but it’s more about…it’s like finding an über person as opposed to finding just one little character.
Every single one of the characters has a very, very ugly side and a very beautiful side, and the question is, do you possess both of those qualities that would take you, not only from character A to character B, but do you have that grit. I don’t know. It’s also being able to create a family. To be able to find a dynamic that will fit well in a room that you want to be in everyday. And get dirty, and messy, and roll around with. It’s challenging.
The Big Meal is getting it’s DC premier with your production. Do you prefer directing new plays?
I really enjoy directing new plays and most of the plays that I work on are new. I think, partly, that’s the function of being a young director these days. The opportunities come with playwrights that you meet. You’re sort of slowly growing up along the ladder of success. There’s the excitement of the emerging writer, meets emerging director and their take on the theatre scene. It’s sort of just a function of what the field is like now. Especially for younger artists, which is very exciting. And, I’ve always enjoyed the development process. Either being able to help guide a play through or figuring out new ways to tell the story. And flexing some dramaturgical skills, which I think is important as a director to understand how all the different parts of a play can come together and make sense.
How do you like working in DC?
I love DC. This is my first time really directing here, other than some readings. It’s a really vibrant community and it’s very supportive of the arts. It feels exciting, like there is a robustness, I think, around theatre here that you don’t necessarily get in other places. There are just so many theaters in such a small city. I mean, I never knew. Just while walking around here I’ve just been noticing, “There’s a theater here, and over there. Look at what they’re doing.”. And now that companies are announcing their seasons, it’s just…not only a plethora of things to see, but there’s so much interesting work to take in.
Do you feel that young artists have a duty to create less “safe theatre” and focus on creating mostly new original works?
No, I don’t know about that, because I really love classic plays. I have a real soft spot for American classics. I’m convinced that if Clifford Odets were alive, we would be lovers. I would kill to get my hands on one of those plays. And I think that, it’s like, if you’re a novelist, you have to read Dostoevsky. You gotta know the history of it. I’m certainly no expert, but I think taking big risks on known things is important. I’m a firm believer…there’s that Tennessee Williams one-act, Talk to Me Like the Rain…and Let Me Listen, I’m sure doing that play in the 1950’s is very different than doing it today. That’s the thing I’m most interested in with classics.
What is The Big Meal all about?
It’s about life. The punctuate events that shape our histories. It’s about everyday, it’s all the important moments that make up a life. It’s a schematic in a way that you fill in the blanks. You’re given all the key touchstones and for some reason, because of Dan’s writing being so smart and precise, you’re able to understand the whole life within this series of snippets.
I believe there is an entry point for every person who comes to see this play. You’re either going through one of these moments, have had one of these moments, or are about to. You might not know it. You’ll get it in a much deeper way, when it happens. And I mean, I’m pregnant now, and I wasn’t when I first read the play. Certain things resonate differently now. I’ve gotten married, I’ve experienced loss, I fell in love, I’ve been on a first date, I’ve been on a crappy first date, I fought with my brother, all of these things are in this play.