A Q&A With Oregon Contemporary Theatre ‘The Big Meal’ Director Brian Haimbach

Russell Dyball & Kari Boldon Welch in The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc, photo by Athena Delene

By Suzi Steffen

The Oregon Contemporary Theatre‘s new play A Big Meal by Dan LeFranc opened on Oct. 21. The comedy has a relatively large cast for a contemporary play – eight people, including young kids, actors in their 20s, actors in their 40s and so forth.

Director Brian Haimbach is used to casts of all sizes from his role as the director of the theater program at Lane Community College, and he says directing this play at the OCT worked out with perfect timing for the start of school and the opening of the play.

Haimbach was kind enough to do a phone interview the day after the play opened. The interview has been edited and condensed.

The rhythm of the play is so important. It’s like a symphony.

Tell me what interested you in directing this play.

I saw the production at Artists Repertory Theatre [in Portland] in 2013, and I was blown away. I’m a sucker for simply theatrical plays that require the audience to fully participate, and this play does that. I was really drawn to how simply it grabs your heart.

It seems like the family is a generic every family, but it’s amazing how little we actually know about these characters. Since the playwright doesn’t fill in all the gaps, you have to do that for yourself, and you’re able to bring you into it.

So did you suggest it to Craig Willis, artistic director of the OCT?

No, they create the season and then approach the directors. They do have a few people they bounce ideas off of, and I was one of those people. I was like, “Yes! Do this play, it’s great!” I had no idea then that I would be directing it. It worked out great for me.

Can you talk about casting it? You’ve worked with some of these actors before, right?
I’ve worked with Russell [Dyball] before – he’s the only one. That’s surprising because eight is kind of on the large side for a contemporary play. I’ve seen Ellen [Chace] and Kari [Welch] and Robert [Hirsh] in many plays at OCT, so that made the casting a little easier.

At the auditions, besides the skill of the actors, it’s really important that these character look a generation apart. I needed actors who looked squarely in their 20s, 40s and 60s. There were 30-40 people called back, and so many were fabulous, but I had to tell them I can’t cast you because you look in between these ages.

Robert Hirsh and Ellen Chace in The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, photo by Athena Delene
Robert Hirsh and Ellen Chace in The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, photo by Athena Delene

Each actor plays the same character in different life stages, so [casting] was creating a family. I didn’t go for a look – though Kari dyed her hair – but I did go for specific ages. Of course you always cast for skill as well.

And with the kids, I just got lucky. I relied on the theater for the kids. I barely read them. Hugh [Brinkley] has in been in shows, and Noa [Ablow Measelle] had just auditioned this year. I didn’t have the kids the first few weeks because they were in other shows, so I was kind of freaking out, but they showed up ready to go.

What was the rehearsal process like?

I had my cast get off-script two weeks before the regular time. Usually that’s two weeks before opening, but I had them off-book a month before, because there’s so much overlapping and cueing off each other, and the rhythm of the play is so important. It’s like a symphony. They rose to the occasion, and they were memorized before I asked them to be.

I said in the first rehearsal, I’m not going to sit here and pscyhoanalyze your characters; that’s your homework. I’ve got so much to do with choreographing people, moving people around. There are moments when it’s like you press the fast forward button, and you immediately fast forward to their first date and then their third date and then to where they say I love you and then to the break-up, and each one of those scenes is a minute long. So for us it was [the challenge of] conveying to the audience when those shifts happen. There’s no lighting change, nothing physically to indicate the shifts have happened. It’s a choice the actors make.

I said, think about your spine as your biggest tool; you’re moving from an awkward first date to the third date where you’ve just had great sex. It’s an actor-driven event. and that’s what we spent a lot of the rehearsal time on. As they age up, I didn’t want them to try to mimic each other; that was too cheap and too nail on the head obvious. But there were certain things, like the pattern of your speech. The actors have to bring a lot to the table.

Tell us about working at OCT. What do you think it brings to the community?

You know I’m head of the theater program at Lane, and I direct there once a year, I’ve directed professionally in quite a few theaters, like where I moved from in South Carolina. At the OCT, it’s just a breeze. All I have to do is show up and do my job. They’re so professional, and they’re so on top of different things. OCT is run like a professional theater. The production staff is top-notch, on top of the artistic integrity of whatever they do.

Think about your spine as your biggest tool; you’re moving from an awkward first date to the third date where you’ve just had great sex.

Can you talk a little about your designers and how you all worked together?

Steen Mitchell, who did the set, she’s very collaborative. The Big Meal is set in a restaurant – that’s the point of the play. So we had to create an environment that looked like a restaurant, but the lightning fast scene changes meant there was no time for entrances or exits. We needed an environment where the actors could be on the stage between scenes. We looked at what other people had done, and we adapted to the size and space of theater. The design is as simple but as inspired as what the play is. This is every family, and this is every restaurant.

The lighting by Michael Peterson is subtle; we wanted an overall arc to the lighting as opposed to lighting that indicates scene changes. He did a beautiful job at creating subtle, beautiful, effective lights.

What else should the theater-going community of Eugene and Springfield know about this play?

It’s an hour and a half, no intermission. Pee before you go. [Both of us laugh. But true fact.]

There are long moments of complete silence in the play, and I’m really happy for how that worked out. It makes the audience be present with each other in a way that dialogue doesn’t. When you have silence, especially in the three-quarter space, you can look across and see your fellow audience members. Silence is so uncomfortable, and I really exploited that in those moments. You’l’l see why when you see the play.

The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc
7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday through Nov. 12; 2 pm Sunday Oct. 30 & Nov. 6
Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 W. Broadway (parking suggestions here)
Tickets $15 for students with current ID; $18-31
541-465-1506; at the website; box office hours here

Suzi Steffen

Suzi has been writing about the arts in Eugene, Ashland and Portland for about 10 years. She loves riding her Torker Trike, Momo; going to performances; reading and writing books; gardening; and watching as many films as possible in between everything else. Email her at suzi at theeugenereview dot com.

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