University of Kansas theater professor Peter Zazzali wanted to challenge his students. So, heading into Thanksgiving, they're putting on a play called “The Big Meal.”
It follows five generations of a family through a series of important dinners. Most of the actors play several different characters of varying ages; some switch characters over generations. The set is sparse — just three restaurant tables. There’s little in the way of makeup and costumes. And in most of the scenes, people talk all over each other. In other words, your basic family dinner.
“I’ve never done a play that’s felt so naturalistic in the writing where it’s just been overlapping and overlapping," says Lindsey Roesti. "I love attending plays like that where everyone’s talking on top of each other because that’s how we talk in real life. Also, I’m playing a child. Even though I look like a child, I’ve never played a child before so that’s been fun."
Roesti's character is listed as simply "Girl." Sometimes that's a character called Maddie. Early in the play, Maddie's grandfather gives a present to her older brother. Young Maddie feels left out. The grandfather tries to apologize, but Maddie's unmoved.
"I hope you die!" she shouts, which sets up a recurring pattern.
As the kids grow up to have kids of their own, this family struggles with resentments and disappointments that pile up over generations. Making each character come to life amid the chaos is one of the main acting challenges.
“There’s little set, there’s little lighting, all the main focus is on the characters and the actors who are portraying them. So you have to bring your A-game every day. If you don't, people can tell. It’s very noticeable when not everybody is on top of it and bringing it together as an ensemble,” says Kevin Siess, who plays "Man Two."
“In any other show, if the audience is not feeling it in a moment, a musical number can cut in and revive the audience," Roesti says. "But in this case, it’s completely actor driven. If we fall off the ball, a little bit, we lose the audience.”
Zazzali says he chose this play for his students because of its unique writing – with all of the voices blending together, he says, it’s like a symphonic piece of music. That makes it a good teaching exercise for practical things such as listening to other actors, and working on movements and timing. And the universal themes resonate, too.
“Specifically what I’d like them to learn is the value of a cast coming together to provide an audience, a community, something larger than any one of our individual contributions," Zazalli says. "I want the audience to feel like they’re having a seat at the table.” (Actually, audience members won’t really want to sit at the table. Because whenever real food shows up, bad things happen.)
Their fellow KU students might be thinking about heading home for Thanksgiving, but the actors in "The Big Meal" have a few intense shows to put on before the break.
“You know, I haven’t even thought about that. I’ve been so focused on this meal, I haven’t even thought about the next one yet,” says Siess.
But by the time this show finishes its run, these actors will have earned a break. Hopefully their Thanksgiving will be a little less dramatic than "The Big Meal" they’ve just put on stage.