Following what I believe was a pretty successful directorial debut in "The Philadelphia," I was asked to direct another play for my university's theater club, the Penn Players. This semester's play was an American classic, 12 Angry Men.
From the start, I decided on two major creative decisions for the play. Firstly, I would cast both men and women in the roles of the jurors, making the play 12 Angry Jurors. And secondly, we would modernize the play and set it in present day New York City. I thought both of these elements would bring a new, modern twist to the classic play.
I had two major inspirations when directing this play: Ivo Van Hove's The Crucible and Lyndsey Turner's Hamlet. Both of these productions inspired me on the themes and tone of my play. Both Hamlet and The Crucible took on very political themes. The Crucible, in particular, posed a major commentary on America's current political crisis of Donald Trump and his minority witch hunt. Because 12 Angry Men is a show about prejudice and racism within America, I took Van Hove's lead and made the American political system an overbearing figure throughout the play. On the set, there were a number of American flags to make the audience feel, subconsciously, claustrophobic and trapped by the presence of this oppressive deity.
And obviously, the context of the play itself speaks volumes about the political divide within the American psyche. To help reiterate this political theme, I asked all the actors to dissect their character's political affiliation-- what political party does their character belong to, who would they be voting for in the upcoming election, are they pro-life or pro-choice, do they support gender equality? For some of the characters, these questions were easy to answer, others not so much. A lot of the jurors lie on the fence; they simply go with the most popular vote, so the problem occurred that each actor needed to dissect their character and understand them well enough to know the answer to these questions.
I was also really inspired by the atmosphere created by Lyndsey Turner in her production of Hamlet. I was completely captivated by the tone of the production. From the sound design to the set to the staging, Turner created a new character in the atmosphere. Her production was so visual, and I really wanted to imitate that with my production. In particular, I felt the sound used throughout the production was so powerful and invoking. I implemented a soundtrack to my production that I was quite proud of. It added a new sense of anxiety and uneasy to the jury room.
12 Angry Jurors is completely an ensemble show. It was crucial for me to convince the actors that every single juror was important, and there was no one "lead character." The biggest challenge I faced while directing this show was motivating the actors. Building characters traits is very important to me as an actor, and I tried to motivate my cast into completely submerging themselves into their jurors. This is were I failed as a director. I failed to connect my actors with their characters, and I failed to motivated them into giving great performances. It was an extreme struggle; it was frustrating for me, as the director, and for the cast mates who did actually care about their performance. But I had to continue to remind myself that this was a cast of students who aren't professional actors.
In the end, the production went up, but not without it's struggles. The actors needed their scripts on stage, which was the biggest defeat for me. Although I fell short with my actors, I was proud of the work I with the sound and set design (given my very limited budget) and the staging.
Director's Note: 12 Angry Jurors
12 Angry Men is an iconic play that transcends all generations. Our adaptation, set in 2016 and comprised of both men and women, speaks volumes about our current political state within America. Although this play was written in 1954, we still face many of the social problems presented within the story: racism, prejudice, classism, and, most importantly, anger. Each of the twelve jurors represents a different faction of our melting pot society, and each juror must overcome their own stigma to see the promise of a world free of anger.
Photos Courtesy of Barabra Dennis, Coordinator of Publications and Promotion at Penn State York University