Director of “Twelve Angry Men” discusses show

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Photo by Stephanie Addenbrooke.

“12 Angry Men” by Reginald Rose opens Thursday night in the Davenport Auditorium. The play centers on 12 unnamed jurors tasked with deciding the fate of a 19-year-old charged with murdering his father. The jurors struggle to reach a consensus on whether the defendant is guilty — such a ruling would call for the death penalty. The show’s director, Gabe Greenspan ’14, spoke with the News about his experience staging the play here at Yale.

Q: Why did you choose to stage this particular play?

A: I saw it when I was younger and I loved it, so there is that aspect of it. But it’s also such a challenge to do, because it’s set in real time. The storyline itself takes place over the course of an hour and a half and it’s 12 guys who are on stage when the lights go up and who don’t exit until the show ends. To explore how those 12 strangers could really live in this space together was something I was really curious to find out.

Q: What is the main theme that the play explores and how does this production present it?

A: The play takes place in the late 1950s so there is a lot of tension in race relations. Of the 12 actors, two of them are black, which is not specified in the script but that’s how we are staging it and it adds a whole new dimension to the play, since one of the other jurors is an outspoken racist. Our decision to present the play in this way makes the racial dimension that much more present and that much more hurtful.

Q: What are your thoughts on the title of the play? What are these men angry at and what causes them to be angry?

A: They are all angry for different reasons. On one side of the table, there is the righteous indignation in the question of whether they can really let a boy die. And on the other side is the question of how can one let a murderer go free. There are some characters who do not start out being as angry as others. Juror #9 is an older man, so because he has had more time on this earth and much less quick to get up in arms in the way that some of the others do. And we have also chosen to cast Juror #4 as a lawyer in our production, so he is much more reasonable and logical as opposed to emotion-driven. But anger is still the fuel that drives the play, and everyone eventually reaches that tipping point.

Q: Does the play have a clearly defined stance on the types of moral issues it discusses? 

A: No. It’s a very smartly written play, where every time they give you a piece of evidence that makes it seem like the kid is guilty, there’s a piece of evidence that suggests he is innocent. That kind of alternating is paralleled by what goes on in the jury room — every time they make a character look stupid, there is a moment a bit later where it seems like he’s the smartest guy in the room. And when the characters finally leave the room at the end, there are only one or two that feel like they have made the right moral choice, even if most of them felt that they made the right legal choice. It’s written so that the audience’s opinion goes back and forth like that.

Q: The entire show is set in the same room and none of the characters enter or leave until the end. How does this production respond to the fact that there is not much physical change that takes place from the beginning to the end of the play?

A: The play is set so that in a relatively passive environment, there is a lot happening because two or three of these guys are quick to incite hostility and be worked up about what is being discussed. Act I even ends on a note of violence where one character has to be physically restrained from attacking another, and that atmosphere of violence exists throughout the play. Also, there are many moments of characters switching votes and the entire table goes up in arms in response. The way we stage the room is so that the table is split in half, which creates a natural division between the characters where even if people are just talking on opposite sides of the table, you experience an antagonistic feeling. The play is written so that the audience steadily goes up this emotional roller coaster, but if you interrupt that build-up, you lose the audience.

Q: This play has been adapted into films and has been produced on stage in many different forms. What are the differences you have noticed across various productions of this play and how did you decide on how you wanted to stage it?

A: We had two or three scripts floating around in the beginning — one was from the movie, one from the TV version of the play and one was from a stage adaptation. In our production, the kid on trial is 19, in another he is 16 and in another he is 18. Those differences create questions like ‘Is it OK to have a 16 year old face the death penalty?’ Also, the main protagonist of the play is Juror #8 and the main antagonist is Juror #3, so many other productions of the play tend to solely focus on those two characters and the others are perfunctory. In this production, we have spread everything out so that everyone makes important points at one time or another. There are other productions where it’s 12 angry jurors or 12 angry women. I’ve been asked why we are not doing this as a ‘12 women’ or mixed gender production, and it’s because the energy in the room when you have 12 testosterone-driven guys is unique and something that I haven’t see in a Yale production yet.

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