In an unusual twist, the stage production of Twelve Angry Men began life as a TV screenplay for the CBS series Studio One. Written in 1954 by Reginald Rose as the golden age of American TV drama kicked off, the narrative is typical of that tense but hopeful time, innocent compared to today’s usual blend of voyeurism and cynicism.
Though probably best known as a 1957 Henry Fonda vehicle directed by Sidney Lumet, the core of the narrative is tailor–made for the stage. Various adaptations exist, including mixed–gender productions, all–female productions, and even an all–Lebanese production in 2009 dealing with political issues in Lebanon.
The storyline’s simple: A jury of men (women didn’t serve on juries in the 1950s) is about to judge a man guilty of homicide. But there’s one holdout....
Christopher Soucy directs this production, the first full–length play to be performed at the new Indigo Arts space on Louisville Road, itself a project spearheaded by his sister JinHi Soucy Rand. We spoke to Chris, who has an extensive local acting and directing portfolio, last week.
So why are they so freakin’ angry?
Christopher Soucy: (laughs) If I had to come up with a reason why they’re angry, I’d say it was the judicial process. And no air conditioning! That would definitely add to it. They’re in a pressure cooker. You’ve got a fairly open-and-shut case in the eyes of 11 men, and one man throws a wrench in the gears. The anger derives from that conflict.
Safe to assume there’s an overarching metaphor here?
Christopher Soucy: It is definitely about persecution, it’s definitely about having a system that allows for reasonable doubt. That’s kind of the catchphrase of the entire play, is that our judicial system bases itself on the idea that a person has to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And they examine very closely what is a reasonable doubt and how you come to that.
This play is set in a time where if you were found guilty of first degree murder and you lived in a state that has the death penalty, you went straight to the death penalty. You went straight to the arraignment. Now if you’re found guilty there’s another trial, a sentencing trial, another step.
So this jury is actually deciding beyond a reasonable doubt whether this person should live or die. And that’s pretty heavy stuff.
Since this was written, the courtroom drama has become its own, some would say cliched, genre. Did you specifically try to make sure this production didn’t trade too much in cliche?
Christopher Soucy: That’s an interesting point, in that this was actually written prior to the glut of courtroom dramas, and therefore it may have built–in cliches. But you want to honor the fact that if it came first, and these were the situations that were put forth, the fact that these became cliches is because they were solid and good. Cliches only come about because something is viable.
The thought, views and opinions are definitely derived from that period. And I dare say it’s because by now we’ve seen these things and they’ve been discussed. Juries who are called today, they watch Law & Order and every procedural crime drama.
There’s sort of a new syndrome where juries are refusing to convict unless there’s DNA evidence, which is actually pretty hard to get.
Christopher Soucy: That’s the problem: We’ve come to a place where these key pieces of evidence become the only things that people will believe.
A lot of the classic dramas from the ’50s and ’60s are informed with a sort of old–school liberal sensibility that can seem quaint today. Is this one of those?
Christopher Soucy: It’s a part of this courtroom storytelling in which we’re dealing with the defendant who all the odds are against, who’s the underdog. It seems like where the turnaround came is through us becoming used to courtroom dramas where the defendant is a corporation, like in Philadelphia or most of John Grisham’s courtroom novels. The defendants are sinister organizations that one person is standing up to fight against.
The story used to be that the defense attorney was a noble and good person protecting the innocent. But in time we started to realize that we soured against defense attorneys. They became ambulance chasers and people who represented criminals, people they knew were guilty. It’s fascinating to watch the dynamic change, and see our disillusionment with how the system works.
This was still in the era where people were like, “look at what our courts can do — the fairness of what’s happening.” This is one of those plays that sat right on the edge of that, because they do discuss innocent people going to jail and guilty people being let free. But in the context of the play it still holds to the principle that the system works because you can reasonably doubt.
Did you flirt with the idea of alternative casting, or did you always want to keep it an all–male cast?
Christopher Soucy: The general consensus was that this is a play set in the ‘50s. Its sensibilities are ‘50s sensibilities. To update it — because women were not allowed on juries at that time — is to add an informed behavior. The language of it is inherently male, mid–’50s dominated. I wanted to keep it that way. It’s not that I wouldn’t do alternative casting if the fallout was I didn’t have the twelve angry men (laughs). The option was there to pursue 12 angry people, 12 angry jurors. They even have scripts where you can do that. They have scripts specifically for multiple genders. I feel the dialogue is so of that era, it was best represented as being in that time. Not that there’s a big calendar on the wall (laughs).
So you’re a dude directing 12 other dudes. What’s that like?
Christopher Soucy: It’s not like a big locker room, swapping war stories and poking each other in the eye. The coolest part about this particular production is the wide age range and the wide range of experience levels. As a director I love bringing people who have little or no experience into the fold because it kind of gives everybody points of reference and everybody moves together. There’s a lot of camaraderie.
I guess this is the first Indigo Arts Center production.
Christopher Soucy: Actually this isn’t an Indigo Arts production. It’s actually Fair Weather Productions saying we want to do a play, and everybody rallying around that idea.
The interesting thing about Twelve Angry Men is the reason Indigo Arts exists: To be a venue that someone could just say let’s do a play, let’s put on a show because we love theatre, and to have a place that could have us. There’s a place to present art and perform what you want. It’s tangible, it’s within grasp, and the great thing is if you love to create, there’s now a place you can do it.
Twelve Angry Men
When: April 2-3 and April 9-10 at 8pm, April 4 and 11 at 5 p.m.
Where: Indigo Arts Station, 703D Louisville Rd.