The opening night of 12 Angry Jurors, Franklin’s Advanced Acting class’ first internal production, was a resounding success for the small-scale show. The audience—who was placed on the north and south walls of the black box theater, with the actors in the middle of the room—was packed in on both sides with adults and students alike. The play was an adaptation of the original Twelve Angry Men (1954), with adjustments made for modernization and gender non-specific casting, changes that were made with efforts to not affect the heart of the story. The play centers on themes of innocence and guilt and tackles issues present in both time periods, such as ageism, racism, and flaws of the justice system in the United States.
“I was very concerned that the play was too dated,” said Forsythe, who had already decided on putting up the production before the move from the Marshall Campus, so the inspiration came from the black box theater, a smaller performance space adjacent to the main stage in the performing arts center at the new campus. He knew this play was a possibility; in fact, it was on a list of plays he keeps that he knows he’ll put on one day. However, the investment of the actors in the story and the message they are conveying is crucial to the success of any production. “I don’t want to do something that people don’t have some level of interest in, beyond the teacher asking [them] to do this play, because that isn’t the same as choosing it or wanting it,” he continued. “So we just read it, and I didn’t tell anyone beforehand that this was something I was considering doing, but they really got into it.”
Starting in October with Forsythe at the helm as the technical and performance director, and overlapping with the end of the production cycle of Hamlet (Franklin’s 2018 Fall Shakespeare production), the audition process began for the students in the eighth period Advanced Acting class. This was accomplished with the help of the show’s volunteer stage manager, Mia Barnes (12). “I was already spending my free periods around the black box preparing for Hamlet rehearsals,” Barnes said. “One day, I asked if Mr. Forsythe needed help, and he had me supervise auditions. It just sort of happened naturally from there.” In order to allow all of the students in the class to participate in a play with only 13 parts, what Forsythe calls a “double cast” was used to ensure equal stage time for all of the actors. For each performance, there were theoretically two actors for each role. So, with every different performance, different casts and combinations were presented to the audience, and the division of parts worked out well enough, according to Forsythe.
However, from here the consensus points towards the production cycle for the show being somewhat hectic—an understandable reality, considering the cross-over between Hamlet and the show itself, as well as the A-B schedule confining group rehearsal to just every other day, and only for an hour and a half at most. “Because it’s a class-based production, and not an extracurricular, everything depends on who’s absent, and how much time we can use,” said Barnes. Forsythe, echoing this sentiment, said, “We’re only meeting every other day, but you’re only working with half of the cast, half of the time. It’s really like rehearsing a quarter of the time you would actually want people to work.” On top of this, Forsythe and his stagecraft class had to learn how to properly operate the black box theater and all of the tech within it while also trying to put a show on inside of it, with actors and other members of the company having to spend time adjusting to the double cast, the burden of lines, and working in the new space.
“I think this was the most difficult production I’ve worked on,” said Barnes. “We definitely had a lot of hiccups, and it was sort of a day-by-day struggle of figuring out how to address various problems. Towards the end, it got pretty stressful.” The experience of being inside the black box theater, as an audience member or an actor, brought its own unique discomforts and challenges, but also created a more intimate atmosphere that benefited the show greatly. “Acting in the black box was a cool and unique experience that I am very grateful for,” said Lily Hillebrandt (11), also known as Juror #5 in the cast that performed on the show’s opening night. “You’re much closer to the audience than you are in the main stage, and that allows you to make much more subtle character decisions.” Lucy Walker (11), an audience member from the opening night, added, “The black box is great and the space was well utilized. All of the actors interacted with the audience on an intimate level that just isn’t possible in a large theater. It honestly feels like you’re in the room with the characters, a part of the story.”
Despite some of the overwhelming pressures, the show was ultimately a success in the eyes of those involved and their audience. “Although the timeline made certain aspects difficult, we came together very well in the end,” said Hillebrandt. “We always manage to pull it off in the end.” This success means that the department itself now has room to expand its season, opening up to new productions in the black box and in the main stage alike. “My plan for next year is to expand to four shows, as well as to have the One Acts here [in the black box] this year,” Forsythe finished. “We’ll have the two main stage shows, the Advanced class show, and one complementary black box performance.” The verdict is in on Jurors, a step in a new direction for Franklin theater, and it looks promising.