Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Neither Anushka Mehta ’15 nor Sara Morell ’15 intended to participate in theater this semester. Both had decided the commitment would be too much. “The director isn’t just directing in the rehearsal room,” Morell said, “but also constantly directing all the different moving parts that will go into the show.”
One show, “Twelve Angry Men,” was able to change their minds and prompt the pair to take on directing their first full-length show in the Lang Performing Arts Center (LPAC). “For both of us it was the dream show that we would decide to do theater again for,” Mehta said.
“Twelve Angry Men,” written in the early 1950’s by Reginald Rose, takes place in one room where 12 jurors must deliberate and come to a decision on a homicide case. “Fundamentally, 12 Angry Men is a show about why people make the choices that they do,” Mehta and Morell wrote in their director’s note on the show’s program. “It’s incredibly character-driven. It focuses on what happens when people are thrown together for an undefined period of time and forced to make a decision in that constricted setting.”
While the directors did a lot of planning ahead of time, for a play that has every character on stage for the entire duration of the show, casting actors was an especially key step in realizing the show. There were some hiccoughs in the process, and a second round of auditions had to be held, but ultimately, Mehta and Morell cast their twelve jurors with a mix of actors, some brand-new to theater and others with years of experience. “So many different people with so many different perspectives on the show and on what they were getting themselves into were literally brought to the table, in a parallel way to the way that the 12 different jurors were brought to the table,” Mehta said.
After assembling the cast, the directors made sure that each actor connected with and gave an identity to the juror they would be playing. They played a game in which each actor would go on the “hot seat” and have to answer personal questions from the perspective of their character. “It’s a collaborative process,” Morell said. “We wanted our actors to be able to say that they had certain thoughts about their characters that would make them fuller and richer more three-dimensional.”
That attention to character development was a key part of the evolution of the show and one of the reasons why the directors felt passionately enough to direct it. “The thing that I love about the show is that the entire thing takes place in one room and none of the characters necessarily know anything about the other characters,” Mehta said. “It’s just 12 people thrown together and forced to discuss the events of a trial. Everything you find out about the characters and their personal stories and back stories is through how they argue for or against the acquittal of the accused. You can’t learn anything about any of the characters without hearing what they’re arguing.”
In rehearsal, much of the important work that went into creating a complete show from a script and a group of actors happened naturally as the 12 jurors interacted. “All of these moments are developing because they are on stage together all the time—they are constantly interacting with everyone else on stage,” Morell said.
The directors were committed to ensuring that the deliberation of the jurors was recognized in a larger context. They highlighted “the idea that the discussions going in the room had very real ramifications for someone,” Morell said. “That decision has an impact on someone’s life. That’s why we put the accused on the stage with the jurors.”
During the show, the person accused of the homocide in question was visible, and occasionally emphasized with lights. “It reminds the audience that there is an end result to that arguing and it’s not just about people disagreeing but about what is going to happen after they leave that room,” Morell said.
For Mehta, the first moment that she knew that the ensemble had built a show worth sharing took place during a rehearsal in a classroom in Kohlberg. “With the exception of the acting, there was nothing that would make it a show— there was no lighting, no sound, no set—and that was the first time that I saw the actors make it a show without needing any of those other things,” she said. “The energy was really buzzing—to the point that it felt like an organic conversation as opposed to actors spewing out lines that they memorized.”
For Morell, that moment happened after the big move to performing in LPAC, when the actors adapted to the larger setting. “It clicked with all of them to really take advantage of all they had been given in terms of props and set and costumes,” she said.
When the show was finally performed, Morell and Mehta watched from the balcony – a perch that allowed them to see both the audience and the stage. Though for the most part they felt exhilarated, the two also felt “nervous apprehension because you’ve seen all the rehearsals and you know the specific moments that could go wrong,” Mehta said.
“You have no control at that point and can only really be proud of the end product,” Morell said. “It can be stressful—in the second run we had a minor tech problem and started really late. And as a director, you’re sitting there thinking, I can’t go into the tech booth and ask why we’re starting late, I’m not allowed to do that anymore, that’s not my job any more.”
Both, however, enjoyed watching the audience. “It was so wonderful to see people appreciating work that we put in over the past few months,” Mehta said, “To see people holding the railings because they were nervous, or hearing a gasp after a moving monologue.”
Also thrilling were moments when audience members thought coincidences or snafus were intentional decisions. The directors were asked if they had turned the heat up in LPAC to create tension, and no one guessed that it was a tech problem that led the second show to begin with a black, silent stage. “With theater, things change slightly every night,” Morell said, “and the performance that people see is always slightly different depending on which show you go to or where you are sitting in the audience. And that is special.”
With the conclusion of the show, Morell and Mehta find themselves at the bittersweet junction of proud reflection and sadness at the ending of the experience. Neither knows for sure if she will do theater again, but these two directors have the distinction of having done their dream show justice.
Photo by Elena Ruyter/The Daily Gazette