Matthew R. Olsen, director for the play, “Twelve Angry Men,” gives the cast some feedback during a recent rehearsal in Wadena. The play is being co-produced by Lamplighter Community Theatre in Staples; and Madhatters Community Theatre in Wadena. It opens Thursday, Aug. 11, at Centennial Auditorium in Staples. Cast members pictured clockwise around the table are Kevin Olsen, Tamber Edin, Paul Baymler, Jerry Reck (standing), Mim Maas, Pam Collins, Carol Aspengren, Meg Litts (standing), Hallie Olsen, Don Hoffm

Audience can get caught up with jury drama in ‘Twelve Angry Men’

“We talk a lot about our own opinions and feelings,” said Olsen.

With talk of court trials, guilt and innocence resonating around the country, a play is being produced that can help people work through those connected issues. “Twelve Angry Men” is being presented by Lamplighter Community Theatre of Staples and Madhatters Community Theatre of Wadena.

Staples performances are Aug. 11-13 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 14 at 2 p.m. at Centennial Auditorium. Wadena performances are Aug. 18-20 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 21 at 2 p.m. at the Bernauer Building.

As the entire play focuses on a jury deliberating in one room, the main prop in the play is a “beautiful 10 foot table that has developed a life of its own,” said Olsen. “The table is someing that divides you but it is also the thing that brings you together.”

“The play is perfect for today’s world, it allows the audience to make up their mind how they feel about it,” said Director Matthew Olsen. “They can watch and feel as polarized as the jurors.”

To heighten the sense of audience involvement, Olsen has decided to stage the play in “theatre in the round,” with audience members on all four sides of the action.

“The audience will feel like debating right along with the jury, they can really get caught up in it,” said Olsen.

The audience will have to save their reactions until after the play, when the actors and director will lead audience discussions. “They can help people figure out where they stand, and what  can change in the social justice system.”

Another part of having the audience all around is that “they get to watch themselves,” said Olsen. “They see the actors respond but also see their neighbors, friends and others respond.”

The play is titled “Twelve Angry Men” because it was originally set at a time when only men served on juries. Olsen said he altered the gender of the characters to update it to look more like today’s society.

Besides gender diversity, the play also has diversity in the age of jurors. The cast plays characters from age 18 to in their 70s. “It’s a unique age range, to have youth and veterans working together. We also have some first timers, it is good to get them involved,” said Olsen. “That’s what community theatre is about, it is cool to have that conversation.”

The play is intimate, and the audience all around might make the actors feel a little claustrophobic, “kind of like a pressure cooker,” said Olsen.

To prepare for the performances, cast members are taking an active role in shaping the play by learning about the justice system along with their characters.

“We have been having a good time, opinions are strong and can be taxing as a team. But this play has been built as a group: they are supportive, smart and willing to explore different aspects,” said Olsen.

The actors also compare the play to some of the things happening that are socially, ethically and morally relevant in the world. “There are trials and eye-witness testimonies in the media, and people respond to that differently,” said Olsen.

He said the actors have fascinating personalities and he is finding that the mixture is “not so different than the people we are playing.”

As a result, the play is developing in its own unique way. “It doesn’t come to life until you see it,” said Olsen.

The cast is also getting into the ambiguous nature of the play. “We talk a lot about our own opinions and feelings,” said Olsen. “Through our own experiences we all have prejudices ingrained in us, and they come to the surface” through the discussions.

Olsen first became interested in “Twelve Angry Men” after seeing the movie and the play in college. “It resonates with me still. It is shocking in a great way,  the play can wake up an audience,” he said.

The play will be shorter than the movie and lends more ambiguity to the story. 

“The film is so visual, we are more clear of how we feel about each character,” said Olsen. “The play is more auditory, we experience what the jury is experiencing.”

Olsen suggested it might be worth it to see the play more than once, from different perspectives. “You might spend more time paying attention to juror number three or eight, or someone you didn’t notice the first time,” said Olsen. 

“The audience can hope to see themselves in the play,” said Olsen. “Theatre is like a mirror, it is powerful for change and for having open, honest discussions. Those are easily translated to our everyday lives.”

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