GUILFORD — Can a high school play change students and influence their future careers?
Student actors and technical crew members at Guilford High School pondered the experience while preparing for the play, “12 Angry Jurors,” a drama about a teenager facing the death penalty for killing his father.
The play runs Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 7 to 9, at 7 p.m. at Guilford High School, 605 New England Road, Guilford.
The drama brings together 12 disparate individuals, each angry about something, who clash when they can’t reach a unanimous vote on the death penalty for the teen.
“I found ways to deal with conflicts instead of just getting angry. I feel my view of society has widened. Knowing yourself – the idea of community – being forced to work together changed me,” said Cassidy Planas, a junior who plays Juror number 7. “Before the play, I just knew there was a death row. But after, I was connecting with the young man, and it was more real. I understand what goes into the decision,” she said.
Luke Standrowicz, a senior who plays Juror number 5, was inspired by the play to write about it in a college application essay. “Why are they angry? Why do they hold their beliefs” that they bring to the courtroom jury room?
Planas said she became “aware of my personal being, my tone of voice, understanding how we interact in this decision.”
Standrowicz spoke of his difficulty playing “a jerk.”
The teen actor added, “He was hard to portray because he says horrible things. I had to act like I really believed what he said, and that was hard for me. But it improved my acting through this experience.”
Because the actors are onstage the entire show, much of their work involves “active listening” to the other jurors, and that was a challenge, Standrowicz said. “You can’t hide.”
Planas agreed. “The worst part was the physical exhaustion, the difficulty of active listening. You say nothing, but your body language has to communicate.”
Both students talked about the societal impact of the play.
“It was a reality check,” added Planas. She plays an Islamic character “where I haven’t lived. I was looking that reality in the eyes. What happens in the news is really happening now.”
“It’s a metaphor for society,” Standrowicz said.
While the play portrays the trial as an element of democracy, Planas said, “It goes further than everyone deserves a fair trial. It involves compassion and empathy for the boy and interpretation of the boy’s life of abuse and the crime.”
As the two actors, moved onstage for a run-through before opening night, three students who lead the technical side of the production sat quietly observing in the audience front seats.
Lauren Wolczyk, junior and costume designer, had her eyes on the men’s suspenders and noted the “nitty gritty details. All the details of the pieces need to match; colors need to go together with the characters.” She supervises a big costume crew and gathered insights from all the students. Guilford High School has saved 30 years of costumes from past productions that are stored in the former Science building nearby. The team also scours thrift shops for costumes to fit the 1950s period of this play.
Abby Pinckney, a senior and stage manager, followed the action intently, checking to see if the schedule she created was being followed.
Ava Sheard, a junior and props crew chief, organized her large student team into assignments such as modifying props and building the large jury table. She and her team are guided by teacher Nicholas Ripa, technical director.
The school also has a big closet with antiques and other props stored in specific categories, such as a shelf for typewriters or another for floral design. Her job includes keeping track of everything for the show.
Other groups under her management secure the correct props such as the hanging overhead lights, an American flag, and a clock for the 1950s-era jury room. They provide personal props such as the cloth handkerchiefs the actors use in the hot, non-air-conditioned room of the period.
The three teens said they had acquired skills to help them in future careers as well as life.
“I experienced developing and keeping schedules for nights of the shows, call times, when to be in costume and makeup, when to eat on rehearsal days, and call for places,” recounted Pinckney, the stage manager. “I chose the technical side of theater because I liked learning how the many parts of the production are inter-connected. It’s a sense of achievement when it all comes together.”
Even with all the available resources of the costume archive, Wolczyk said she has learned a valuable skill: “Flexibility! When we had a dress rehearsal with all the actors in costume, nothing looked right. We had to change it all, not settling for ‘good enough.’ We should be ‘amazing’ even when everything goes wrong.”
Sheard as props crew chief said she especially loved “the creative collaboration with all of our ideas coming together for the bigger picture.”
Planas, who acts as a juror, agrees and credits their drama teacher, Cara Mulqueen-Teasdale, with bringing them all together as a community.
Mulqueen-Teasdale has chaired the Theatre Arts Department for 10 years and believes “serious live drama is a great academic experience. With this play, the students come together to learn what a huge responsibility it is to have a democracy. You can read about it in civics classes, but here is an involving experience. How does it feel to be isolated – as one juror is — and how does it feel to stand up for your beliefs?”
While the play was originally titled “12 Angry Men,” in this updated version she was able to change the jury structure to five female and seven male students, “giving a different interpretation of the same lines,” she said.
“These drama students are pretty mindful. They come from all walks of life in the school. They cherish each other. In preparing for the play we talked about the parent-child dynamic and how to make a place at the table for all.”
She praised Ripa, a young teacher on the staff who is technical director for the department.
“His students do everything! He establishes a terrific collaboration between the technical side and the acting side of the production. He’s patient and inclusive and will take on any challenge. There were students who had never handled a power tool, but he taught them to do it safely,” she said. Ripa has grown the program to three sections of technical arts education.
She also praised the Theatre Arts Parents Support (TAPS) group. Knowing the enormous energy teens use to perform their lines and prepare the sets and costumes, parents provide rehearsal meals. They create lobby displays and other publicity. And as many parents whose children are involved in sports, they also drive their drama kids to rehearsals and performances.
“Community,” Mulqueen-Teasdale said of the drama experience.
Tickets at $10 each are available from www.ghsta.weebly.com or
1-800-838-3006. Also available at Palumbo’s Automotive and the Nathanael B. Greene Community Center, 32 Church St., Guilford.
Guilford High School has been designated an Exemplary High Performing Schools National Blue Ribbon School for 2019 by the U.S. Secretary of Education. The high school is one of 362 schools in the nation and one of four schools in Connecticut to be recognized in 2019.