Process, Storying and Prejudice – Byron Abalos on Twelve Angry Men
I love being an actor. But I kind of forgot how much I really loved it. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of theatre related work – producing, playwriting, fundraising, grant writing, and new play development – but not so much actual acting. Working at Soulpepper has completely re-invigorated the artist in me and reminded me how theatre is constantly making me a better man.
We’re in week five of rehearsals for Twelve Angry Men and we’re about to head onto the stage for the first time after a month of exciting explorations in the rehearsal hall. I’ve been in a creative wonderland for the past few weeks with a group of witty, intelligent and talented artists, working to bring a brilliantly written play to life. We’ve had great discussions about complex concepts like justice, the judicial system, reasonable doubt, democracy, prejudice and human nature. For me, the two ideas that have impacted me the most are process and storying.
The process of deliberation is at the heart of Twelve Angry Men. Here we have twelve strangers, locked in a room, forced to determine a verdict for a first-degree murder charge. These men have a great responsibility thrust upon them. The fate of a boy’s life in their hands and they must have a unanimous verdict. Severed from the outside world, all they have is each other and the rigor of process. During rehearsals I was struck by the fact that in our judicial system, we select a group of strangers to be the conscience and voice of our society. I find that trust and responsibility powerful and humbling. It also struck me that it’s not a judge but ordinary citizens, people like you and me, that ultimately decide the fate of another human life.
Similarly to deliberating, rehearsing a play is also all about process. Here we have a collection of artists gathered to achieve a common goal – to tell a story that a playwright has given us in the clearest and most impactful way possible. There are many different approaches and processes for making theatre and here’s a peek at what ours has looked like: In the first couple weeks of rehearsals, we sought out resources. We researched the American judicial system, New York in the 1950s and learned about the playwright and the history of the play. We read articles, watched documentaries, shared pictures, looked at maps and soaked in as much information as we could to develop a context for our characters and the world of the play (this detective work is one of my favourite parts of the process). Of course, the script was (and continues to be) our biggest resource. We read and re-read the play. We examined the words the playwright carefully chose, broke the script down to find its structure, listened for rhythms, identified character arcs and discovered how each moment necessarily leads to another. Eventually, we got on our feet, brought the words off the page and began a long process of trial and error that continues to this day. Throughout it all, our director Alan Dilworth guides us as we make choices, explore impulses and take risks. Sometimes our choices feel wrong and so, we re-engage with this seemingly messy process. It’s kind of like trying to complete a puzzle with pieces that are constantly changing shape and without knowing what the finished product is supposed to look like. It’s a challenging process but one that will see us through if we trust it.
The second concept that has had a profound impact on me is the idea of storying. Early in the rehearsal period, Alan spoke about the importance of stories and introduced us to the simple and powerful idea that we perceive the world around us through our own story – a story shaped by our family upbringing, physical and social environment, our fears, successes, failures, and many other factors. We are complex beings that live multiple stories, which shape our world view – I am simultaneously a brother, husband, artist, Filipino-Canadian, Torontonian, basketball player and many other things. Similarly, our characters in the play see the world in a particular way filtered through their own unique stories and experiences. They have strong convictions about how the world is and how it ought to be. When characters begin to project stories on the defendant on trial and eventually, each other, problems arise. Throughout the show, it becomes apparent that the storying of others often leads to prejudice, which distances another person by labeling him or her as an “other.”
In both the play and in reality, a jury is tasked with the job of determining a verdict without prejudice, based solely on the presentation of facts. That, however, can be difficult as our prejudices are sometimes so deeply ingrained that we aren’t even aware of them. In the pressure cooker of a jury room, these twelve jurors are forced to undergo the vulnerable and difficult process of confronting their prejudices. It’s not an easy process and sometimes it’s an ugly one, but it’s one worth undertaking.
Working on Twelve Angry Men has reminded me to question my own bias and made me reflect on how theatre helps me hold the mirror up to my own nature, confront it and transform it. I’m reminded that when I watch a play or play a character, I experience it through my own story. When I witness stories on stage, I imagine myself within them, and my story is challenged to grow beyond itself. This is where the real alchemy of theatre happens – where meaning is created. By experiencing stories outside of my own story, I realize that there is more to the world than what I know and I connect with the larger story of our collective humanity. As Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye once wrote, “Although we may know in part, we are also a part of what we know.”
I love theatre and as I said off the top, I love being an actor. I can confidently say that working on Twelve Angry Men has led to me becoming one better man.
Headshot supplied. Rehearsal photo: Byron with Tim Campbell and Michael Simpson by Nathan Kelly.