Joel Hengstler plays Juror #8 in Poor Richard's Players's production of 12 Angry Men. Joel gave us a few insights into what makes it such a timeless play and what it's like working on the show.
What do you like about 12 Angry Men?
The main reason I love this story (and have since high school) is that it’s not merely or quintessentially a “legal drama.” The audience does not get bogged down in the details of the justice system. Rather, the audience becomes, through their own observation and internal thought process, members of the jury themselves. As such, the play quickly becomes more of a sociological insight. This play is as much about human nature and beliefs as it is about the specific defendant on trial. It deftly delves into issues of family relationships, immigration, prejudice, and socioeconomic disparity. And throughout the play, questions and issues are brought up that are the same questions and issues the jury likely has as they observe the play. While the play is a legal drama, it is told through very human eyes.
On a personal note, after my family, law and theater have been the two areas of my life for which I have had the greatest passion. This show seamlessly blends both in a poignant and ultimately heartwarming way. It’s been a dream come true to be part of this production.
What has the rehearsal process been like?
Contrary to almost every other play I’ve done, 12 Angry Men did not require a lot of strict blocking. The goal has been to make the dialogue and the movements on stage as natural as possible. Little direction was given or needed throughout at least half of the play in terms of who should stand at what time or walk to a certain place on a certain line, etc. Each of us have been given the opportunity to feel and react naturally. While certain elements need to be more scripted for fluidity’s sake, we still have had a tremendous amount of freedom to play our roles as we see fit and are only occasionally corrected if our choices didn’t quite fit the context or theme. This has allowed us to really focus on making this a character-driven production. We have spent a lot of time working on our motivations, intent, and relationships with the other jurors. The end product is hopefully a more realistic depiction of this jury, rather than theatrical.
Your day job is a lawyer, how different does it feel playing on the jury side of trial?
Ironically, and unlike almost everyone else in our country, I’ve actually wanted to be part of a jury for years. Yet I have never been called for jury duty! But in this play, it’s actually very similar. As an attorney, I have to review the evidence and present it in a way that most favors my client. As a juror, you have to review all the evidence from both sides and try to fairly conclude who wins. So, in terms of reviewing evidence, it’s similar. The difference is what you are doing with that evidence - advocating versus deciding. In this play specifically, Juror 8 is actually more of an advocate than an observer. But he’s a fair advocate – unlike attorneys, he does not have an agenda to have the defendant acquitted or convicted. He’s just trying to get to the truth. Ideally, that’s how all jurors would view their role. It’s how I would. And hopefully one day I will get that chance.
Why should audiences see 12 Angry Men?
12 Angry Men originally debuted as a teleplay in 1954, three years before it became the iconic film starring Henry Fonda. What amazes me about this play is how relevant it remains. Taking aside the fact that modern juries are no longer only comprised of men (and almost all white men at that), the issues it addresses are sometimes painfully accurate even by today’s standards. Our version eschews the strict requirements of the title by incorporating women and minorities in the cast, which makes it more relatable and accurate by modern standards. Yet the issues and the conflicts continue to be prevalent in our juries. Prejudice still influences verdicts. Personal struggles and history continue to cloud clear deliberation of the actual facts and evidence. People wish to rush to a decision to end deliberation and go back to more “important” things in their personal life without thinking of the consequences to those their decision affects. All of that is as true now as it was when the play was written. The play is important in helping the public better understand our justice system, why the jury is so important in our country, and pointing out the societal problems that have continued in our country for generations.
12 Angry Men runs March 8-24. See our shows page for more details.