The American Century Theater (TACT) opened its doors in 1995 with a production of Twelve Angry Men. That’s the teleplay from the golden age of live TV that, like many of the best of those (Marty, Bang the Drum Slowly, Requiem for a Heavyweight), was turned into a memorable film. It was only a matter of time before the single setting and the plethora of juicy roles invited a further morphing of the material into a stage play.
Last year, it was announced that the season about to end would be TACT’s last. And, in a move that closed the circle of the company’s existence in an elegant way, its final production is the same as its first: Twelve Angry Men.
Version 2.0 opened to strong reviews. On DCTS, Brett Steven Abelman wrote that “American Century Theater sets the example for bowing out with grace and passion with Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men.” On DCMetroTheaterArts.com, Karim Doumar said “The American Century Theater’s production of Twelve Angry Men, written by Reginald Rose, is stunningly marvelous. This is theater at its finest.”
I began a recent conversation with Jack Marshall, the founding (and, events now dictate, the only ever) Artistic Director of TACT, and the director of its first as well as its final production, by asking him how the play felt now, in 2015, the second time he has done it. He responded by telling me that this is actually his fourth time directing the play.
Marshall told me that this play “taps into all sorts of things that will never be out of date.” Reginald Rose, who wrote the teleplay, “was firing on all pistons when he wrote this baby. It transcended his own aspirations for it. It was a brilliant idea.”
The eponymous twelve are, as many readers are no doubt aware, a jury. These days, controversies surrounding the judicial system, and how different communities are treated within that system, are in the headlines with depressing frequency. It would seem to be a particularly apt time to revive this play.
Marshall points out that the previous TACT production occurred when headlines were preoccupied with the O.J. Simpson trial and the uncomfortable and fraught questions that it raised. The timelessness of the piece was thus underlined. “It’s that rare beast that can’t go out-of-date, as long as human beings are like human beings.”
TWELVE ANGRY MEN
Closes August 8
American Century Theater
Gunston Arts Center
2700 S. Lang Street
Tickets: $20 – $45
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Marshall continued: “There’s no question in my mind that the play is as much about men as it is about juries and justice.” I had asked him if he had ever had an impulse to open the play up to a diverse cast as regards gender. He argued that the DNA of the play is wrapped up in the circumstance that all of the characters are male, and he cited the locker room (“who’s dick is bigger?”) and called the play a “testosterone-fest. It’s a play about how males interact. There’s an underlying possibility of violence.” With women as characters, the play wouldn’t be the same. “Men act differently with women around. You could write an interesting, good play about a diverse jury. But I concluded that it wasn’t fair to the script to change any of those characters.”
The stage adapter, however, had no such compunctions. It was a writer (Sherman L. Sergel) other than Rose who adapted the teleplay for the stage. Marshall called the result “horrific” and said that Sergel misunderstood the play. “The subplot of our production is that, when we first did it, I couldn’t get a license to do the script as Rose wrote it.” The only script available for production was Sergel’s “mixed gender piece with the awful title Twelve Angry Jurors.”
Determined to honor the original, Marshall went to the tapes. His “long-suffering wife” transferred the dialogue of the original via dictaphone, and that’s “the only script I’ve ever done.” At the time of the ’96 production, he spoke with Rose, who died in 2002, and apologized for ignoring the authorized stage version. Rose’s response? “‘Thank God! Pay those guys and then do the right version. You are making the author happy.’ So, we had the author’s permission.” By the time Roundabout Theatre Company in New York revived the play on Broadway (and for a subsequent national tour that came through town), Rose had managed to supplant the bowdlerized stage adaptation and audiences were seeing his preferred version.
The decision to close
After Marshall proclaimed that “it’s perfect for us to end with this play,” our discussion moved to the decision to shutter the company. When I last interviewed Marshall a few months before the decision was announced, he had seemed to be as committed to the importance of and the viability of the company’s mission as ever, and to be looking toward the future. The announcement surprised me. It seemed sudden.
Marshall said that, although the decision was sudden, “the various circumstances that led to it weren’t fast at all.” He pointed to the production of Judgment at Nuremberg, which concluded the previous TACT season. (Full disclosure: I was in the cast of that production.) He called that an “important production” of another teleplay from the golden age of television, one that grappled with a weighty subject, with important history, a play that no other company had done. Though audiences were enthusiastic and, eventually, strong in number, “it felt like we weren’t making progress.” The struggle to increase resources and to broaden the profile of the company was stagnating, despite his belief that the production values and the artistic product were “as good as ever.”
Producing impressive theatre with limited resources is a particularly draining challenge. “If you encourage people to kill themselves [working on the productions] — well, where are we heading, where is the promised land? But there wasn’t any promised land. We were not getting out of Gunston [Arts Center.] The Washington Post is less than enthusiastic about our mission. The County [Arlington] is increasingly withdrawing from its commitment to the arts and is giving small theatre the back of their hand. Helen Hayes [theatreWashington, administrators of Helen Hayes Awards] never set up an organization that would strengthen smaller companies.” The result, he said, was a feeling that TACT was being marginalized.
Marshall highlighted the importance of luck in determining which companies prosper and grow, and which struggle and close. He said that TACT got close a few times to grabbing the brass ring, and being able to “move up to the next step. But I was never able to devote myself full-time to finding that. So, after twenty years, when we were doing some of our best work, with money in the bank, in no financial peril, better off than we’d been in a long time,” he decided that it would be best for the company to “go out on top rather than to wait until things turned and we’d leave under debt and after everyone had moved on.”
Once the decision to close had been made, the next decision was “whether to end then or to do one final year, a victory lap.” He chose the latter path. Looking back a year later at the difficult decisions? “I’m comfortable with it.”
“I am not optimistic about the future of live theatre.”
Contemplating the state of the art, Marshall said that “I am not optimistic about the future of live theatre. It’s harder to maintain integrity.” The costs of producing and the crowded DC scene create conflicts that encourage groups to “capitulate and do pop cultural crap as an alternative to going broke. It was easier for us. Our mission prevented us from capitulating.”
Also, there is the problem of the graying of the audience. “It’s harder to find younger audiences, and that’s been my greatest frustration.” An audience survey placed the median age of a TACT audience member at 65. “That does not make me sanguine about the future.”
At the same time, Marshall was as enthusiastic as ever about the base TACT mission: producing work from a golden age of American theatre, plays that would otherwise be in danger of being neglected. “It’s unbelievable. We just scratched the surface. I have a boatload of plays and musicals I would still want to do.” Looking back on the early part of the last century, he pointed out that, during any two week period, about as many shows would open on Broadway as now open over an entire season.
And, as each technological development occurs, theatre goes “down one more notch.” Like ballet and opera, theatre is in danger of falling into the category of something “high-priced, elitist, that the average person doesn’t get to see. When the history is written, the period we are in now is the gradual decline of Broadway and live theatre as a viable and vigorous art form.
“The economics of theatre doesn’t make sense. Could The Great White Hope be written and produced today? I doubt it. A play with 30, 40, 50 cast members? You can either have performers paid what they deserve, or a vigorous and viable theatre, but you can’t have both.” The result of that economic imperative to keep casts small and the scope of plays affordable is “less jobs, less opportunities to act.”
But “most people don’t go into theatre for the money. They go into it for the art, unless they are insane.” On a less depressing note, “there will always be the back alleys and the small theaters, because the nice thing about theatre is that all you need is an audience and a performer for theatre to come alive, and that will always be there.”
Marshall never took a salary for his entire tenure as Artistic Director of TACT because “I’d rather see the money go into the shows and to compensate actors. I felt bad for every non-Equity contract when we were not paying an actor what they deserve.” But part of the company’s mission was also to keep the work affordable, because theatre, “like baseball, is losing traction with kids because families can’t afford to take the family to it. We’re going to lose the next theatre generation because of that. The economics of the art is what’s strangling it.” Accessibility is “right up there as one of our three main missions: keeping threatened works from falling into the cultural amnesia; giving rising performers a chance to show what they can do; and providing affordable theatre that families can come to.”
If Marshall is at peace with the choice to end the run of TACT, he does admit to some frustration. “I get angry about it. If things had broken a little differently — there were five or six tipping points — if we had been lucky, things might have turned out differently. But, subsequent developments, especially with Arlington County and theatreWashington, have convinced me that it was an even better decision than I thought at the time.”
Marshall spoke about his father, a decorated soldier, “full of dignity, pushing himself to stay independent, facing a bad year. He knew his body would quit, and he didn’t like that. He wanted to go out right. So he took a nap and he never woke up. That’s the way for people to go, and for organizations — to know when to hang it up.”
Twelve Angry Men is “perfect for us to end with. Every one of the actors in the show have worked with us many times.” Six or seven of them have been in more productions than any other actors. “It’s what the company did at its best. It’s as good as anyone’s going to see this play. It’s an example of all the things we do well: ensemble shows. I’m happy about it. It’s a good way to go.”
And what does the future hold for Jack Marshall?
He expects he’ll feel a little empty when this show closes. “It’ll be the first time I don’t have another production to worry about. But I’m not retiring. I’ve spent at least half of my life caring about things like starting organizations, institutionalizing things, discovering artists, helping people along. I’m a risk-taker with an organizational background who likes to see how to make projects viable and exciting. I’m going to see what crazy idea strikes me next. There’s always another project around the corner.”
Marshall ended with an invitation for anyone who would like to talk about or brainstorm about the future to do so with him. But he’s not concentrating on that future just yet. “I never liked to look past what I’m doing till I’m through with it.”
Twelve Angry Men runs until Aug. 8th. After that, let the conversations begin.