Seminary revives drama program with free production; public invited to see performance

DETROIT — A dozen mild-mannered seminarians are turning into 12 angry men. And Sacred Heart is inviting the community to see their rage on stage.

Sacred Heart Major Seminary is reviving the school’s drama program with a production of “12 Angry Men,” 7 p.m., March 22-23 at the seminary's auditorium. Admission is free, but a free-will offering is encouraged.

The courtroom drama originally penned by Reginald Rose in 1954 about a hung jury deliberating a murder trial is co-directed by seminarians Ezra Lippert and Matthew Nordquist of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minn.

“About a year ago, some guys figured out I had a history with drama and encouraged me to start back up the drama program at Sacred Heart,” Lippert said. “I’m in my third year at Sacred Heart, but I learned the seminary has quite a history of theater in the past.”

Lippert’s family has long been involved in drama, so he reached out to his siblings for help coming up with a play the seminarians could pull off.  

“I asked for a clean play with an all-male cast that would be good for the public, and that leaves you with only a few options,” Lippert said. “But I heard about '12 Angry Men' from my older brother, Jonah, and I looked at the script and it seemed like the right fit.”

Co-director Ezra Lippert said the play has been a chance for seminarians to express their creativity and be seen in a different light by their fellow classmates and the community.

It’s been three years since the seminary produced a play, the last being “Seussical” in 2016. Given the turnover from year to year at the seminary, it is hard to build continuity in a drama program while men are studying for the priesthood, Lippert explained. 

“The seminary had an active drama program about 10 years ago, but after guys graduate, as so often happens, there is such a big turnover, and the program has to be handed down,” Lippert said.

Lippert and Nordquist started auditions in December, with 20 seminarians trying out for the 17 roles in the play. After getting scripts into the actors' hands before Christmas break, the cast began rehearsals in January. 

“Ezra and I sat down each person in the cast and took them through the process of how to play their different parts in the play itself, getting them to master the voice of their character and how to act in front of people,” Nordquist said. “We also have guys working on the lights, with the costumes, working on the set. It’s amazing to see guys you know from the classroom and around the school doing something different, something creative.”

Lippert said it’s great to see the seminarians revive the drama program at Sacred Heart, which is as old as the 100-year-old seminary itself.

“The auditorium goes back to the original building of the seminary, and we’re coming into our centennial year,” Lippert said. “Back in the day, the seminarians weren’t allowed to leave the seminary. So they had a movie theater and a stage in the auditorium, so they put on their own shows.”

Third-year seminarian Stephen Moening from the Archdiocese of Detroit is the head of lighting for the play, using his talent in working on the technical side of productions, but only this time using equipment from the 1940s.

“When we started, we didn’t even know how to turn on the lights, because those who had done a play before were gone,” Moening said. “So I learned how to use our 1940s lighting board and figured everything out. It’s just cool to figure out the old building. The play is a great way to invite people into our home, to visit the seminary, to see this beautiful place, and it gives you a little extracurricular activity to take our minds off our course subjects.”

The March 22 and 23 performance of “12 Angry Men” will be the first drama production at Sacred Heart Major Seminary since 2016's production of “Seussical.”

The play allows visitors to the seminary to see the seminarians in a different light, Moening added, showing the men studying for the priesthood have a variety of talents and interests.  

“For the priestly formation process, it really helps the actors out, who have to be comfortable speaking in front of a crowd, because you’ll be doing that a lot when you’re a priest,” Moening said. “But also for those doing the stage work and the background work, because it goes to show you all the people in the background helping you out during a Mass.”

Organizing and preparing for show night is allowing the seminarians to express the more creative side of their brains, Lippert said.

“Putting on this play helps a lot with self-confidence,” Lippert said. “Some of these guys haven’t had a lot of experience with the stage, so they are stretched in certain ways when they take on roles they never had before. It’s a good opportunity for stretching us out, giving us a chance to express ourselves artistically, creatively, for those in formation, and being comfortable developing new skills.”

Besides the experience for the seminarians, the play itself has a timeless message about discernment, argument, persuasion and the pursuit of the truth, which is applicable to all, Nordquist said.

“We are putting on a play that is not only going to entertain you, but also gives you an experience of asking questions and what it mean to be angry,” Nordquist said. “The play emphasizes using logic, and we live in a world that is not the most logical at times. But the play shows how people can talk through things, sometimes in an angry way, but it is OK to express that anger.

“We’ve been taught our entire lives that it is not OK to be angry, but it is important to learn how to express anger properly, and how it can be done in an appealing way,” Nordquist continued. “Those are the things people are going to see in a play that will be enjoyable and a night well spent, seeing our future priest pouring their heart into an amazing project.”