May 10, 2010

Jury Duty or Stage Management Empathy Training

I call this: random — Posted by KP @ 2:51 pm

This week I had jury duty. Actually I was summoned for March 3rd, but as I would have been performing R&J in Poplar Bluff, MO that night, I got a postponement, and happily received a revised summons for the exact date I requested, right in the middle of my month of unemployment. I don’t have any problem with doing my civic duty when I’m unemployed, but I live in terror of getting a summons when I’m supposed to be in rehearsal, or being offered a job on short notice and having to turn it down because of jury duty. So I was thrilled to get the second summons, because I want nothing more than to get it over with and rest peacefully knowing that that dreaded envelope can’t appear for another six years.

I had mixed feelings about whether I wanted to get a trial. At some point in my life I definitely wanted to experience it, but with the prospect of getting to hang out in a room with free wifi for sixteen hours, vs. being confined to a week or more of actual work all day long, I was kind of torn.

I was sleepily working on my database (I had been up since 5:45), getting kind of restless and bored, when they called the first batch of jurors around 11:30AM. Out of the room of 130, they called about 50 names, and mine was one of the last. At that point I was kind of grateful for the prospect of going somewhere and doing something. I was 21 the first time I had jury duty, and had only been called as a potential juror for one case, which I did not get put on. I never saw a courtroom or a judge, just two lawyers in a small room. Every time since then I have had to do nothing at all. So I was interested when we were brought to a courtroom where the judge, lawyers, and even the defendant were there.

The selection of the jury was a very long process. After four hours, there were fourteen of us in the jury box. I had been one of the last added, to replace someone who was removed because of some bias or potential conflict of interests. When the lawyers were allowed to choose who to get rid of, they eliminated half of the fourteen. As the names were read off, I was completely undecided about whether I wanted to be on the case. On the one hand, I was starting to have fun, and for that reason I was no longer concerned about the longer time commitment, but I was a little nervous about the responsibility of making the right decision. In my job I’m required to make a lot of decisions, some of them very quickly, a few of them involving saving people from imminent danger, but the decision to send someone to prison is a big one, and we all know that sometimes the system gets it wrong. Incidentally, we of course had to talk about our occupations, and while I was not the only professional stage manager on the jury (WTF?!), when she got to me, the judge specifically acknowledged what a responsibility it is to be a stage manager. Apparently even a New York Supreme Court judge thinks my job is stressful. More on that later.

A little bit to my surprise, I was part of the half of the jury box that was not eliminated by the lawyers, and was sworn in and then sent home while the other half of the jury was picked from a new batch of candidates.

In addition to the ringside seats for real-life drama, I found the whole experience rather refreshing from a professional perspective. Jury duty is probably the closest a stage manager can come to understanding how an actor feels about tech.

There is at once an understanding that there are very important things going on that don’t involve you, and also a frustration at the seeming randomness of things. Like being told to come in at 9:45 and then sitting locked in the jury room until 10:30 with no explanation or estimate of how long we’ll have to wait. I try not to leave my actors wondering what’s going on, but the hurry-up-and-wait nature of tech (and to a lesser extent, any rehearsal) is inevitable at times. You must be completely ready to go, and yet even when you’re told that you will be needed momentarily, you may end up standing around a while.

It also affords me a rare opportunity to be part of an organization where I can safely say, “I’m glad that’s not my job!” The court officers must have a hard time shuffling people around. In a sense they’re like the stage managers of the court, making sure everybody makes their entrance at the right time, stays away from where they shouldn’t be, knows their lines and blocking, and that the props (evidence) are ready and in the hands of the people who need them. They even handled our lunch order on the day of our deliberations, which is firmly against the rules for a stage manager. So they’re more like the non-Equity stage managers of the court, which I wouldn’t wish on anybody. I also don’t have to (get to?) carry a gun.

But my greatest sympathy goes to the court reporter. I don’t know how they actually do it. In our case they would often ask for people to repeat things, and the judge and lawyers were very proactive in asking people who spoke too fast to slow down or speak more clearly, but still, that’s a rough job, especially with people with a variety of accents and speech impediments, or thick accents and speech impediments, in one case. I think it would be like taking blocking, only much worse. And I hate taking blocking more than anything. Thankfully for me, the accuracy of my blocking, or lack thereof, has never sent anyone to prison. If it did, I think there would be a lot of false convictions!

I had never been on a jury before, but it’s my opinion that we were the most awesome jury ever. It was not an open-and-shut case, but strangely both sides must have thought it was a good idea to pick a jury of highly educated, intelligent, analytical-type people (two stage managers, computer programmers, two Ivy League professors, financial people, and various other executive and creative folks). We thought the hell out of that case, and sent a number of requests for evidence, transcript read-backs and more information. At one point we sent out a message asking for a whiteboard and/or Post-Its. Even we laughed at how ridiculous that seemed, but in a few minutes the officers wheeled in a chalkboard, and we put it to good use. It wasn’t easy to make such an important decision, but I think we were a group well suited to coming to a fair verdict.

When I was a kid attending gifted camp, one class I always took was law. We would do a different mock trial every week, alternating who took on the roles of the judge, lawyers, witnesses, bailiff and jury, and over the course of the week tried the entire case. So the basic procedures and strategies of court proceedings are something I’ve been pretty familiar with since I was nine or ten. I thought law class was awesome, but never wanted to be a lawyer in real life. However, I enjoyed it enough that I’ve always wanted to serve on a jury to get to see the real thing as a grown-up. It was a really interesting experience, and like most people I know who have served on juries (at least when they haven’t had some really pressing business to get to), I hope that when I’m called to serve in the future I get put on a trial. But for now it seems I’m off the hook for at least six years.