Sunday, July 20, 2008

How Jury Duty is Like Acting

I had never served jury duty before last week. As a resident of California and Washington states, when I was called to appear for jury duty, I had always claimed financial hardship due to the fact that I was a freelance worker....no work, no pay. But since I moved to New York in 2000, and they don't allow you to get out of your civic duty with such nonsense, I finally appeared when I got my first summons in 2004. I, of course, postponed my appearance as many times as I could and then I finally went down to 100 Centre St.* and appeared. And, although serving on a jury isn't exactly like acting, I thought there were quite a few similarities between the two. Enough that, while I was going through the experience, I kept being struck by how familiar it was to me. And I started to notice distinct similarities which I will expound for you now.

In show business, as in jury duty, there is a lot of waiting around. Arriving at the courthouse on Monday morning, we were told to go into the 'jury lounge' and wait. In films, this would be called going to "holding;" a place where the actors can gather until they are needed. You usually see lots of reading, ipods and cell phones here and as the day progresses and people get to know each other, you'll hear more and more conversations.

I was in the first group of names called, so then we went onto the "impanelling" or the "auditions" where the attorneys were "casting" their trial. They auditioned us with relevant questions to determine our eligibility, appropriateness and ability to be a part of the trial. Back in 2004, when I was first summonsed to appear, it was in the impanelling room that I gave my first "performance." I decided I didn't want to be on a trail, so when I was being interviewed by the lawyer who had a Spanish-speaking client, I played the part of someone who had a problem with people who didn't speak English. I was therefore excused from that trial and set free for another four years. In 2008, however, I was more myself. I was actually curious about the whole process so I decided I didn't mind going to trial and did my best at my audition, putting my best light forward and telling them how fair and honest I could be. (Coincidentally, the plaintiff in this case was a man who only spoke Spanish.)

After this lengthy process, we were all excused for lunch and told to report afterwards back in "holding" / "jury lounge" to wait for our names to be called. Just like at a chorus call or a combined audition, when you come back to see if you're on the list for callbacks, we wait until we hear our names called at the end of the day. Six of us had been cast. We weren't jumping up and down or calling our girlfriends to tell them we got it. But the similarity was still there. I got the part. I was intrigued. The judge / director came out to tell us how juries work and what to expect. It was like he was giving us our "script" and our "direction" or "motivation."

So we went home, told to report back in the courthouse at 10:30. In showbiz lingo, we'd say we were "called on set at 10:30."

Whenever you see a scene in a movie, say in a store, for example, all of the people you see shopping in the background who aren't speaking are known as Background. Most actors have done some kind of Background work. I've done my share. A lot of the experience of serving on a jury was reminiscent of that type of work. We didn't say anything, (Well, one of us had one line at the end of the trial. But that's it.) And yet they couldn't do the scene without us. We were held in a room until needed "on set" / "in the courtroom." The Bailiff was responsible for leading us into and out of the courtroom and passed along any concerns or questions we had to the judge. In films, the Background actors (also known as "extras") have what's called a "wrangler" who does all the same duties as the bailiff does; and serves as a liason between the extras and the director.

I was struck also how trials are like theater. The analogy falls apart here, though, I'm afraid, because now the jury becomes the audience as the attorneys put on these elaborate shows for us. The judge (director) moves things along and has the final say and we're just supposed to listen and observe.

In filmmaking, you work on a scene, or even a small part of a scene at a time. The same was true of a trial. We'd often have to break in the middle of a dramatic moment and the judge asked the bailiff to remove the jury. In effect shouting "CUT"--stopping all action. The attorneys conferred with the judge as the jury waited in the jury room. Just like when the lighting needs adjusting on the set of a television show. The director will call "CUT" and the actors are led off to holding while the tech crew adjusts the lights. When the set was ready (the attorneys properly reprimanded or paperwork cleared up) the jury was filed back in the judge would, in effect, call "ACTION" and the attorneys picked up exactly where they left off with the minor adjustment they had been given.

So yeah...
Maybe I need to get out more. Maybe there's lots more about life that is actually like show business. But I doubt it. I still think, despite its kinship with the trial system, show business is a unique and special creature.

*this isn't necessarily another way that Jury Duty is like acting, but I did appear once on the television show "100 Centre St." with Alan Arkin and guest star Denis O'Hare.

3 comments:

Irvine Engineer said...

A jury summons is an
invitation you can
decline. You are
not the state's slave
because someone else
has a right to a jury.

Given that it costs
you, an illegal taking
BTW, you should blow
them off.

They can't know that you
received their little
threatening note.

Jason Alan Griffin said...

Thanks for your suggestion, but I'm not suffering any burden by accepting their invitation. Not like when I was running my insurance office and it did cost me money to be out of the office.

I actually had a good time. It was sort of like a little vacation with built in entertainment.

I'd be interested in hearing you expound on your theory for getting out of jury service by ignoring it. I've never found ignoring anything to be an effective way of handling things. But I"m open to hearing more about it.

Toni at Woodhaven said...

This is really fascinating, Jay. I've never been on a jury. Closest I got was I was put into holding but I never got to audition. With my inability to literally sit through a trial, I suspect I won't ever get a chance to do my public duty.

I've never acted, but I have noticed that from an audience member's standpoint, a wedding is a lot like a play. One summer we went to 7 weddings. Same basic play over and over with different actors in the roles...