Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 October 2020

'Jury Duty' is a new frontier in interactive online theatre

Part-escape room and part-Cluedo, 'Jury Duty' will have you rethinking the possibilities of Zoom theatre

Eddie Andrews plays the role of the defendant Harry Briggs in 'Jury Duty'. Courtesy: Jury Games 
Eddie Andrews plays the role of the defendant Harry Briggs in 'Jury Duty'. Courtesy: Jury Games 

Earlier this year, a fire engulfed an office building on Tabernacle Street, London. Firefighters and police arrived at the scene to find a man, Harry Briggs, leaving the burning building, looking dazed and bleeding from the head. More suspiciously, he was reeking of paraffin.

After a body was found inside the building, Briggs was arrested and charged with arson, manslaughter and murder.

That is the premise of Jury Duty, a new type of interactive theatre by Jury Games, a company creating immersive online experiences. And it is also where we – the participants/jurors – come in.

Spread out all over the world – from California to London to Dubai – 12 of us log into our Zoom accounts to play a pivotal role in determining the story’s outcome. The participants will be the ones to decide whether Briggs is guilty of the charges he is facing. Did he set fire to the building? Did he accidentally kill the man found dead inside? Was it a premeditated act?

A co-ordinator greets us as we enter the online meeting room. She tells us about the case before explaining the charges Briggs is facing and what they mean within the context of the UK judicial system.

Most of us taking part in the experience do not know each other, but become acquainted as we sift through evidence – arrest reports, social media posts, psychologist reports, as well as emails and voice recordings – probing for clues and peculiarities.

There is Katie, the natural leader of the group, who divides the evidence among us, giving us the task of spotting anything that might help us reach a verdict.

There is Michael, who is unwaveringly distrustful of the accused, even if the evidence seems to point to his innocence. Julia is a lawyer by profession and brought her judicial insights to the game. I volunteer to interrogate Briggs – played by actor Eddie Andrews. And just when I reach a conclusion that feels right, I receive a mysterious email that makes me rethink my deductions. We have to figure out what really happened the night that building on Tabernacle Street caught fire. After all, none of us want to send a possibly innocent man to prison for 28 years.

Part-escape room and part-Cluedo, Jury Duty will make you reconsider what live theatre is and could be in a digital form. There is no right or wrong way to play. You can either actively take part in the experience, sharing your suspicions and conclusions with the other jurors, or you can observe the proceedings until the time comes to cast your vote.

Unsurprisingly, Jury Duty came about as a response to the limitations brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. With performing arts venues closed and social-distancing measures in place, creatives Tom Black and Joe Ball began discussing ways of delivering a unique theatrical experience through Zoom.

“Tom came to me with the idea,” says Ball, who directs and runs shows created by Jury Games. “We played around with the idea. Tom originally wanted to do it with just one audience member, a really intense one-on-one chat, and I thought why not upgrade it to a full 12-member jury?

By the end of June, once the showrunners tested the concept and took it on a few trial runs, Jury Duty went live. “It has been edited a bit since we first started,” Ball says. “The story has been developed and we have been experimenting with different voting methods.”

Jury Games has hosted 100 shows in the past three months. Individual tickets cost £17.50 (Dh83). Group bookings for friends or companies that want to play the game as a team-building exercise are available.

Andrews says Jury Duty shares a number of elements with escape-room games but there is an important aspect to the experience that makes it live theatre.

“You look through evidence, you search databases, you look for clues,” he says. “But anything that does not quite sit right with you, you then have to take it back to the accused and ask him about it. If you just talk to him, you will not find out what really happened. If you just look through the evidence, and don’t ask him the right questions, you will not get the correct answer either.”

Andrews points out that not every member of the jury is given the same evidence. Jurors have to pool their findings to reach the correct conclusion. Communication is essential. “The idea is to keep it as immersive as possible,” he says.

But being an online show means there are challenges to consider. “Sometimes, we have audience members go through technical difficulties, but we help them through it,” Ball says. “There was one show where my laptop decided to quit on me, but thankfully it fixed itself a minute later.”

Nevertheless, the group has made sure to keep things as technically simple as possible. The main focus is the story and where the audience will take it. The experience is particularly rewarding for the actors involved, Andrews says. Mostly because they never know how an audience member is going to interrogate them.

“The way you speak to the accused completely changes the way the accused reacts with you,” Andrews says. “So if you go in there and you are rude, harsh, or direct, you will get a certain type of response from him. But if you go according to the psychologist’s advice, you’ll get an entirely different type of response. And there is no real way that actors are going to play Briggs exactly the same way.”

Though the central story of Jury Duty stays the same, Andrews says, no two nights are alike, thanks to the way players steer the story.

“It comes entirely from the audience. And sometimes, it’s electric.”

The next Jury Duty is on Thursday, September 24. For more dates, visit jurygames.com

Updated: September 23, 2020 05:43 PM

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