“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exists and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts.” As You Like It, Act II, ii, 139.
Okay. This may not be the showdown between Rocky and Apollo Creed in Rocky I. I hope that I didn’t raise false expectations. Perhaps this blog is more appropriately called, “The Eye of the Director.”
I view each new witness who comes into court like a different scene in a play. Each scene has a specific purpose. In other words, there is a reason why the writer wrote it. In one short sentence, what does the writer want the audience to learn when the lights come up in the theater? Examples would be, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” or “Love conquers all.”
Here’s an example from the wizarding world of Harry Potter. There was a zoo in Surrey where the Dursleys took their son, Dudley on his eleventh birthday and, against their will, Harry. While at the zoo, they bought ice cream, saw a gorilla, ate at the zoo restaurant, and visited the reptile house.
At first, Dudley found the place boring because none of the reptiles were moving around much. But when no one was watching, Harry discovered that he was able to speak to snakes when he realized that a boa constrictor understood what he was saying. Harry accidentally caused the glass of the snake’s tank to vanish, enabling it to escape.
If you’re unfamiliar with “Harry Potter,” as a way of background information “Parseltongue” is the language of serpents and those who can converse with them. It is a very uncommon skill, and is typically hereditary. Harry was not consciously aware of his ability to speak Parseltongue (as an aside, I don’t know how many people would) until this encounter with the snake at the zoo. With all the drama surrounding this scene, it is easy to overlook that fact that the purpose of the scene was to establish that Harry could speak “Parseltongue,” a language that is relegated to those who have descended from Salazar Slytherin, the founder of “Slytherin House” at Hogwarts.
Finding the purpose of the scene is critical for actors because it’s their job to fulfill that purpose. An actor can get lost if all they do is look at the trees. They need to ask, “Where is the path?” The purpose of the scene becomes the path that leads the actor out of the forest.
By understanding why a particular witness has been called to testify, you can understand what piece of the story he is coming in to tell. A question that actors ask that we should be asking ourselves when preparing to question a witness is, “What happened the moment before this person’s world clashed with my client’s?” What was he doing? Where was he going? What was he feeling? What events conspired to bring these two people together in an encounter that would later give rise to one person being injured and the other arrested and charged with a criminal offense?
By becoming laser-focused on your objective, you will know what information you need from this witness and what questions will help you draw it out.
You need the jury to understand the problem from your client’s perspective – what other choice did he have than to defend himself? What does it feel like to be mistakenly identified as a killer or a rapist?
This will make it easier to identify what feelings you want the jury to be left with after hearing from a particular witness.
This is an antidote to falling into the trap of “asking the one question too many” or having the witness give damaging testimony “on your watch” while you look on helplessly. Because you’re the one asking the question, the jury will be left with the impression that you’re tacitly endorsing the answer. Your stock in the jury’s eyes will fall faster than the Dow Jones Industrial Average on news of a global economic slowdown.