Over the past month, theatre-goers across Mississauga came together in-person and online to decide the fate of a man on trial in an interactive play – “Terror” staged by Crane Creations.

If you were were invited to a night out on the town to see a performance during the holiday season, I wouldn’t blame you if spending 2 hours serving jury duty wasn’t quite what you had in mind. But this is no ordinary trial – and if our television viewing habits are of any indication, courtroom dramas are definitely entertaining and captivating to the masses who eagerly watch the presentation of evidence and shocking revelations to decide for themselves whether they think the accused was truly guilty – or otherwise.

Last month’s premiere of “Terror” by Ferdinand Von Schirach sought to take it one step further – by not only immersing audiences in the historic surroundings of Clarke Memorial Hall, but also those choosing to attend virtually via an innovative 360 degree camera mounted directly in the centre of the courtroom – bringing viewers from home right into the middle of the fray.

Watch and experience for yourself below!

There’s always been a global fascination with dramatic trials portrayed on stage – one doesn’t have to look too far to find its kin among some theatre classics: Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” which saw young women accuse their townfolk of witchcraft and hallucinatory images of birds among the audience, to the racially-charged To Kill a Mockingbird that famously segregated its audiences by race, or even Twelve Angry Men which saw the jurors who ultimately decided the fate of the murderous young man all remain nameless throughout the entrety of the production.

Terror takes this all a step further and places you in that very jury seat – as an audience member you are not merely a spectator but an active part of how the remainder of the show plays out. Crane Creations describes the overall premise as follows:

Lars Koch is on trial for murder after shooting down a hijacked commercial flight with 164 passengers aboard. Is he a national hero, or a cold-blooded killer? You have one last chance to decide on his fate: Guilty, or Not Guilty.

Crane Creations

The over 2-hour long trial examines the motivations, pressures and reasoning behind Lars Koch’s decision – Conor Ling portrays him as a stoic, intelligent young man who stays relatively quiet and reserved throughout; his countenance cold and (mostly) unremorseful and his delivery analytical – a man who did what he had to do and stands by it.

This is contrasted by the more dramatic turns by State Prosecutor Nelson played by Asha Ponnachan – who exudes a confidence and poise that fills the space far beyond her petite frame. Here, her character stands on the side of justice on behalf of the victims as she advocates for justice in the wake of their loss, appealing to the audience for a Guilty verdict as she drills the witnesses with a sharp intensity that keeps the trial at a brisk pace. She more than holds her own against Justin Otto‘s Defence Counsel Biegler – who entered from the house and immediately drew the attention from the room and whose booming rhetoric took full advantage of the hall’s acoustics better than any stage mics could deliver – towards the close of the play he delivered an admonishing monologue that resonated through the rows of those assembled, it was as though the whole audience was holding their breath in unison.

Above: MAC Member and Actress Asha Ponnachan greets Mississauga Arts Council’s Executive Director Mike Douglas following the final verdict.

For those familiar with Philosophical thought experiments, watching this play immediately brings to mind the Trolley Problem which questions the ethics of killing a person in order to save more in the path of a speeding trolley car. The premise so closely paralleled this that it is even referenced towards the play’s close.

This was popularly conveyed in “The Good Place” – with very literal (and graphic) representations of the outcomes of this quandary:

How would you vote?

According to Crane Creations, “Terror has been performed all around the world from Tokyo to Tel Aviv; from Bejing to Cape Town; from Istanbul to Caracas. So far there have been 2560 trials, and 549,630 jurors around the world.”

Countless audience members have had their opportunity to weigh in and cast their vote; among our group, the murmurs around the room revealed a very diverse subset of Mississaugan demographics among a range of ages and ethnicities, students and retirees, artists and attorneys, journalists and athletes all in the mix. So there was little to indicate which way the votes would go before at long last, we all silently stood and one by one, cast our paper voting slips into a clear acrylic box – transparently showing each vote within but not what they contained.

There was a brief recess wherin the slips were carefully sorted and tallied, bolstered perhaps by the votes made by viewers watching online. Another moment of held breath before the final verdict was read: “Not Guilty”.

A chorus of sighs, groans and a few cheers were heard among the audience, which was sure to be good conversation fodder as the audience shuffled out on the way home. Out of the 6 times this trial was staged over the course of its run, only twice did Mississauga’s audiences find the defendant guilty.

And we go on to wonder if the compositional makeup of the cast – if the characters were portrayed more or less sympathetically, or looked different – would this sway the votes at all? It would be interesting (and altogether complex) to see a staging wherein the actors swap roles each night to put this to the test.

In the end, one asks – what does this mean about the moral and ethical ideals in our city? Are we – as evidenced by the results of this play-cum-social experiment – much more Utilitarian? And when faced with a difficult decision – how wiling are we to have the ends justify the means?