Bringing Drama to the Courtroom
With acting coach Gillian Drake, these Washington lawyers learn to argue cases using a range of theater techniques
WASHINGTON — 'ALL my lawyers say "Can I be Melvin Belli or Gerry Spence?" explains Gillian Drake, the voice and presence behind "Acting for Lawyers." She teaches lawyers who are more comfortable with torts than courtroom trials how to project like Paul Newman in "The Verdict."Ms. Drake, a director who studied with Stella Adler, addresses a Cobb salad over lunch as she answers a few questions about her classes. We talk about what a sense of showmanship famous lawyers like Spence, Belli, and F. Lee Bailey have in the courtroom. "Some of that is just naturally them ... they're very good at tough cases. They're very good lawyers, geniuses, and they just have a way about people, they're inspired people who know about performance." But some lawyers, she points out "are naturally qu iet. I'm not going to teach a quiet lawyer to be Gerry Spence. But they can be very powerful in their own way. Showmen often don't need my help. They're already giving a performance." As she talks about what these superstar lawyers do, she's touching on what she tries to teach her lawyer students: "They commit to the text, they own it as if it's theirs. They have a story, they want to give it away to the jury. They want an audience to love them, they want to connect to the audience, have something to give, to share with them." Drake has taught, through large group lectures, over 9,000 lawyers and done individual teaching or small groups with over 2,100 lawyers, throughout the East Coast. Her bill: $375 to $475 for the small group or individual sessions, depending on how long the classes are. The large lectures are $1,500 a day. In a recent session with three people at the Washington law firm of Duncan & Allen, which brought Drake in to coach two lawyers - John Moran and Carolyn Elefant, and law student Laurie Rickles - Drake put them briskly through their paces. She gave them a brief session of acting boot camp to loosen them up, to get them to connect and project. They work out in the rather serious atmosphere of a law office with cream walls, a navy blue rug, and bookcases filled with tomes on energy and water development appropriations. Drake wears a loose, gray silk pantsuit comfortable enough for a workout. They stamp their feet like baby elephants, shake their hips with imaginary hula hoops, do ballet-like dips and swings, deep breathing exercises, and a series of "ahhhs" low and high that end in a huge wail on a single note, like a mantra. One of the most unlawyerly voice exercises involved quacking loudly like ducks, to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." It's apparently a splendid way to loosen up your jaw, tongue, and throat, but you wouldn't want any of the firm's partners to stroll in while you're practicing. "Find that note and work on it. Your voice has to resonate in your bodies," says Drake in her best drill sergeant's tone. At one point she places her hand under a lawyer's jaw and says: "Make your voice small ... laaaalaaaalaaaa ..., then large [she growls like a lion]. Shake it out." After all the exercises designed to rid lawyers of any tenseness, stiffness, or tightness of delivery, the class looks as floppy as a trio of rag dolls. But there's one more, "the mirror," up close and personal, in which you determine the direction for moving hands and arms through eye contact only. "Follow the leader" advises Drake. "I want you to be able to see who you're talking to, and it's important to make eye contact." Then they move on to power verbs to rouse listeners. John Moran has been working on a speech about the plight of Mozambique, Carolyn Elefant on one about First Amendment rights, and Laurie Rickles whips up a talk on a vacation to Angel Falls, Venezuela. Drake listens carefully, plumping them up like pillows if they falter, suggesting emphasis, critiquing them in their delivery. The speeches improve noticeably as their authors master the words and delivery enough to give them with bravura, and always main tain eye contact. In other classes they deal with improvisation, act out roles as a fish, a flower, the hero of a poem, so that they acquire skills they need to tell their story, convince an audience, a jury, or a judge. In addition, she also coaches them on their opening and closing arguments how to get the jury to take on the story of their client as well as how to deal with expert witnesses. Is there a paradox for her in coaching lawyers, who are skilled in the rational approach, to become more emotional in their delivery? Drake nods, "That's the training, they're indoctrinated, taught a discipline of thinking, about doubting, thinking radically, going to the root of something. This idea of saying no, doubting everything, till you get to the answer. No is anathema to theater. Theater is about 'Yes, I can do it!' So there is a paradox about lawyers and actors." If she speaks with authority about the law, it's because she's been immersed in it, apart from her own theatrical training. Her father was a lawyer, used to do dress rehearsals of his cases before her mother who'd critique the performance. Her husband, Jim Moorhead, a former assistant US Attorney and federal prosecutor, is a lawyer working in a firm in Rockville, Md. "If I've got a problem with the law, I've got someone who helps me and is a resident legal expert, a very experienced trial attorney. He's even taught for me." She graduated from Bennington College, went on to get her M.F.A. in directing at Carnegie Mellon. "I also got myself through directing school working as a paralegal secretary for a lawyer in New York City who was afraid to go to trial. He had to farm out his trial cases." Finally she studied with the famous Stella Adler, "a brilliant actor ... When I started working with lawyers, I saw how you could reach into a definite nonactor, and pull a huge performance out of him. And it's all Stella. She taught me an enormous amount."