What Actors Know About Communication and Advocacy, That All Trial Lawyers Should.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)
This quote which is also echoed as “doublethink” in George Orwell’s 1984, speaks to the logical comfortability with two paradoxical thoughts, both held as being true within the same context. In addition to my life-long work as a performing professional musician, my work in the field of presentational and performance dynamics, is primarily informed by my 33-years of professional experience in the field of directing on-camera acting as a casting director, teacher and a presentation & drama coach. A skilled actor successfully holds the two conflicts of being both themselves…. AND the actual character, existing simultaneously within the imagination of that actor. Having achieved that crucial integration, they then express from their imagined consciousness of the character. And subdivide that down even further into the categories of those actors who offer a “performance” (DOING) and those who offer themselves as a channel for the imagination without restraint (BEING.) The latter was what I was looking for every time. It actually crosses the neurological line between fantasy and reality because the body doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined. That’s why some people who haver a fear of heights, feel their palms start sweating when they see a photo of record-setting rock climber Alex Honold clutching bare rock on the face of El Capitan in Yosemite. At least I do! And when an actor knows how to go to that very real place, everything that emanates from their body, registers as real and totally authentic to the audience. I’ve presided over close to half a million, high-pressure auditions for the projects I cast as an award-winning film and television casting director. I had to regularly navigate the significant time and logistical restraints to getting good, taped performances out of somewhere near 90 actors in a given casting day. As you can imagine, necessity became the mother of my inventions to get the best and most authentic performances out of those actors in the shortest possible time. And in the presence of no shortage of great fear and anxiety they may have been experiencing. Fears which required dismantling in each case. As a director and coach, I had to develop methods customized for each actor, that would produce results and produce them quickly. So I’ve had to learn MANY different ways to the same goal based on the individual person with whom I was working.
Any actor worth their salt will tell you it’s impossible to convince an audience of your being a character, if you don’t first believe it yourself-as an actor. This is the same kind of double-bind presented in Fitzgerald’s quote. A young actor came up to the great Spencer Tracy once and as an introduction said, “It’s an honor to meet you Mr. Tracy. I’m an actor too!” Tracy drolly replied, “Great, kid! Don’t ever let em catch you at it!” And therein lies the art of it. In every case, a great perspective shift is required to create a kind of palpable transparency that communicates clearly with an audience. And such is also the case for my presentational coaching clients.
There are many ways to accomplish this shift to reach that place of authenticity of actually “being” the character. And as in the Fitzgerald quote above, the truth of it is that the actor is simultaneously themselves AND the character. The headiness of actually accomplishing this hat trick is what keeps most of them coming back for more swigs of that creative elixir. In order to do so, they have to find a way to “love” the character enough to fully advocate for them in order to embody them. This advocacy is or SHOULD BE, similar to a trial attorney focused on what’s best for their client and ultimately, to serve the truth as a responsible officer of the court. And an understanding of that client is of paramount importance in that strategy. Empathy becomes of primary import because understanding stems directly from the application of it. And an advocate can’t make a jury understand a client or situation without the same empathy that an actor uses to advocate for their character. There’s an old acting adage that states, “The villain is the hero of his own story.” The reason this is true in acting, is because it’s also true in life. Sure, there are some people who do indeed do bad things while knowing it. But far less rare, are those who end up doing something that they believe serves a noble goal or purpose good enough to warrant the action at the outset. Or at least that there is some justifiable component however remote. Even if in hindsight, they grow to regret it later. Whether that’s a rationalization or an “ends justifies means” type of thinking, it ultimately ends up being true in the long run of a production. If an actor is playing someone even as evil as Hitler, he has to plumb the character for understanding of the perspective that could have produced those actions, not as an act of condonation, but of simple understanding of the the possible cause and effect of Hitler’s psychological pathology. It’s quite a balance for an actor to strike, to inhabit such a character and navigate the landscape toward such understanding. Playing the character as all-evil, just doesn’t work because almost no one really believes themselves to be all evil. The simplistic and blatant “good guys/bad guys” style of drama is best left for Saturday morning kids cartoons as the audience doesn’t yet have enough life experience to question such an un-plausible strategy.
When I’m coaching an actor in my work as an acting teacher, I don’t “direct” them into doing things the way I picture them. My job is to influence the field of their choices as the character, by stoking the actor’s imagination of what the character is actually experiencing. This requires no shortage of empathy, sensitivity and emotional intelligence from us both. And it requires the actor simultaneously accepting as true, that they are both themselves…..and the character. I believe that this emotional intelligence is the type that Fitzgerald was referencing in his quote. The effort and endeavor of truly understanding and having compassion for the characters an actor portrays, becomes very noble work if they manage to accurately hold up the mirror of society to us-their audience. Their clear depiction in that mirror, allows us to learn about who we are in the accurate reflection we see. Such realizations, can be the inspiration to heal relationships, change the course of lives and truly invoke a clearer understanding of ourselves and each other. Hardly frivolous work when done at that level. In a trial situation, a skilled advocate aware of how to navigate his or her inner landscape to fully inhabit the truth of their position, can literally teach a jury or judge about some human dynamic about which they were previously unaware. But only if the mirror held up, is equally as truthful and authentic as that transparent, un-conflicted performance from the actor. It is frequently and accurately said, the one who is the least conflicted, is the most powerful in any situation. The less someone can take from you…..or give to you, the more room for risk and freedom you have. Or even more importantly, the more you’re willing to give away in your un-conflicted stand for your truth, the more powerful you become as your considerations disappear. Narrowing the energy and consciousness of the speaker down to the fewest possible issues, streamlines the focus of that speaker’s intent. And the more focused it is, the clearer it becomes to everyone involved. This is the perspective shift on which I focus when working with my clients. It’s different for each one and requires that “sonar” I developed with the actors I auditioned for so many years. It can be difficult at the outset as the distractions that come in are always unbidden. But the tools I’ve developed out of necessity, allow the speaker access to that powerful place from an experiential standpoint. And once they fully explore and then navigate the terrain, it’s their’s for keeps as the trail of breadcrumbs is now laid out for them so they can always find their way there.
Every time I have a client crash and burn during training, my question to them is always the same. “On whom did your focus just go?” And in every case, it’s always themselves. Any time someone is fully in “the zone,” they almost disappear in terms of their experience of self. Their experience is so vital and all-consuming, they just don’t have time or bandwidth to focus on themselves because they’re too busy putting their authentic energy into the full and passionate experience of the moment. In that place, the possibility of mistakes tends to vanish or at least, minimize greatly. And even more intriguingly, what USED to look like mistakes, frequently changes as the context of their presentation changes. Now, it becomes an environment in which the only mistake that can be made, is no longer serving their audience. Almost everything else, becomes allowable in that noble pursuit.
Juries and judges are like those of us who make up the audiences of the movies and plays we watch. We read and register such un-conflicted selflessness in presenters and performers and we tend to laud them with great reviews and sometimes, awards. It’s inspiring and rings forth as what it is-Truthful! And we ALL respond to truth and authenticity no matter what the circumstances. Trying to manipulate truth, rings as inauthentic and loses the trust of those we’re trying to impact. Having assisted actors in continuously clearing the path to that unobstructed authenticity, I can tell you that Spencer Tracy was absolutely right to advise, “Don’t ever let em catch you at it!” Instead, let them catch you at the authentic, powerful presentation of your un-conflicted truth! We’ll all be the better for it!!