Friday, November 30, 2007

Alan Arkin on Acting (and Lawyering?)

Ever since I had the chance to attend seminars with Josh Karton, (the actor and writer turned trial lawyer instructor) I've been fascinated with how much lawyers can learn from actors. After all, when we're in trial, why not apply the techniques of the people whose specialty is captivating a live audience? Why try to reinvent the wheel in the courtroom when the techniques of the stage translate so well?

Josh Karton assisted Neil Kaytal before he argued Hamdan v. Rumsfeld before the Supreme Court and reportedly was able to get the brilliant law professor to be much more persuasive by placing nine of his kids' teddy bears in chairs before him during "warmup" arguments. This got the obviously extremely intellectual law professor to speak much more like he would if he'd been at home, telling his wife and kids about why the case was so important, rather than as a law professor making his first Supreme Court argument.

Some will laugh at that idea, thinking that the Supreme Court makes it's decisions purely intellectually, having no time for theatrics, "tricks," or teddy bear talk.

But you can't argue with the result, as Hamdan represented one of the most decisive blows to the excesses of the Bush administration thus far.

So I've tried to read up on the subject (even though an author I love, Anna Devere Smith, accurately says that "talking about acting is like dancing about architecture") and came across a book called "The Actor Speaks:Twenty-Four Actors Talk About Process and Technique" which features interviews of actors discussing their craft. The best interview is that of Alan Arkin, and includes this quote:

“The only time I was able to have a good time was when I got to the point in the role was playing me. When I wasn't acting anymore. It happened to me for the first time I was 19, and I became a junkie for that experience. The driving force, not only of my work of my life, is that experience. When you're not doing it anymore, it's just happening. You were just off somewhere in the sideline going “ Go, Go! Don't stop! It's okay!” Doing 50 things you never did before and that you’ll never do again. It’s playing you. The first time it happened was a play... I was playing something that I had no understanding of it all, a soldier home on leave, a husband and a father -- none of which I had ever experienced. I killed myself on the production... Then in one of the dress rehearsals, I went on stage, and I was no longer there. The character was there, and I just had to get out of the way. It was like downhill skiing on an endless perfect run, or surfing the perfect wave in Hawaii. Someone once asked me if it was an out of body experience. It never occurred to me that it was but the way people describe it, it feels that way. I felt like it was 40 feet away watching the performance. All my critical faculties were off with my observer, but onstage there was nothing but the character. Both of those people were me.

What took me years and years to find out was that this experience could happen to anybody in any walk of life. I became a junkie for acting, because I felt that the power of that experience lay in acting. It took years to discover that it didn’t lay in acting, it lay in me. Experiences like that cannot happen unless you are deeply devoted to whatever you're pursuing.”

I've been trying to become a good trial lawyer since I believe in the "role" trial lawyers play and also because I've found what my trial ad teacher told me to be true. He said something to the effect of "It's often a lot of work but unlike some other areas of the law, it's occasionally exhilarating."

But I've also found it true that the "experience" is rarely "exhilarating" unless I'm "deeply devoted to whatever [I'm] pursuing."

This experience reminds me of something Josh Karton said when I had the opportunity to work with him at Trial Lawyers College. I don't remember the quote exactly and haven't reviewed my notes in awhile, but remember him saying something like: "When you care about the audience's experience more than your own, something magic happens."

Doesn't Karton's advice sound like it will take you to that place Arkin described when he "felt like it was 40 feet away watching the performance."

As lawyers it's not about us, it's about the client, but if our "performance" motivates the jury and thus helps the client, don't we all need to realize what took Arkin "years and years to find out", that the experience of really connecting with an audience and using your own exhilaration to help your client win "could happen to anybody in any walk of life," even a lawyer whose law school experience probably taught her to check her emotion and heart at the door of the courtroom?


Mark Bennett said...


I think that Arkin is talking about mindfulness (see my posts on the subject).

Josh Karton is coming to Houston in May to teach us how to be better trial lawyers.

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