Monday, November 12, 2012

Speak the Speech Pt. 3

When I was a young actor, whenever I’d get cast, the first question I wanted answered was: “What’s my costume going to look like?” Would it involve a funny hat, lots of fabulous sparkles, or some other attention-grabbing bit of artifice? Later, when studying acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory in NYC, I learned that my superficiality wasn’t all bad. At least Stella Adler, one of the last American acting gurus to sit at the feet of Stanislavsky (Mr. Method Acting), believed that getting a feel for a character’s costume—most critically, the person’s shoes—provided an essential gateway into that character’s essence, along with the props, the setting, and other features of a person’s physical environment. In other words, Stella Adler’s view was that method acting worked from the outside in: you should first learn about the externalities—how a person looks—then you should develop the right voice, accent, posture, gait, bulk, and, eventually, what was underneath, the person’s authentic emotion life, would bubble up to the surface. According to Adler, actors should never try to slap on emotions but should slap on a heavy wig, platform shoes, and a big dress, if that’s what the character had to deal with. Lee Strasburg, another great American acting coach, advocated the opposite approach: start by trying to tap into a character’s authentic emotions by discovering that same emotional capacity in one’s self; worry about all the external trappings later.

But all acting schools agree on one thing: emotions cannot be put on like a costume; that is, you can’t expect a costume (and other superficial displays of emotion) to do the work for you if you hope to portray authentic human emotions.

Hamlet has some performance advice that speaks to this precise issue.

O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.

With these lines, Hamlet is urging the players not to indulge in what acting teachers today call “indicating.” This is when actors consciously “indicate” the emotions their characters are feeling so the audience will be sure to “get it,” e.g., “See how HILARIOUS this is!” “YOU CAN TELL THAT I AM REALLY, REALLY MAD NOW!” “This is the sad part; see how broken up I am?” “This guy is scary, can’t you tell by the way I am glowering and making my voice tremble?” Hamlet is so offended by this kind of fake theatricality—which reduces a character to a two-dimensional cartoon—that he would like to see actors who do it “whipped.” Indeed, he sees their crimes as greater than those perpetrated by the classic villains, like Termagant and Herod, that these actors seek to portray.

Admittedly, this tip of Hamlet’s reveals a pronounced elitist sentiment. Hamlet suggests that this kind of overacting represents a naked play for the “groundlings”—the poor folk in the cheap seats—who, in his view, are mostly incapable of appreciating anything other than mugging and splashy special effects. (If you consider the acting style on display in most American comedies and that most blockbusters involve more special effects than character or plot, it seems that contemporary Hollywood producers have the same view about what appeals to the Average Joe as the actors that Hamlet/Shakespeare berates.)

I believe, however, that the best trial lawyers know that jurors can see through surface displays of theatricality. Indeed, such jurors are more likely to suspect that they are being manipulated than to be won over by lawyers who “tear a passion to tatters.” I also believe that most appellate lawyers probably err in the opposite direction—not doing enough to show the (authentic) passion they feel for their cause. But I have seen oral arguments where lawyers seemed to think that pounding on the podium, bellowing over the judges’ questions, calling out opposing counsel in personal terms, and otherwise getting puffy and red-faced was the way to show that they had a just cause. Such tactics, though, are more distracting than effective.

Hamlet is right to say: “pray you, avoid” such antics. Over-the-top displays of emotion are no substitute for real emotion. You need to feel those real emotions; but then, like Stella Adler would probably have advised, you have to be guided by the externalities so that those emotions are calibrated to suit the forum. In the case of oral argument, that means embracing a certain costume (pressed suit and formal, sober shoes) in a particular setting (staid courtroom) with appropriate staging (standing up straight behind a weighty lectern) with the intent to assist a specific audience (learned judges who do not like being mistaken for groundlings).

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