Give the beginner actor a script, put him on stage and something all too familiar happens. Instantly, the actor’s attention turns inward and he begins to hear a voice inside his head – the insidious voice of the inner critic.
As an actor, I’ve learned that there is one place that you never want your attention to be. On yourself. An actor who makes himself the focus of his attention might just as well have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.
Consciousness of self is as toxic to the actor as venom is to the cobra. When we are in our heads, we become judgmental, critical, and doubtful. We become our own worst enemies, beating ourselves up mercilessly with cruel, harsh, and unkind words. It’s as if we’ve become spectators watching ourselves from the sidelines with intense scrutiny, judging our every move. Shaming ourselves into becoming better people is a terrible strategy for self improvement.
The great irony in this is that if that voice whispering in our heads was a real person, it wouldn’t take long before we grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and began shaking him uncontrollably until his voice was silenced. Suffice to say, we wouldn’t endure this verbal abuse for long before resorting to violence. Yet we unleash its holy wrath on ourselves with as much fury as the “face that launched a thousand ships.”
An important lesson that I learned in acting and that has carried over into my everyday life is that the critic and the creator cannot exist at the same time – the critic’s voice is too loud.
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with how high-performing professionals prepare for important events, from the hockey player in the waning moments of sudden-death overtime of Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals to the Broadway actor in the moments before the curtain rises. The last few minutes before a major challenge can be terrifying. My heart begins to race just thinking about it. I don’t know about you but I often times feel the weakest right before I’m expected to be the strongest, particularly in a trial when the very liberty of my client is at stake.
I’m awed by how these professionals will ultimately be judged on their ability to deliver a single solid performance under extreme pressure. How do they stay calm? What do they rely on to boost their confidence? What mental tricks optimize their performance?
Sure. Practice is critical. There is no more staunch an advocate of the 10,000 hours philosophy than yours truly.
Without minimizing the importance of practice, the reality of the situation is that there are only so many hours in the day and the amount of rehearsal time is finite. The audience is seated and the curtain rises. Whether the performance takes place on stage, in a courtroom, or in the boardroom, we have mere moments to gather our thoughts and prepare our minds. There’s no room for more practice.
How can we best spend the crucial moments before we take the stage? How do we put our mind in an optimal state before we perform? The answer lies in one word: concentration. For as trite a phrase as it might be, it is a game-changer. Through concentration, we can examine new ways to deal with adrenaline rushes, increase focus, boost confidence, and optimize our emotions before we stand up in front of the jury.
I have to be brutally honest. I’m a nervous nellie who has struggled with anxiety in the crucial moments before getting up before the jury to speak. This is why a quote from author Daniel McGinn’s book, “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed” deeply impacts me. Paraphrasing, Mr. McGinn says that anxiety is like an “unpredictable, pernicious tax” that takes away from our performance despite all of the time that we spend practicing in preparation for that performance.
It was not until I began training as an actor that I became aware of how this anxiety could be traced back to my pre-performance ritual. In an effort to calm my nerves, I’d say to myself, “What the worse thing that can happen if I mess up and my opening doesn’t go as planned?” In other words, life will go on and everything will still be okay in the long-term.
Psychologists call this, “defensive pessimism” and warn that while it might feel like the natural soothing thing to say, it’s actually no less destructive than engaging in negative thoughts. It’s sort of like standing at the golf tee when there is a lake at the right and saying to yourself, “Don’t hit the ball in the lake.” The ending could not be more predictable: Nine out of ten times the ball lands in the lake. Alas, all that you have succeeded in doing is priming yourself to hit the ball into the lake. Instead, psychologists recommend recasting this pestilent thought into something positive like, “I’m going to hit it 300 yards down the center.”
Circling back to the courtroom, let’s begin with an undeniable truth: the courtroom is as unstable and unpredictable an environment as any. Fortunately, there is one thing that we still have control over: our concentration. As the master of our concentration, we have the ability to gather it up and put it where we want to at will – regardless of the time, the place, or the circumstances. Inherent in this concept is an immutable law that there are only two places where we can put our attention: (1) on ourselves or (2) on something outside of ourselves.
I can recall many times during my acting training when all of my attention was on myself. To say that it stifled my impulses would be a complete understatement. In time I learned through the “repetition exercises” how to keep all of my attention on the other person until it became a habit. It’s a habit I never want to break.
The ability to focus your attention at will is as important for lawyers as it is for actors. Just as an actor might live out more drama in two hours than the average person experiences in a lifetime, a trial lawyer may experience more stress and anxiety in the course of a lengthy trial than the average person experiences in a lifetime. After all, litigation, like drama, is about the human experience – the struggle. Look no further than the innocent person who has been accused of a crime or the worker who has been wrongfully fired from his job and cannot feed his family.
What trial lawyer hasn’t come to court and been ambushed by something unexpected right before a crucial part of the trial? I can count on one hand in the nearly ten years I’ve been practicing law how many times things went exactly as planned when I walked into the courthouse on a weekday morning. In a recent trial, I can remember no fewer than three hand grenades going off at one time: (1) my client refused to change out of his “jump suit” and into his dress clothes; (2) my adversary made a motion in limine to curtail the subject matter of an important defense witness on an issue that was vital to the defense; and (3) I had a stain the size of Lake Erie emblazoned on the front of my tie as a result of a coffee spill in my car on my way to court. As if this was not bad enough, I had an irate judge who was growing impatient by the minute.
If it wasn’t for my training as an actor, I might have had a meltdown. This is why concentration means so much to me.
Concentration is the muscle that allows you to focus. It’s the essential building block to good acting. As Sanford Meisner once said, “To take the heat off yourself – to transfer the point of concentration outside of yourself – is a big battle won.” The battle Mr. Meisner is referring to is the single-most important battle that every performing artist must fight before taking the stage: overcoming consciousness of self.
This battle is nothing new. Every actor has encountered this battle at some point in their careers – some prevailing over it and others falling victim to it. In the early part of the twentieth century, the famous acting instructor, Konstantin Stanislavski recognized how debilitating consciousness of self was for actors and made it his mission to slay this dragon. Stanislavski pioneered the concept that everything good in acting comes out of involvement. He called it, “the acting object.”
An acting object is not necessarily a concrete item. In fact, it often times is a human being, as in a “scene partner.” The idea is that the more involved you get in your acting object, the less opportunity you have to observe yourself. Very simply, an acting object distracts you during a time when it would be natural to be nervous. And this is why it is invaluable for trial lawyers and public speakers.
Picture this. It’s your first day of law school and you’re in contracts class. You’re sitting in a lecture hall with one hundred other students, all of whom are total strangers.
The professor is a strict, no nonsense “old school” professor who uses the Socratic Method. Your seat isn’t even warm before he pulls out the seating chart and calls on his first “victim.” Despite sitting in the last row, the lucky person just so happens to be you.
But instead of asking you to recite the facts to Lucy v. Zehmer, your professor asks you to walk to the front of the room, turn around, and face the other students for one minute. Oh yeah, you are not allowed to speak. You must remain silent with your feet firmly planted on the floor and stare out at the piercing eyes of your fellow students.
What response is this likely to evoke? Within seconds, your heart starts pounding, your palms get sweaty, your lip twitches, your hands get fidgety, you feel a lump inside your throat the size of a crater, and you begin to shift your weight from one leg to another. The seconds feel like minutes.
How many pairs of eyes are fixed on you? Because there are 100 students, you might have answered, “100 pairs.” But, there are actually “101 pairs.” As piercing as the stares of your 100 classmates in the lecture hall might be, the 101st pair is the most paralyzing.
To whom does the 101st pair belong? YOU! Yes, you were watching yourself just like every other student in the lecture hall.
Let’s tweak this uncomfortable scenario slightly. Once again, it’s your “lucky day.” The professor calls on you and gives you the very same instructions that he gave you the first time: walk to the front of the room and face the other students for one minute.
Except now, he gives you a tennis racket and a tennis ball, tells you to hold the tennis racket in one hand and bounce the ball up and down on the racket while counting up to ten. You begin.
Which version of you is likely to be more self-conscious? The one who had nothing to do or the one who had something to do? If you answered, “the one who had the activity,” you’d be correct. Standing there without anything to do is a recipe for disaster because your attention turns inward on yourself and how you are being perceived by your fellow classmates, which sows the seeds of insecurity and self-consciousness. But when given an activity that requires focus and concentration, you can’t be involved in doing the activity and watching yourself do it at the same time. You only have the time and energy to do it.
The more difficult the activity, the better. There are two reasons. First, it forces the concentration to the point where the actor loses all awareness of himself and what he’s doing or how he’s responding to the other person. When this happens, the actor cannot help but react truthfully, from the core of his self and experience.
Second, the greater the obstacle, the more interesting it is to watch. Every human being can identify with it because we all experience struggle as a part of life. Where there is no struggle, there is no life. It is for this reason that obstacles lie at the core of dramatic action.
You know from your own experience that when something is difficult it demands your undivided attention. Think about it. When you are absorbed in a difficult task in everyday life such as hanging a picture frame, all of your attention is on the task at hand (i.e., selecting the right nail and drill bit, drilling the nail into the wall at an appropriate angle, and mounting the picture on the wall so it doesn’t appear crooked or off-centered) that there is not enough of you “left over” to watch yourself doing it.
In acting, the “independent physical activity” teaches students to place their entire concentration on accomplishing some concrete, specific, and truthful goal. Of course, the activity must be difficult and not something mundane that can be accomplished while your brain is on autopilot. In this manner, the activity becomes a real workout in the reality of doing, and the actor becomes emotional in spite of himself.
Crafting a difficult physical activity is not a hack or a quick-hit tactic designed exclusively for actors. Every performing artist can benefit. After all, pulling off a great speech requires the right kind of mental preparation.
But don’t take my word for it. Comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen Colbert each go through a systematic, ritualized process to put their minds in the optimal state before show time. Despite how meaningless these rituals might appear at first blush – for Jerry it involves putting on his jacket and for Stephen it involves chewing a pen – studies show that routines such as these really do help people perform better.
Now for some practical tips. What are some acting objects in the courtroom that are sure to soak up your attention? Hint: They are always physical. And they depend on what stage of the trial you are in. Below are a few that I routinely use at various times during the trial:
- If I’m making a legal argument, all of my attention is on the judge, with the occasional glance downwards to look at my notes.
- If I’m cross-examining a witness, all of my attention is on that witness.
- If I’m making an opening or a closing, all of my attention is on the men and women seated in the jury box.
There is a brilliantly conceived exercise developed by Sanford Meisner called the “word repetition exercise.” The exercise trains two muscles of an actor:
- The ability to look and see; and
- The ability to listen and hear.
The creative genius of this exercise is that it demands utter spontaneity, the secret key to unlocking the thick door of reservations that keeps your true personality imprisoned.
The word repetition exercise is a pure thing. There are no additives or preservatives – nothing artificial. We go full without adding a thing onto it. My instructor likes to refers to this as, “Trimming all the fat from your work.” There is no acting. There is no pushing. Instead, we learn to work simply from a truthful place with all of our attention on our scene partner. When actors do the unexpected, they do so because they are not trying to make anything happen. As William Esper so eloquently said, “it’s only when your response to something truly surprises you that it will also surprise others.”
Special emphasis is placed on listening to what your partner means, not just to what they say. There is a big difference between listening to someone and really hearing them. By hearing, I’m referring to picking up nuances in the tone of a person’s voice and responding to voice inflection, volume, physical mannerisms, rhythm and musicality of speak, and the specifics of behavioral responses.
In life, we listen but we don’t hear. For example, when was the last time that you were so in tune to what your significant other was saying that you could hear the sarcasm in his or her voice? As any actor will attest, the tone and pitch of a person’s voice, not to mention their behavior conveys more information about a person’s true feelings than the actual words they speak.
Putting all of your attention on the other person is easy to understand. But the ability to maintain focus with no attention on yourself is very difficult. It takes time, patience, and stamina to focus for long periods of time and there is no downside to that in acting. It is no wonder that so many successful artists say that discipline equals freedom. With your attention off of yourself anything can happen.