The Power of Vulnerability

We’ve all heard the word vulnerable. Emotional vulnerability is a loaded term that means different things to different people.

For me, it means being open, dropping my guard and letting others in. At the same time, it means being able to admit what I am feeling in the moment, no matter how uncomfortable or awkward that might be. This can be an effective tool in the courtroom when properly harnessed, which is one area where lawyers can learn a lot from actors.

Vulnerable actors are able to show their fear, shame, embarrassment, joy and sadness — even when they play characters with coarse exteriors. They can do more than rant and rave and indicate. They make us feel for them.

In acting, there is an implicit agreement that actors have with the audience that they are going to let them see what’s going on inside of them. By this I can personally attest to the fact that it does not just refer to some things; but to everything. As my acting instructor says, “An actor’s [not to mention any performing artist’s] greatest asset is his vulnerability – his ability to be affected by things both real and imaginary.”

As I walk to class, I find myself asking the rhetorical question, “How much am I willing to show of myself today?” As an actor you must get to the core of what it means to be human: to connect, to be vulnerable, and to have the courage to explore all the layers of who you are. I’ve always been amazed at Marlon Brando for his ability to open up his chest cavity and allow audiences to see those parts of him that are so hidden and so private, as to send a chill up the spine of the audience.

Who can forget the scene in “A Streetcar Named Desire” where Brando (playing Stanley) half-dressed, stumbles out to the street and calls for his wife again and again: “STELL- LAHHHHH!” Finally, a disheveled Stella (Kim Hunter) slips out of the apartment and down to where Stanley is screaming. They stare at each other and then rush together with animal moans. Stanley falls to his knees, caresses Stella’s face and belly, then lifts her up and carries her inside. In that scene, Brando shows us an infant crying out for his mother, a theme that dominated much of the actor’s troubled childhood.

Your willingness to let your guard down and render yourself “open” requires an enormous amount of courage. Instinctively, whenever we feel vulnerable and exposed, the natural tendency is to protect ourselves. Tom Wolfe, author of “Bonfire of the Vanities” captured the essence of how paralyzing vulnerability can be through the character Sherman McCoy:

“My entire central nervous system was wired. What I had presumed to be my private inviolate self had become a veritable amusement park to which everybody, and I mean everybody, came scampering and screaming. I could no more keep them from entering my own hide than I could keep the air out of my lungs.”

So that there can be no misunderstanding, when I speak about emotional vulnerability in the courtroom I’m not suggesting that “bigger is better.” In fact, this could not be more contrary to what I’m referring to. I shudder to think of a lawyer pushing an emotion in order to achieve an emotional response from a jury. “Pushing” is the result of not trusting your truthful responses. In acting, it’s referred to as “emoting” or “feigning an emotion” and gets you a one-way ticket back to serving hamburgers and fries at at twenty-four hour diner.

The great writer, Ray Bradbury learned from experience that you cannot “beat, thrash, and pummel an idea into existence.” This is equally true for actors and lawyers when it comes to achieving emotional results. You can’t force an emotion to the surface. It is a product of “pinch”, “ouch” and the sum total of your life’s experiences. If someone “pinches” you and you really feel it, you say “ouch.” Your emotional reaction is the result of the pinch, not a product of thought. This might sound trite, but it makes an important point: When you react to the “pinch” you are doing so spontaneously, which means you are creating in the moment.

As Sanford Meisner once said, you can’t fake emotion. You either have it or you don’t. For example, you can’t “act” sad. You have to actually “feel” sad in order to be sad. When the emotion comes, you ride it like a wave. I love using waves as a metaphor for how we are fluid and not static beings. Our mood is like the tide that comes in and out. Sanford Meisner once said that watching the great Edmund Kean’s emotion subside after a big scene from Shakespeare was like watching the tide go out.

If the emotion is not there, Meisner instructed his students to do what they are doing simply and truthfully. Good actors have an innate sense of truth. When you are truthful, you don’t have to make more out of something than it is. The truth transcends all of the emoting in the world. Echoing this is the great teacher and director Robert Lewis who cautioned his students, “If you wait for the feeling to come, you may never act.”

The impact that an honest expression of vulnerability has on a jury cannot be underestimated. As the great trial lawyer Gerry Spence said, “The most powerful person in the courtroom is the vulnerable person, the lawyer who is aware of his feelings and can share them honestly with the jurors.” Great lawyers are not afraid to be who they are, whatever that is. When a lawyer brings the essence of who he is into the courtroom, the jury thinks, “Wow, that lawyer is real!”

If you agree that emotional vulnerability can impact your work in the courtroom, the next question becomes, “How do I become more vulnerable?” There is no easy way to say this without getting schmaltzy. To bring the whole truth, you have to be able to explore your own fragility. It’s a hard place to go, especially in today’s society where people with a deep emotional well are often branded as “weak.” I think just the opposite. If you are a person who feels things deeply, respect it and nourish it, and whatever you do don’t apologize for it.

For those who have difficulty connecting with their softer side, don’t fret. Your emotions are already there. They are living inside of you. Not always in the extreme. Some are subtle, simmering quietly beneath the surface.

The more you get in touch with your feelings, the easier it becomes to access what you’re feeling without thought. Before you run for cover, allow me to share a personal story of my struggle with emotions.

When I first started acting the emphasis was always on feeling. This obsession with emotion started to put me in my head. Truth be told, three years of law school had sucked the humanity out of me and divorced me from my feelings until I was nothing more than a shell of my former self. I had become an objective non-feeling being. I had been stripped of the two main qualities necessary to influence and persuade: the ability to listen and the ability to feel. As a result, I found myself playing my own idea of what I thought my character should be doing in the scene, plunging head first off the cliff of striving to achieve an emotional result.

When I discovered the Meisner Technique all of that changed. Now the emphasis was on “listening,” “doing,” and “working off” my partner. Emotions were generated by the “pinch.” I was finally freed of the obligation to feel.

One way to rouse emotions is through daydreaming. While this might have something of a “flighty” connotation, another way to think of it might be “imagination.”The imagination is immediate, powerful, and knows no bounds. All of your memories and life experiences are available to you if you learn how to cultivate your imagination. If you spend time cultivating your imagination it will take you places you never dreamt you could go. This has the added benefit of enhancing your capacity for brainstorming and free association when it comes time to crafting theories and themes for your cases.

Since childhood, I got swept away by daydreams. If that’s not you, do not fret. The imagination must be nurtured and fed. Ray Bradbury recommended reading poetry, essays, novels and comic books — anything that can touch us viscerally. The more we read, the more we have to draw from. This is our connection to the subconscious, which Bradbury called “the source of the artist’s creativity.”

To become more sensitized, I’ve found added inspiration in a metaphor we use a lot in acting: “teflon versus velcro.” Teflon is a non-stick surface. People who are teflon don’t let things happen to them. They put up a wall. That’s what I was like when I started acting. It was as though I was in an isolation chamber. Paraphrasing my instructor, my scene partner could have slung mud at me until it splattered all over my face and I still wouldn’t have reacted to it.

Velcro, by contrast, is a surface to which things stick. People who are velcro are open and receptive — they allow themselves to be affected by external stimuli. Not surprisingly, “velcro” is what we aim for as actors. After all, acting is a “felt experience.” We want to become sensitized responders who are open and available so that we are more receptive to the “pinch.” If you are teflon, you have to fight through that armor to connect with a jury on a human level.

No matter how shy or timid you might be, you can still be vulnerable. This is not to say that it is easy. I can personally attest to the fact that not only does it take a lot of practice but a willingness to take risks.

But this is no different than anything else in life. You have to think of yourself as a salmon swimming upstream against the current if you want anything in this world. You have to struggle for success or else you’ll never find it. Every negative experience I have ever had, every hurdle I’ve had to jump, every turbulent river I’ve had to cross, every internal and external conflict I have had to face head-on has made me stronger.

I suppose this is why I identify so strongly with “Terry’s” struggle in, “On the Waterfront.” The conflict that pulls him in two directions at once is not foreign to me. It reminds me that you can never run from your problems. Everything you deal with makes you stronger.

The way I see it is that we have a choice. We can live safely within the walls that we have erected to protect our fragile egos or we can venture out into the vast terrain. Of course, we will never know what lies outside these walls unless we are brave enough to take the first step.

As the great Gerry Spence once said, “it is more dangerous for us to live within those walls than to live free, for the risk of living in this chicken house is that we may never have lived at all.” Herein lies the tragedy. Outside of these walls lies a vast landscape just waiting to be explored. This symbolizes our untapped potential.

Here the words of Dylan Thomas have great meaning for me, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

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