“When you bait the hook with your heart, the fish always bite.” – John Burroughs
“I wish I had the courage to express my feelings” is number three on the list of the “Top Five Regrets of the Dying” by Bronnie Ware.
Why do we suppress our feelings?
According to Ms. Ware,
“Many people suppress their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settle for a mediocre existence and never become who they are truly capable of becoming. Many develop illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carry as a result.”
You’re probably thinking, “Well that’s all well and good, but what benefit is there to expressing my feelings in the courtroom other than embarrassment and shame?”
The impact that vulnerability has on a jury cannot be overstated. By openly revealing your feelings, you instantly build credibility with the jury. And credibility is the most important persuasive ability that a lawyer possesses in the courtroom. I realize that cynics will be quick to denounce this as “junk science.”
But consider the famous words of the legendary trial lawyer, Gerry Spence: “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.”
The same is true for actors. From day one, the young actor is taught that vulnerability – the ability to be affected by things both real and imaginary – is his greatest strength.
Sometimes we are asked not to speak out of our own feelings but to understand and express the feelings of another person. I can think of no other time when this calling is greater than when we are defending a client accused of a crime.
How can we tell our client’s story so genuinely that it possesses the hallmarks of authenticity and that it touches the jury in those soft places where their decisions are made – their hearts? The question is better phrased, “How do we express out of our own hearts the feelings of another person?” Before we can express the feelings of another, we have to open ourselves up to our own feelings. As my acting instructor once said, “Before you can step inside someone else’s shoes, you have to know how big your own feet are.”
The case takes on an entirely new meaning when the attorney becomes the guardian of the client’s well-being, a “Good Shepherd” who faithfully tends to his sheep. Slowly he begins to care and as he does, he acquires the power to cause others to care. I realize that the idea of allowing yourself to feel, let alone express what is going on inside of you is unsettling. And for good reason.
Emotion presents a myriad of challenges. First, we live in a culture that dictates rules and customs when it comes to emotion. These are called “display rules.” Fathers tell their sons, “Big boys don’t cry.” Crying is the equivalent of weakness. When tears are shed, manhood is lost.
Mothers tell their daughters to, “Smile and be polite.” Girls are taught to be “well-mannered” and to conform to the old-fashioned rules of etiquette that were symbolic of the times in which the four March sisters grew up in nineteenth century New England in “Little Women.” To say that society shuns the outward expression of emotion is an understatement.
Second, emotional vulnerability requires dropping your guard, stepping outside of your comfort zone, and increasing your tolerance for things that are uncomfortable. I like to call this, “Getting comfortable being uncomfortable.” In theater, it is called “public solitude” or the ability to be as private in public as in private. This is a vital skill for actors to master in order to create the willful suspension of disbelief. It takes enormous bravery to overcome the embarrassment and discomfort that often accompanies the peeling away of that iron-clad armor that we cover ourselves with as a way of protecting our fragile egos. It is a survival mechanism in a “dog eat dog” world. Tom Wolfe captures the rawness of vulnerability through the character of Sherman McCoy in “Bonfire of the Vanities”:
“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.”
For me, vulnerability means getting in touch with my emotional side. It’s like taking a journey into the deepest recesses of my being to find that chest where my innermost fears and experiences are buried, opening it up, pulling them out and proclaiming, “Here! Here’s who I am!” In a real sense, it’s like standing on stage before an audience of absolute strangers, tearing open my chest cavity, and allowing the audience to see my pounding heart.
Third, emotional vulnerability fosters an insatiable desire to “play the emotion.” I shudder when I think of a lawyer who beats, thrashes, and pummels an emotion into existence in order to achieve an emotional result. “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 the Tick Tock Diner.
A cardinal rule of acting is that you can’t force or push an emotion to the surface. It is a product of “pinch,” “ouch” and the sum total of your life’s experiences. This underscores the importance of knowing what stirs you up so that your emotions are truthful and honest, and not an exaggeration or embellishment of what you think that emotion should be.
If you dig deep enough, you will find answers to questions that will stir your emotions. After all, you can’t boil water without a flame.
Emotion means different things to different people. So that there can be no misunderstanding, it is important to describe the context in which I am using “emotion.” The difference between emotion in the courtroom and emotion in the theater is as stark as the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. Here is what I’ve come to understand about emotions since beginning my journey as an actor.
All too often, the word “emotion” conjures up a disturbing image of an actor straight out of an episode of “Law & Order” curled up in the fetal position on the bathroom floor weeping uncontrollably.
When I speak of emotional vulnerability, I’m not suggesting that “bigger is better.” In fact, this is the exact opposite of what I am referring to. Flailing unnecessarily does not make what you are doing more meaningful. Nor does over the top shouting. I view needless gesturing and excessive shouting as a liability because it is distracting and it obscures the truth of the moment. Simply put, you can’t fake real emotion.
Contrary to popular belief, you can do as little as you like so long as you are emotionally full. I guess you could say that I come from the school of “less is more.” The great actress Claire Foy epitomizes this. She can say as much with a raised eyebrow as a page of dialogue. A good lawyer, like a good actor must learn how to work simply and truthfully.
At the same time, less is more is not an invitation to succumb to the stagnant force of general apathy. Apathy, or lack of emotion, is essentially the feeling of not feeling. Daniel Migliore describes it in terms that are custom-tailored for lawyers, “Apathy is the absence of outrage against injustice. It is the erosion of ability to commit oneself to important causes, to care deeply about other people, and to take risks in the struggle against every form of human bondage.”
Apathy has no place in the courtroom. It’s like saying to the jury, “I want you to do what I can’t do myself – care for John.” If you cannot connect to your own feelings of rejection, anger, betrayal, isolation, and abandonment, then how can you get the jury to feel how trapped, helpless, and afraid John feels? How he feels like a caged animal. How he wants to shout out his innocence but is deathly afraid that his cries will fall on deaf ears or worse yet, be swept aside by the jury as a cheap attempt by a felon trying to escape his well-deserved fate.
For actors, emotional states are generally written into scripts as stage directions. Many actors believe that they must “live up” to them. Therein lies the problem. I’ve worked with many an actor that would go so far as to stare into the lights on a set until tears begin rolling down their cheeks. The irony in this is that in the human narrative, no one tries to cry. As a matter of fact, most people go out of their way not to cry in order to preserve every ounce of their dignity. This is what makes a person who is choked up and fighting back tears incredibly heart wrenching and compelling to watch.
Recently, I learned a valuable lesson about human emotion from an unlikely source, the Weather Channel. A broadcaster was talking about the Tornado that hit his family’s home. His grandmother was killed. He found his dog, Riley’s lifeless body hanging off the branch of an oak tree. He climbed up the tree to pull Riley down.
The broadcaster’s words have stayed with me to this day:
“You know, my grandmother she didn’t make it. She was hit by some debris and didn’t make it. I found my dog, Riley up in the tree. I pulled him down and buried him under the tree. He wasn’t but a puppy.”
“I found my guitar. My guitar was in perfect shape. Not a string broken. I tell you I’d give up that guitar if I could have my grandmother and my dog back.”
Throughout this, he did not shed a tear. He kept a stiff upper lip despite being choked up and carrying the weight of this trauma on his shoulders. As a reporter, he valued his dignity. This was part of his narrative. He didn’t want to cry.
If an actor would have played this role, I can’t help but think that there would have been “weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.” “Heavens to Betsy. I’ve got to tell you. My grannie, my grannie … she’s gone, gone, gone!” The actor might just as well have said, “Look audience, see how sad I am.” In doing so, he would be “playing” what he thinks he needs to play in order to make the audience sense his emotional condition. The audience would be ready to slit their wrists.
The trap that most actors fall into is gravitating toward the emotion instead of thinking through the part clearly. Thinking through the part clearly allows an actor to be appropriately emotional at the right time. But if the actor plays the emotion, he ends up with no variation. Herein lies an important lesson. When it comes down to it, there is a certain ebb and flow when it comes to emotion. Emotion is never linear. It resembles that of a heart monitor.
In the human narrative, we have a million changes that are impossible to track and trace. When in doubt, Sanford Meisner told his students to look to real life. For example, if a close family member dies and you’re at the wake, you’re not weeping and sobbing uncontrollably the entire time. A smile might come to your face when you hear someone tell a funny story about this person while in another moment, you feel comforted by the tender embrace of an aunt who walks up to you, grabs your hand, and squeezes it.
Another example comes right out of a scene from my acting class. Adam arrives at Beth’s door and there is a sharp rap on the door, then another, then a third. Beth opens the door. Adam is breathing in an exaggerated, theatrical way.
The exercise stops and the instructor asks Adam to describe the situation that he was coming from. Adam replies that he was being chased by some “crazy” guy on the subway after stepping on the man’s foot on the platform.
Paraphrasing, the instructors provides the following feedback:
“Too general. Not specific. And meaningless. You were playing what you thought you needed to play: a melodrama. Nothing happened to you except an assumed fear. It was not real. Instead, it was an indication of what you thought being frightened and being afraid should be.”
In the weatherman example, thinking clearly through the part means slowing down and examining each aspect of the story in minute detail. If you’re playing the role of the weatherman, you might begin by talking about grandma and how much she means to you. Then move on to Riley and how he is your faithful companion. Then talk about the guitar.
Along the way, you’d discuss your feelings for each person/object and your unceasing love for grandma and for Riley. And then you would reveal the tragedy that happened as if it was unfolding in real time using words that paint vivid images in the minds of the audience. The resulting monologue will contain the appropriate emotional appeal.
For me, I view this as a positive story of redemption. As a viewer of the weather channel, I felt heartened; as if the weatherman had yelled into the string bed of a baby grand piano and the music was echoing back. His voice triggered certain vibrations of certain strings. His narrative created sympathetic vibrations in me.
What if despite an uncanny attention to detail, the emotion remains dormant? Being devoid of emotion is the bane of a lawyer’s existence. We are so accustomed to thinking, to the abstract, to the intellectual expression of every experience that we have lost touch with what makes us attractive people – our feelings. As a result, we think, but we don’t feel.
The great acting instructor, Sanford Meisner had some sage advice to offer his students on this topic too, albeit one that was blunt and crass. Mr. Meisner repeatedly told his students that, “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, he told his students to ride it like a wave. I can think of no better example of this than Lee J. Cobb who played Juror #3 in “Twelve Angry Men.” He is filled with rage and it oozes from every pore. His anger is real. It is connected to an “element of truth.”
If the emotion is not there, Mr. Meisner told his students to do what they are doing simply and truthfully. The rationale behind this is that 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 warned his students, “If you wait for the feeling to come, you may never act.”
Whenever I get discouraged with my inability to feel, I take comfort in the fact that everyone, myself included, was born with a complete set of feelings. Instinctively, we knew how to cry when we were hurt, to shout when we were angry, to run when we were afraid, and to jump with joy when we were excited. The challenge is to rediscover these feelings and be brave enough to express them openly and freely.
Here are a few tips when it comes to emotional preparation. As a preliminary matter, it cannot be “sorta,” “kinda,” or “just.” This is much too vague. Emotions are specific and meaningful: i.e., think joy, sadness, happiness.
Second, simplicity is essential. The more complicated it is, the harder it is to get involved emotionally.
Third, be honest. By being honest, you help yourself. “If you’re feeling nervous, allow yourself to be nervous. If you’re feeling excited, allow yourself to be excited.” However, don’t exaggerate by attempting to “play” an emotion if it isn’t there. Intuitively, the audience (jury) will know that something is wrong. As my acting instructor says, “I’ll take a real four instead of an inflated ten any day of the week!”
Finally, you can take comfort in the fact that more effort is required to suppress the emotions that are welling up inside of you than to let them out. So let it out and ride it like a tsunami.