When theater director Gillian Drake called her father, a retired attorney, to tell him she was teaching an acting class for lawyers, she says he had some good advice: " 'Just don't embarrass them.' "
"He was right," she says. "That first class I had to be very careful. They were, in a good sense, image-conscious."
At her classes, 11 image-conscious students lie on the blue rug in the Old Vat Room at Arena Stage and make eerie moaning sounds. They stand in a circle and shout "bah!" at each other. They tell stories about make-believe people.
Her exercises are far from what lawyers (or at least most of them) encounter in their work, but Drake says her students are learning to present their cases more convincingly. She tries to teach them to think more about "what they say, how they say it and how their body says it."
Drake's goal is to make her students more truthful, not less. "I want them not to be calculating but to really be real people," she says.
"Not only do you have to sort of know the facts to [a story], you have to see it. The images you pick have to somehow hit you," Drake tells the class.
The class is not the first to try to make lawyers more dramatic. Over the past 10 years, for example, New York dramatic actor Richard Grusin has offered a three-hour seminar, "Communication in the Courtroom," in cities across the country (though not Washington). And lawyers sometimes attend acting classes at the New Playwrights' Theatre, although the theater has never offered classes just for attorneys, according to David Perry, director of public relations. "The sad thing is that most trials are won or lost on the presentation of the case," says Grusin.
Drake says she decided to start the summer class after helping several lawyers prepare for trials last year. To help them overcome nervousness about addressing jurors, she says they need to know "how to tell a story, how to keep the audience interested, and how to build intention within the speech so you create a dramatic tension.
"There are a lot of parallels between how I coach actors on monologues and how I coach lawyers for their opening statements" to juries, says Drake, 31, who earned an MFA in directing at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1981. She works as play development associate at Arena Stage and rents space for the class from Arena. Enrollment fees of $180 cover the costs of the six-week class that meets for three hours every Tuesday.
But lawyers who itemize won't have to dip into their bank accounts too deeply, since the costs are tax-deductible as a business expense, a fact no self-respecting attorney is likely to overlook.
Lawyers don't find it hard to deduct expenses, but they find it hard to be colorful, as John McNally, of McNally & Noterman, discovers. "The dusty medium blue midway between sky blue and royal blue with a lavender cast to it," he says. He describes the color as if explaining an obscure, difficult point of the law.
"Say it again," Drake urges.
"The dusty . . ."
"Sing it!" she interrupts.
"Dusty, lavender, cornflower blue," he says with a smile, as if he's feeling a bit silly.
"Do it again," says Drake mercilessly.
McNally struggles with this "more physical, intuitive" training, which he is not sure he can use in his everyday practice. "Most lawyers are cerebral," he asserts. "In law school, they don't teach this kind of thing."
Eric Katz of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler is assigned to misrepresent himself. He describes himself twice, once truthfully, once falsely: The first self, a liberal, lives near Dupont Circle in an apartment decorated with an oriental rug and three flamingos. No. 1 recently went to a surprise birthday party in Texas and was happy to find that several other friends had done the same.
The second Katz, a Republican, lives on the Hill and owns an antique dining room set. No. 2 recently flew down to a fundraiser in Texas because it was "a good way to meet some people."
Which is the real Katz? Drake's students choose No. 1. They're right. As McNally explains, "I didn't think a Republican would come to these acting classes."
To get her students to do her unusual acting exercises, Drake has to cajole, threaten, criticize, tease and sometimes even tell a white lie.
"There's a penny in there," she tells insurance manager Richard Rankin, one of two nonlawyers in the class. She points to a confused stack of about 100 chairs. "I want you to go look for it."
"Through all those?" asks Rankin suspiciously. "I know it's not there."
"Go look, Richard, stop hesitating," cries Drake. She sends Rankin and two lawyers clambering over the chairs to look for the invisible coin.
She also gives them strange compliments.
"You guys are very good sitters," she tells them after three have sat on the stage, not moving, for their first "action" exercise. "Some people get very nervous, not knowing what to do, sitting there with people staring."
The response has made Katz "more sensitive to the issue that I'm being paid to do more than just present information."
It's unclear how such advice will advance a lawyer's career. But the novelty of the enterprise drew about 30 calls after Drake placed two ads in local legal publications. She says some have already signed up for the eight-week course she will offer in the fall.
Drake plans to shift the course from Tuesday to Monday in the fall. "It's early in the week, right after they do their homework . . . before their minds are clouded with all that dead material," she says with a laugh.