And one man in his time plays many parts. -- William Shakespeare, "As You Like It"

"We're living in a high-tech, high-touch world today," says Gillian Drake, "and people in every field are being asked to perform as good representatives of their business, both with their clients and with the world at large."

That, says the Washington-based free-lance director and acting coach, poses a major problem for today's young professionals: "They don't have any practice at this any more. They don't teach this in school, and the more people stay in front of their TVs and behind their computer terminals, the less skilled they are at these 'people' skills.

"This is an information age," stresses Drake, a former student of Method Acting doyenne Stella Adler, "and the need for effective communication skills is fundamental and critical."

Drake, 32, apparently has struck a chord: More than 200 lawyers and other professionals have, in the last two years, sought her out for acting lessons.

* It all started when a couple of lawyers saw two plays directed by Drake -- "Marie and Bruce" (by Wally Shawn) at Woolly Mammoth Theater, and "When the Wind Blows" (by Raymond Briggs) at Round House Theater. The actors, they told Drake, came across as "realistic, motivated and larger-than-life." The lawyers asked her to teach them; she agreed, and Acting for Lawyers was born. Acting for Professionals soon followed.

(Since then, Drake has taken her talents to New York, where she is coaching top-level executives, including two vice presidents of Fortune 500 companies. Drake says she'll begin an Acting for Lawyers course in Manhattan this fall.)

Rob Shepherd, 34, a student in Drake's current Acting for Professionals class, says he was drawn to the course because "I'm a plain vanilla, drive-'em-home, hard-facts kind of guy."

Describing his personality as "not very creative or imaginative," the vice president for sales of Potomac Telephone Systems says he already has picked up a great deal at the halfway mark of the eight-week course, given in the auditorium of the Office of Personnel Management, 19th and E streets NW.

As well as learning how to express himself more effectively, Shepherd says he also has figured out how to better interpret other people: "One guy I work with, I've noticed every time he says something he really thinks is neat, he sort of inadvertently shrugs his shoulder. Then you say, 'Aha! He really likes that idea!'

"Another big thing for me is developing this capability to express yourself without ever using a word. You make it by the way you walk, the way you look at somebody or sit or stand."

Shepherd and his seven classmates have considerable practice at walking, sitting and standing, along with other concentrated exercises designed to teach them voice and body relaxation and control, movement, thinking on their feet, self-confidence and awareness of self.

Each weekly session begins with a half-hour of warm-up exercises, all but guaranteed to break down any inhibitions. Participants crawl around the auditorium rug on all fours, curl and uncurl their bodies, pucker their lips and roll their heads, stretch, do jumping jacks while singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," followed by breathing exercises, standing in a circle and shouting such sounds as "Bah! Fah! Ehh! Huh!"

From there the class moves to the front-row seats and auditorium stage for two hours of concentrated acting exercises, all under the watchful eyes of Drake and their fellow classmates.

*"I don't like exercise of any kind," says 38-year-old Betty J. Sulcer, vice president of United Services Life Cos., "but I realize I need the discipline of the warm-ups."

Sulcer, who says she gives 50-plus presentations each year to insurance agents (sales training) and the general public (IRA and financial-planning seminars), says she's learning to gauge "how well I'm coming across to other people, how well I'm getting my message across to them."

Relationships, she says, are "what life is all about. The more aware you are of how you are relating to others, the easier your life will be."

Jean Barnett says she's taking the course "to increase my potential and ability to climb the corporate ladder. Confidence, I feel, is the key in the professional arena."

Barnett, 28, a banking operations manager, says that "Anyone who takes this course enjoys being professional." One of the prime benefits, she says, is "discovering and bringing out parts of you that are valuable. What you're learning about is you! We're learning to use our talents and to be as authentic as possible."

What Drake is trying to bring out in these professionals, she says, is the same thing "that makes actors able to be real, to give a little of themselves and to fulfill their 'parts' in a human way."

Drake's lessons and conversations are peppered with observations -- on acting, actors, her students and the world at large. Among them:

"Living in the society that we've set up deadens our senses. We stop using our imaginations, stop seeing and being articulate about what we see and know."

"We're so bombarded by images -- on TV, in films, magazines -- we have an image and then the advertising department smacks a little label on it. We accept the label and become crippled in our ability to communicate with one another."

"People are scared to death of communicating from one person to another and that's the one thing that's fundamental to the human condition."

"We're so geared to the quick, fast idioms that we can't get across what we see, hear, taste, smell or touch. We want people to get to the point, and that's good for public speaking, but we aren't patient enough to go for the right word or consider who it is that we're talking to."

In one exercise, Drake has her students come up on stage, two at a time, and stand on either side of a table with an apple in the middle. She whispers the same directions to each: "Get the other student to give you the apple, any way you can." The students are given three sets of phrases: "I need the apple." "I want the apple." "Give me the apple."

It isn't always immediately clear to the students why they're doing a given exercise but, says Shepherd, "You eventually see the purpose and think 'My God, that really does make an awful lot of sense.' "

"What the exercises do," says Mark Edmonds, 37, who is in management development with an international computer corporation, "is make you aware of just how much ammunition you have to use in communicating with others. Once you've learned to control your strengths, they can be enhanced and used to get your message across more effectively."

*"A lot of the things you do are embarrassing," says David Modi, 31, a lobbyist and lawyer who has taken two of Drake's courses. "You shout, you say silly things, do silly things to show your feelings. In the beginning, everyone was nervous and withdrawn and afraid to do anything."

"What's difficult about it," says former student Bonnie Norman, 27, a marketing specialist, "is that you're vulnerable. You're in the spotlight in front of a group of strange people. You're criticized. You may not be in front of a group of actors but it's still a very revealing thing to do."

On the positive side, says Norman, the course leads to "a tremendous amount of growth. I've always enjoyed getting up in front of people, but now I'm more at ease doing that than I was before. I feel that I have the tools to be more effective."

Mike Springman, 41, who works on trade shows for the Department of Commerce to promote the sale of American automotive products, says he sees a loss of self-consciousness. "In the government, as elsewhere," he asserts, "it often isn't so much what you say as how you say it. I'm doing the course partly for that and partly because I'm looking for another position with another agency where they place a premium on being able to talk well -- persuasively and effectively."

Some of Drake's students took the course for personal, rather than professional, development. For example, Kate Sherfy, 29, a sales representative for Xerox Corp., took the course "for greater self-awareness, for some feedback outside the selling situation, where money is riding on the line."

Sherfy says she became aware, through the course, of a tendency toward "fake, or canned, enthusiasm. I had three jobs in sales last year and I think maybe I went through the sales training program too many times. I sort of over-revved on the enthusiasm point. I think now I've loosened that somewhat."

Another former student took the course to overcome stage fright. "Basically I'm an introvert," says Elizabeth Driscoll, who organizes traveling art exhibits for the Smithsonian Institution. "I have to deal with a lot of people I don't know."

* What she learned, says Driscoll, 32, includes speaking and concentration techniques "that you can put in the back of your head and then draw on as needed."

A tangential benefit from learning to draw on personal strengths and reserves, agree former and present students, is the ability to tell when other people are play-acting. Explains Driscoll: "It gives you a great sense of compassion when you see that. You know what they are going through. It makes you feel equal, in some ways, if it happens to be someone you admire."

"If you can pick up one or two things that help you, that's great," says David Hartcorn, 31, a marketing representative for Prime Computers, Rockville. " I've already learned how to control tension in the jaw, the constricting of the throat that comes when you are nervous. That's been a help."

* But perhaps the best summation comes from a former student who moved from middle management to a top-tier position with her marketing firm two months after completing the course. It is, she says, "the urban professional's Outward Bound."

Acting for Professionals' next course: June 19. Cost: $420 for eight 3 1/2-hour sessions. Classes are limited to 8-12. For more information: (202) 667-1413.