stories on stage

How Acting Classes Helped These Lawyers Hone Their Craft

by Arin Greenwood, American Bar Association.

Lawyers, like actors, need to be good storytellers—compelling and at ease in front of an audience.

That’s why Tyrone Moncriffe, a criminal defense lawyer in Houston, started taking acting classes 10 years ago. He knew he could argue in front of a jury, but he was having a hard time getting jurors involved with his clients’ stories.

“Before the classes, I was an articulate speaker, but I spoke over the audience’s head,”Moncriffe says. “I realized I could speak to an audience, but I wasn’t connecting.”

In 1995, Moncriffe signed up for acting classes with Sandra Zimmer, a Houston-based acting teacher who offers acting classes for both lawyers and laypeople. Zimmer had Moncriffe and her other lawyer students perform acting exercises, like expressing emotions with different colors in mind and standing in front of an audience and describing the tension inside themselves. The goal was to get them to better connect with their target audience, the jury.

One of the exercises forced Moncriffe to relive an experience he had with his father. In so doing, Moncriffe says, the room—and the audience—disappeared, and it was like he was alone with his dad.

“From that point on, I realized the significance of taking people to a deeper point in the story,” he says. “I do that with juries now. We’re not in a courtroom. I re-create the scenes so the jury is there. I take the jurors there with me.”

New York City lawyer Nina Kaufman turns to comedy classes to hone her legal skills. Kaufman regularly takes stand-up comedy and improv classes at various local comedy clubs like the Upright Citizens Brigade.

Kaufman says these classes have improved her ability to project a presence and feel comfortable in her own skin. It’s also made her a whole lot faster on her feet. “I feel more comfortable winging things,” Kaufman says.

But Kaufman says the classes also taught her how to better handle—even welcome—difficult clients. Comedy “helps keep me focused on the humor in a work situation, not the horror,” Kaufman says. “I think I’m a little less afraid of bad situations. There’s more than part of me that says, ‘This is going to be one big comedy routine.’ “

Angelo Paparelli of Irvine, Calif., credits his acting classes with helping him steal a roomful of lawyers’ attention away from a sunny, tropical day.

Paparelli, who has been acting and taking different acting classes for most of his life, was giving a speech in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The room was “overlooking the ocean.”

“My topic was bulletproofing your immigration petition,” Paparelli recalls. “So I was trying to think how to make this interesting. I thought: weapons of mass destruction. So we walked in wearing military uniforms, chanting: ‘We welcome you members of the press and you few lawyers who are here for this briefing on WMDs. What are WMDs? Requests for evidence. We’re going to give you our top 10 techniques for getting around these WMDs.’ “

Forget the beautiful view. “Everyone in the room was feverishly taking notes,” he says. “They were rapt even though the sun was shining and the sailboats were on the ocean. And that’s what theater can do.”

©2005 ABA Journal