Actors from the London Stage teach law students a royal lesson

On Oct. 12, professor Gary Gildin's advocacy class started out more like an aerobics class than a third-year law class. Led by Actors from the London Stage (AFTLS), Noel White and Henry Everett spent nearly two hours teaching students how to “center themselves” and “connect with the present.” After a couple rounds of catch with an imaginary ball, students completed a series of exercises that included arm swings, abdominal twists, squats and breathing exercises, as if they were getting ready to enter the seventh and deciding game of the World Series.

What could these exercises taught by Shakespearean actors possibly teach third-year law students about the law? Most of us would agree a lawyer’s education is primarily about the law, but the practical application of law requires research, practice, experience and some knowledge of speech and acting. Actors and trial lawyers have much more in common than what meets the eye. To be effective, both must be commanding, persuasive and credible. Both must win over their audiences. And both must accomplish these tasks with their voices and their bodies.

It’s all about presentation

The power of proper presentation was the royal lesson taught to Penn State Law Advocacy students by AFTLS. “The ability to be in the present is the most important skill an actor has in his toolbox,” White said. “The key to a winning performance for both lawyers and actors is not just about what they say, but how they say and present it.”

“One very useful tool they taught us was how to individually look at each member of the audience (jury) and make meaningful, but friendly, eye contact,” said third-year law student Sarah Hyser. “I think that’s an important tool to have because too often as young lawyers we are intimidated in the courtroom, and I think we pass that on to the jury if we’re not careful. The actors relayed that it’s important to be professional but also inviting in your demeanor, because you want to embody someone who others want to listen to.”

After learning several warm-up techniques, including how to relax, breathe properly, and improve posture with an imaginary string, student “volunteers” were summoned to center stage to deliver “opening statements” for an advocacy assignment. “I felt pretty silly doing all of the warm-up exercises but was surprised at how much more comfortable I felt speaking in front of everyone, after I had taken the time to center myself and focus on my breathing,” Hyser explained.

Sound advice

Following each student presentation, fellow classmates critiqued their performances pointing out effective and non-effective skills while actors Everett and White suggested methods for improving their delivery. Students were then given a second chance to present their cases.

“I really liked the advice they gave us about lifting a chair over our head, or doing something a little physical while warming up to give a speech. I actually went home and tried it and definitely noticed my voice was louder and stronger after I had literally warmed up,” Hyser said.

“Acting helps individuals increase their self-awareness and expression; improve their memorization skills; and control and alter their posture, body language and tone of voice,” explained White. “By improving public speaking skills, law students will improve self-confidence. Confidence, and of course hard work and preparation, are key to success whether it’s on stage or in a courtroom.”

One of the world’s most respected touring Shakespeare companies, AFTLS is based in England with academic tours booked through the national outreach program of Shakespeare at Notre Dame. Each residency is highlighted by performances of a full-length Shakespeare production. During their visit to Penn State, which was arranged by the Center for Performing Arts at Penn State, the five-member ensemble also visited several theatre and English classes, and performed "The Merchant of Venice."

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Last Updated July 22, 2015