A performance approach

Can adopting techniques from the acting world enhance your advocacy? Barrister-turned-actor Chan Shoker explains how performance skills can build courtroom charisma and control

What can the art of performance offer the barrister? By performance I don’t mean theatricality or shouting in the evenings, guilty as I am of both. I refer, instead, to the action or process that governs behaviour. How might the actions or processes of an actor benefit the barrister?

I recall a creeping sense of unease during my advocacy training on the BPTC. I was taught well, I left with all the right grades, secured pupillage and spent half a dozen years in practice without completely humiliating myself. And yet, I carried with me the feeling of something missing, of unexplored territory and potential beyond the questions I was asking, of a world outside of my control; the vague notion that my mind and body were reacting under pressure in ways that I didn’t fully comprehend.

Many years later, having left the Bar to train as an actor, the source of this unease became apparent. What I had experienced back then were the outer limits of traditional advocacy training, whereby barristers are taught what to do but rarely how to do it. This ‘how’ applies to any and every meaningful action in court; to the living of a life under pressure. It is in this context, I believe, that the art of performance assumes relevance.

The living, breathing, unpredictable courtroom

Traditional training seldom incorporated performance, but the need for this aspect to be addressed is being acknowledged, and workshops are increasingly available on voice, presence and presentational skills, some of which are led by professional actors.

Barristers may have learnt how to prep and present a case according to the basic principles of advocacy, but not necessarily how to bring that presentation to life, through designed, intentional action in the context of a deeper human narrative. Performance skills can help the barrister truly exploit those advocacy techniques under pressure, in a living, breathing, unpredictable courtroom. Barristers may eventually acquire similar skills but too often by trial and error.

Having trained and worked both on the stage and at the Bar, I believe that any barrister, in particular the pupil, would benefit from performance-based training. Barristers who understand performance can bring a powerful psycho-emotional dimension to their work. Performance offers them a deeper understanding of the components of their moment-to-moment subjective experience under pressure, of the actions they take. It brings that experience under their control. Above all, it shields the barrister from the perils of trial and error.

There are plenty of skills, tricks and techniques that could assist. By way of example, I explore four key areas. It is my belief that the injection of performance techniques in to these areas would create a virtuous cycle for the newcomer – each feeding and reinforcing the others to create a tight loop of certainty and control under pressure.

Speech

Actors are taught a method of strategic speech whereby words, phrases, sentences are loaded up with psychological intent. Its purpose: to bring specificity, accuracy and dramatic power to dialogue.

Speech is used to create measurable, internal reactions in the listener. Words are ‘aimed’ and ‘fired’ like the bullets of a sniper. In this way, actors are compelled to avoid waste, affectation or generality. Their words carry purpose far beyond linguistic meaning. This method requires no collusion from amenable cast members – the actor employs the same to elicit specific responses in an audience.

For the barrister, placing all speech within a framework of psychological intent offers more impact, subtlety, control and tactical precision in cross-examination, submissions, closing speeches etc. From moment-to-moment, incrementally, barristers are able to affect and even control the internal state of the listener. He or she becomes an agent of specificity; not just in the words used but in the psycho-emotional messaging with which they motor those words. Basic advocacy techniques are brought to life – the barrister has a tool for how. An additional benefit to the newcomer is the side-stepping of self-consciousness; this technique places all attention on the recipient and their reactions.

Listening

From speech to listening. There are a number of performance techniques that could offer barristers a distinct advantage when listening. Actors learn to listen with eyes and ears, throwing all their attention on to the speaker without trying to listen (trying often merges what was said with an imperceptible inner monologue of our own making). They will learn to hold a thought in their mind without it distorting what they hear. They will focus on the choice of words, on their nature, on the images behind them which may reveal the deeper, internal, emotional landscape of the speaker. They will note the full weight and value given to specific words. They will sense and internalise the tempo of speech, any dissonance or congruence in delivery, the breath, where the speech sits in the body. They will understand the power of mirroring speech patterns. Listening becomes an act of excavation.

In this way the barrister is brought entirely in to the moment, not just in court, but also in negotiation or conference. Because truly engaged listening not only improves intuition, but effectively creates a world or mind between people, the barrister becomes more deeply attuned to the hopes, needs, fears and intentions of his client, an opponent, or witness. Barristers can sense more closely the attitude of the judge or jury. They reveal to themselves more possibilities, more ways to win, more insight. In this way, they can begin to unlock a deeper human dimension within the work, a deeper connection to every aspect of their environment. The listening itself becomes strategic. In my experience an additional benefit accrues: the more profound the listening, the more incisive the speech.

Voice

The most immediate benefit would be a more powerful, clear and controlled vocal instrument that holds under stress. A stronger voice tends to brings more confidence. We are more believable when our voice carries authentic weight and resonance. Our narrative, personal and case, gains power. The more settled breath pattern of a strong voice steadies the flow of blood to the brain, maintaining clear and relaxed thinking under pressure. Through focus on vocal agility and flexibility, the barrister moves closer to finding his or her most relaxed, ‘free’ voice. A freer voice means more vitality, more colours to the presentation, a voice more likely to surprise, break pattern and rhythm and therefore hold the attention. It can mean a more personal voice, a rougher voice even; a voice more likely to connect psychologically and emotionally. The voice itself becomes a flexible tool.

Body

Actors will train to bring their bodies under control, to centre it, strengthen it, isolate its joints and muscles so it becomes alive to them. Through doing just some of this work, the barrister, powerfully connected to his or her own physicality, becomes more alive to others. They iron away kinks caused by nerves, insecurity, anxiety, kinks that may stifle the breath, and so the thinking, when it is needed most.

Barristers in control of their body are in control of their presence, of the messages, conscious and subconscious, that they send to others. They can orient themselves to a judge, witness, opponent or client for specific impact. They can maximise their presence when facing down a difficult witness or opponent, de-emphasise their power with a vulnerable client. They create a body which is relaxed and responsive, reserving energy that would otherwise be lost through muscular tension. Theycanbring more power and force to their advocacy through a deeper synchronicity of movement and speech.

The similarity in the subjective experience of the barrister and actor is so striking, it is inconceivable to me that the former cannot learn from the latter. The importance of performance lies not just in the difference between mere information and persuasion, between generalisation and specificity, looking bad or looking good, but also in the difference between a kind of professional purgatory and certainty, of unconscious trial and error and conscious mastery. In my opinion, it is fundamental. 

 

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Chan Shoker

Chan Shoker spent six years at Cornwall Street Chambers before retraining as an actor