What’s Not Bull About Bull – Episode Four “Callisto”

Posted by Katherine James & Alan Blumenfeld on October 24th, 2016

By Katherine James


CBS announced this week that they are “picking up” BULL for another season. So…that means that in the court of public opinion, in which BULL is the most watched new series of this season, the jury has decided it is having a great time watching this show.

As am I!

This week’s episode focused on trying a pharmaceutical patent case in a mythical town in West Texas called “Callisto”. Those of us who know and love working on patent cases know that this is actually a town in East Texas called either “Marshall” or “Tyler”. Maybe it is the “other” town – Texarkana – that IS famously both in West Texas and in Arkansas. But the town felt really like one of the first two to me – I’ve been in both.

This episode brings a nugget of truth that I work on all the time in cases – choosing language.

Every case I have ever worked on has a special “lingo” that only people who live in the world of the case understand. Many cases call for me helping witnesses find “translations” of what they say every day in their work life into language the jurors can understand, remember, and hold onto. I find myself in many cases saying, “How would you say that in English?” For example, let’s say we are in a business case and a witness answers the question, “Did you talk with Mr. Smith about what the other side is calling ‘a problem’?” with, “We interfaced with one another and determined the issue was dormant” you know the chances of any human being understanding what the heck this person is talking about are nil. It takes awhile to get folks to translate their own words. For example, eventually the witness will get to “We did talk with one another and figured out that the problem had solved itself.” But it takes time and care.

In a patent case, in general like the one Dr. Bull’s trial consulting team focuses on in this episode is bound to have language that confounds anyone who is not a scientist, engineer or an attorney in this world. The case in this episode deals with patent litigation involving a pharmaceutical drug. So…anyone on the jury who isn’t a research scientist with a drug company or a lawyer who deals with these cases is going to get totally lost really quickly if the witnesses speak their own lingo from the stand. We are treated to such an example by an expert witness who loses and alienates the jurors immediately. Dr. Bull and his team have to make sure that when their own witness, the client, talks to the jurors about the drug and the patent that she uses clear understandable language, tells her story from her heart, and echoes their really great theme: “He wanted to save money, but she wanted to save lives.”

Warning – in this episode there is an OompaLoompa that happens here. Remember – an OompaLoompa has been defined by me as a fantastical way to get the thin candy coating on a round milk chocolate candy versus the factual way they are made by the Hershey folks at the M&M’s factory. Now, you know I would really much rather see the upcoming musical on Broadway of WILLIE WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY starring one of my favorite actors, Christian Borle than visit the M&M’s factory. But I deal in making real live M&M’s – think in this case – helping witnesses choose language to use on the witness stand.

The OompaLoompa is that one of the characters on Dr. Bull’s trial consulting team, former prosecutor Benny Colón played by Freddy Rodríguez does this “all by himself” in a corner somewhere (off camera by the way) and presumably then hands the testimony to the witness who memorizes it. In real life, the language must be the witness’ language, not the language of a trial consultant or an attorney. Making M&M’s takes longer, but there is nothing more rewarding than experiencing a witness translating their “lingo” into language and a story that can be understood literally and emotionally by one and all.

I promised you that in every blog I write about BULL that I would give you a Hollywood Inside Tip. This week it is this…I knew that BULL was being picked up not because of reading about it in the trades…but because a voice. I’m not talking about spiritualism…I’m talking about a pal of ours, Willow Geer whose voice is heard on the show. What does this mean? Ever notice in a film or television show that when there is a crowd of people that you might hear them talking? I’m not talking about individual actors speaking lines, I’m talking about a general sound of people talking? This is a much sought after union job that is filled by trained and talented actors like Willow. She emailed and asked us where she should go for research on juries, focus groups for trials, etc. So I knew that they were making more than the five that were scheduled for sure. Where did we direct her? To our own Knowledge Tank on the ACT of Communication website of course.

So…I wonder if next week’s episode is the last one until January or so. Can’t wait to see what it’s about…and where the nuggets of truth are.




What’s Not Bull About Bull – Episode Three “Unambiguous”

Posted by Katherine James & Alan Blumenfeld on October 17th, 2016

By Katherine James


Once again Bull showed us that Good Television and real life are not the same thing. BUT once again, there were many fantastic nuggets of truth in this week’s highly entertaining episode. I am not going to give you all of them – but I am going to talk about the ones that I work with in my very real life as a trial consultant. Again, I will leave other trial consultants to talk about their areas of specialization as they relate to this episode. I’m also going to include a little Hollywood tidbit at the end … in case you are interested at all in “how it works” in the land of glitz and glitter.

I will, as I did last blog, distinguish fact from fantasy in what I discuss in this way. I shall label facts “FACTS” and fantasies “OOMPA LOOMPAS” because I got so much positive feedback to that comparison in my previous blog. Basically, I am alluding to the difference between how M&M’s are made (a factual process that may actually be able to be observed) and how the little chocolate candies were made in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. I will say again that I would much rather watch Gene Wilder right now than anyone in the Hershey’s Factory.

Dr. Bull was just the most brilliant of witness preparers again this week. As I said last time, these are the parts of each of the episodes to which I relate the most closely since that’s what I spend so much of my time doing. This week’s client/witness (OOMPA LOOMPA warning – a member of his team is an attorney and tried the case. Against his former girlfriend. Sexy sparks flew. Good Television!) was subject to panic attacks. I loved that he had her count out of order because “the mind doesn’t allow you to count out loud out of order and have a panic attack.” FACT: In real life I run into panicky witnesses all the time. I generally have them breathe slowly and deeply. I then work on getting them to put their faith and trust in their lawyers. I find a lot of people are just completely terrified and think they are alone. They are never alone. They always have their lawyer either guarding them against the enemy or right by their sides. Sometimes it just takes a little loving glue to make a bridge between that most important of relationships – lawyer and client. OOMPA LOOMPA: Of course, Dr. Bull never seems to work with an attorney in the room. I always do. I guess attorney client privilege is not Good Television. And during the trial when she started having a panic attack during cross she looked right at Dr. Bull who nodded at her, and they both had tears in their eyes? Bad courtroom practice in reality, but gosh that was Good Television.

This week’s case involves a criminal Pro Bono case. FACT: trial consultants, like attorneys, do Pro Bono cases. The American Society Of Trial Consultants has a Pro Bono Committee dedicated to this effort. I myself have at least one big Pro Bono client that I am working with at any given time (right now I am working with Public Counsel here in Los Angeles). I also work on cases when asked. My rule? If the attorney is doing the case Pro Bono then I’ll help when appropriate. OOMPA LOOMPA: no trial consultant I know goes and visits someone who is incarcerated and tells them that they can turn their case and life around single handedly. But it sure was fun to watch that adorable Michael Weatherly (Dr. Bull) do just that. So personable. Good Television!

Now, there is another aspect to the series that I understand because of my background. The “How A Show Is Put Together In Hollywood” aspect. So…Dr. Bull is The Star and is going to wear pretty much all of the hats and be the protagonist who wins the day. His crack team is going to carry bits and pieces, but he is where the money is being invested in this show and he is expected to carry it. Did you notice that when at the victory party it was announced that the real killer was the coach of the college team that the murder victim played on? How it was just brushed off? Okay. So. The kid who was on the stand playing the best friend of the murder victim was an actor who was hired for one day – appropriately enough he is known as “A Day Player”. The coach and the rest of the team, who were in the courtroom scene when he testified – oooo, you don’t remember them? That’s because they were all extras. They didn’t talk. They would never talk. They are just extras. They fill out the atmosphere of the scene. They are, in fact called “The Atmosphere.” FACT: You can’t have a big dramatic scene where the real culprit is arrested and confesses if that culprit is played by an extra because unless they do it with no words…he can’t talk. Actually, if he had been put in cuffs and walked out he’d get a bump in salary because that would be called “A FEATURED BIT”. But it was better for the show for it just to be a throw away line in the party. Spoken, of course by Dr. Bull.

Get how it works? Did you follow the money? You bet Steven Spielberg – one of this show’s executive producers – does.

I know I will keep watching. And reporting about the FACTS and OOMPA LOOMPAS as I see them in this highly entertaining look at the world of Trial Consulting in this blog. With a bit of Hollywood info thrown in for good measure. Happy viewing!


What’s Not Bull About Bull

Posted by Katherine James & Alan Blumenfeld on October 4th, 2016

Episode One “The Necklace” and Episode Two “The Woman In 8D”

By Katherine James


By now you either have or have not watched the “trial consulting” show about that won the television ratings game as “most watched new show on television” when it premiered: Bull

I surely watched the premiere episode: “The Necklace”. Twice.

And I watched this past week’s, “The Woman In 8D”.

And I am going to watch the coming weeks for as long as it lasts.

And I am going to comment on it from time to time.

In all candor, I was going to comment the very first week, but I was so taken by my colleague Tara Trask’s post on her blog that I reposted it to ours (please check it out if you haven’t yet – it appears directly beneath this one).

For those of you not in the know,
Bull is a brand new television show whose central character is a trial consultant. It was created by Dr. Phil and his son Jay, who both have continuing producing responsibilities on the show. Again, to be perfectly honest with you, I started out absolutely terrified of what this show could do for our reputation (that is, trial consultants in general). The name alone totally freaked me out – I assumed that “Bull” meant “Bullshit”. Please note this response of mine – I am going to refer to it again when I talk about “The Woman In 8D”.

I was also scared that whatever this fiction was that was being sold by CBS and that I was seeing in the trailers for the show was completely false. Unreal. With no basis in reality.

Finally, I was scared that everyone would think that I did what this Bull character did. Which from what I could tell from the trailers was total B.S.

And you know what?

After watching the first two episodes and looking forward to a third I am here to tell you that there is a heck of a lot of truth at the base of what goes on in the show. Now, I’m not saying that the trial consulting part actually works the way that Dr.Bull and his team do it. Not at all. But as I said to Tara over the phone, somewhere in Hershey, Pennsylvania M&M’s have been known to get a thin candy shell over a milk chocolate base. I’m sure it is a very real process. But I really like the way the Oompa Loompas do it in Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. I know that isn’t really how it happens…but wow, I could watch that movie again right now. I was also dreading having conversations with people who now were magically going to want to become trial consultants based on seeing Bull Then I regained a bit of sanity when I realized that no one ever told me that he or she wanted to go to medical school because they wanted to have a lot of sex on the job like the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy. Nor has anyone said that they want to become a police officer and have their entire family become police officers and D.A.’s so that they can constantly be involved in conflicts of interest and drink heavily around the dining room table every Sunday like that nice Reagan family on Blue Bloods.

Oh, that’s right.


That thing my husband Alan Blumenfeld is on all the time (who turned to me after the first episode by the way and said, “I like it. Good Television.”)

It’s not REAL.

So why does this show have so many trial consultants up in arms?


And when we do, WE DON’T DO IT LIKE THAT.

Let’s first look at “we don’t do all that stuff”. I am so steeped in trial consulting from my point of view as a trial consultant that I couldn’t see past that to the television-savvy part of my brain. Dr. Bull and his staff manage to do the two basic parts of any criminal television procedural show: they do what the lawyers do, and they do what the police and investigators do. They also do a third part that up until this show has never been fictionalized before: they do what trial consultants do.

Why on earth would the lead in a television show do everything, be the catalyst for all the action, and even solve the crime? Because that’s what central characters on television shows do. Think “Columbo”. Think “Macgyver”. I ask you to think like this because this show is very “old fashioned” in this way. Haven’t you noticed that all the Law and Order shows, as unrealistic as they are, have the police and investigators doing their part and the lawyers doing theirs? Not here. Dr. Bull, assisted by his team, does it all.

Let’s look at the “we don’t do it like that” part. There are so many nuggets of truth in the show that I couldn’t possibly list everything that happened in the first two episodes that is either rooted in the truth or has a glimmer of truth in it. Again, think about the fact of M&M’s being made versus them being made fantastically by Oompa Loompas. I will leave the things that others do to compare and contrast…but let me talk about some things that I do that I’ve seen happen on Bull. I do participate in helping prepare witnesses. I wish I could just magically save them with a simple sentence “Just talk to them like they are fans who buy your records!”…but then, making M&M’s takes so much actual work when you are not an Oompa Loompa. I’ve helped witnesses with clothing, hair and makeup choices. I wish I had a perfectly dressed gay ex-football star to help me out…but…oh, well. Such is real life. I related the most to Dr. Bull personally when he was trying to figure out what made the witness in front of him act that way. I do that every day of the week with a “y” in it. Dr. Bull at this point in every show sounds the most like Dr. Phil from The Dr. Phil Show. Now I don’t know if he really talked to witnesses that way or not…but I must tell you that I, for one, have been with people who became better witnesses because I, frankly, cared about them as people.

Remember when I said that I would tell you about my assumption that “Bull” could only mean “Bullshit”? I have come to see that it also means “Bull’s Eye”. That it also means someone who will stubbornly go against all odds to make sure that justice is served. Not a horrible image at all. But what I felt immediately about the show was bias. Yep, that thing that lawyers and trial consultants are constantly looking for when looking for fair and impartial jurors. “Juror Bias” was a big part of the episode “The Woman In 8D”. How about that? I must say if the people who saw that show – many of whom could be called for jury duty – got even got an inkling about what juror bias might mean in a case then the whole episode was worthwhile.

Now I am left to ponder…are the members of The Innocence Project freaked out that the new show coming up called Conviction promises to do their work of overturning wrongful convictions in just five days? And the question I know are all the women who actually do that extraordinary, low-paid public service work wondering why on earth the leading lady seems to be wearing Christian Louboutin Heels when they themselves can barely afford to shop at Payless? Or have they, like me, figured out…IT’S ONLY TELEVISION. LIGHTEN UP AND ENJOY THE RIDE.


It’s Not All Bull

Posted by Katherine James & Alan Blumenfeld on September 26th, 2016

Posted by Tara Trask on September 24, 2016

Reposted by Katherine James on September 26, 2016


The legal community is abuzz about the new CBS drama “Bull”. Played by Michael Weatherly of NCIS fame, Dr. Jason Bull is a “brilliant, brash and charming” trial consultant said to be loosely based on Dr. Phil’s early career as a trial consultant. I worked for Phil McGraw’s consulting firm back in the 90’s, and I can confirm many similarities between the whip-smart, funny Dr. Bull and my mentor.

Of course there are differences, and the show itself is a somewhat fantastical and entertaining story of one highly fictionalized man. I don’t know of any trial consultants that share Dr. Bull’s feline intuition or his tenuous relationship with honesty and the law.

The American Society of Trial Consultants, (for which I served as President 2011-2012) is rightly concerned about the public’s perception of our field. Dr. Bull steals lead trial counsel’s watch, bugs it, hacks into phone records, and solves the crime by identifying the true culprit once his client is exonerated. And who wouldn’t love to have all the high-tech gadgetry on display in this show? But like the glossy CSI franchise, much of it is science fiction. This is, after all, a primetime Hollywood drama, so it’s not surprising that it takes liberties with reality in exchange for a glossy and glamorous narrative tied up neatly in 43 minutes.

But does “Bull” get anything right? The general public, and quite a few lawyers for that matter, tend to think of us only as “jury pickers” who “read people”. But Dr. Bull, like most of the successful trial consultants I know, is deeply involved in the entire strategy of the case.

At the beginning of the show, we see his team testing case themes and arguments through mock simulations to mock jurors. My state of the art mobile courtroom isn’t as fancy as Dr. Bull’s, (I don’t see any reason to charge my clients for the costs of shipping wood paneling), but it’s not a huge departure from it either.

Dr. Bull’s wall of monitors depicting everything there is to know about each of the prospective jurors is slick television at its best. In a lengthy, or high profile case we might obtain a fraction of the same information Bull displays on the flashy monitors, (if the judge allowed a supplemental juror questionnaire or extended attorney voir dire), but it’s normally kept in old-fashioned, but user friendly, ordinary binders.

He also conducts extensive witness preparation with the young, frightened client. Importantly, his preparation of the witness goes far beyond “charm school”, or commenting on attire, (although that certainly is part of what we do.) Like many of us, Dr. Bull spends hours with the witness, not just talking at him or giving him do’s and don’ts, but actually listening to him—allowing Bull to get to the bottom of what makes his client tick. Once he has that understanding, he is able to help the client peel back the layers of fear getting in the way of his ability to testify not only truthfully, but authentically. Trial consultants do that kind of work daily.

Dr. Bull isn’t trying to stack the jury in his client’s favor or “rig” the system. Rather, he’s trying to ensure that anyone who can’t be fair to his client never makes it to the jury box. Every trial consultant worth their salt is trying to do the same thing.

Most importantly, Dr. Bull is not cynical. At one point, Dr. Bull’s client, a young man charged with murder exclaims; “they won’t believe me!”, when faced with the daunting challenge of telling the truth, but revealing something intensely personal about himself. Dr. Bull looks at him and says: “Don’t give up on people. They’re all we’ve got.” That sounds like faith in the jury to me.

Far from being sardonic puppeteers out to game the system, every trial consultant I know shares an abiding love for the jury system and those who take time from their lives to serve, a zealous belief that most juries get it right most of the time, and a nearly religious respect for the laws of this country.

With sixteen million viewers in its first week and the number one timeslot on network television, I hope that Dr. Bull lives up to the field he purports to portray. Even if he doesn’t, the show still looks like it will provide an enjoyable escape from my everyday reality.

Check out the interview I gave Ross Todd at Law.com, here about my time working with Dr. Phil.


Love & Mercy — Movies for Lawyers — The Act Of Communication Point Of View

Posted by Katherine James & Alan Blumenfeld on August 11th, 2015

Katherine James:


LOVE & MERCY is a film to which you should run and not walk.

If you have always wondered what was really going on in the life of Brian Wilson as he struggled with art and fame and love as he created the sound of a generation, your questions will be answered here.

If you enjoy amazing performances by wonderful actors, this is the film for you. Paul Dano is just brilliant as Brian Wilson in the “past” and John Cusack equally amazing as Brian Wilson in the “future”. Paul Giamatti is just terrifying as Dr. Eugene Landry, the shrink who manipulated his way into running Brian’s life. The simple and glorious performance of Elizabeth Banks as Melinda, Brian’s true love and rescuer, is the essence of how an actor simply “listens” and “responds”.

The star of the piece, however, is the sound.

I went in expecting the music, of course. But what I didn’t realize was that the sound inside of Brian’s head as he is creating music, responding to mental health issues, the medication to deal with his problems, the conflict of those around him would be a huge element in the show. You know how many times entertainment awards for sound design go to either sci fi thrillers or war movies? Rarely does a sound designer Eugene Gearty get to go inside the human mind, let alone the mind of a genius. Here is an interview with Gearty on the process of creating the extraordinary sound for the film.

What can Lawyers learn from this film? The sounds that are created in the hearts and minds of the jurors are an oft neglected element of demonstrative evidence in a case. See LOVE & MERCY, revel in the sound, and let your mind open to what sounds you want the jurors to be “hearing” in your case. You might not be able to create them like Gearty…but…using words to create the right “wall of sound” for this case is vital.
TIP: What are the sounds that are evoked in your case? How can you use them to implant the sound images you want to last all the way into the deliberation room and beyond?


MUSE ME – A Play About Artistic Inspiration

Posted by Katherine James & Alan Blumenfeld on May 12th, 2015

Katherine James:


My sister, Laura Ellen James, lived and died on February 5, 1955.

She would have been 60 years old this year.

For a year I thought to myself, “I would love to honor her birthday in some way in 2015 – give her some kind of birthday bash. After all, I would have given her a big party if she and I had spent those 60 years together.”

Of course I told no one.

There was really no one to tell. My mother, who is 89 years young, was in a coma that sad day in 1955. She and Laura Ellen were both victims of pre-eclampsia. She survived. My father, who was the only person other than me (I was turning 3 in April) conscious of the events of that terrible time had died in 2013. The day she was born and died he had named her “Laura Ellen” after the character “Laura Ellen James” in Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe . The “James” he had already given her by virtue of being her father.

Not only was I conscious, I remember so many of the events of that life-changing time for all of us. My mother claims I have the best and longest memory of any human being she has every known. So does my husband. My children. One of my granddaughters has managed to inherit it. It is a gift and a curse, the inability to forget.

For six decades I thought of her, spoke to her, dreamt of her and visited her grave in the baby section of Fairview Cemetary.

Then there came a period of time when I thought that she was my artistic inspiration.

Artistic inspiration. That instinct that tells you what words to write on the page as a playwright when you are stuck. Or what the character you are playing might do in that moment when you are acting. Or how to help the actors help you discover what the play you are directing is really all about.

It got really dicey for that period of time.

I thought I couldn’t do anything without her input.

At this point I happened to be doing some bodywork with someone who was also a very sensitive psychic. She told me, “Someone keeps trying to interfere with how you are expressing yourself as an artist. Tell her you are sorry she isn’t alive, but that you are and you have a right to express what you are meant to express.” “But it’s my sister,” I said. “So what?” she replied. “The world needs to know what you have to say. It’s sad and frustrating to be dead with so much left unsaid…but… that’s what happened to her. Not you.”

Gently I removed myself from Laura Ellen as anything but my dear sister who I would miss forever. I stopped confusing her as a source of artistic inspiration. And, of course, my work soared.

But I kept that relationship – the dead sister as muse relationship – in the back of my mind. I felt that somehow, some day, that relationship would be called on as the subject of a play.

When Tiffany announced the subject of the 2015 Little Black Ink National Female Playwrights Festival was “Outside The Lines” I knew that time had come. I tweaked the truth just enough – making The Artist a painter, and The Muse a twin sister rather than a younger sister. The first draft of MUSE ME flowed from my heart and my fingers. At the same time, a director from my home town asked if he could direct my play, THE OLD SALT (a finalist in 2014’s Little Black Dress Ink National Female Playwrights Festival), for a 10 minute play festival in the theater where I grew up. When was it? The festival would coincide with Laura Ellen’s 60th birthday.

I booked airline tickets for my mother and me immediately. I knew I was being given the gift for which I had asked.

February 5, 6, 7 and 8 of 2015 were amazing days for me. The glorious production of THE OLD SALT attended by so many from my past. Visiting friends and relatives. Going to see my sister and my father in the cemetery. Best of all was a special luncheon with a small number of women who were close to my mother and me, three of whom were associated with my home theater. I asked those theater friends to read MUSE ME at the luncheon. One read the stage directions, one read The Artist, and the third The Muse. The actress who read “The Muse” I chose especially not only because of her ability, but because she is the one who my mother trusts to take care of my sister’s and father’s graves. “But I feel like I know her!” she said before the reading. “I talk to her all the time!” “I know,” I said. “And that is why you get to play her.”

The reading was glorious and sacred. We all understood that we were there for Laura Ellen’s final birthday gift of the weekend. It is a moment I will keep in my heart until the day I die.

I look forward with joy and anticipation to sharing MUSE ME with the other semi-finalists this year on May 16th. This is a special one for me, and it is only right that it was inspired by one of the most extraordinary of theatre artists in my life – Tiffany Antone. Thank you, Tiffany, for choosing a festival theme that allowed me to find expression in this play which is so important to me as an artist and as a sister.

What’s The Difference Between A Great One-Person Show and Trying A Case? – The Act Of Communication Point Of View

Posted by Katherine James & Alan Blumenfeld on December 16th, 2014

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin



This week I had the sheer pleasure of experiencing Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin at The Geffen Playhouse. My companion that evening was a wonderful director and producer I’ve known for over 30 years. I turned her onto Seth Rudetsky and she turned me onto Hershey Felder whose extensive bio begins but doesn’t end in the cast notes. He has created these amazing musical biographies of such stars as Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt and Bernstein. He has performed his one-person shows over 4,500 times. His Irving Berlin show is almost 2 hours long and he plays it without an intermission – 8 shows a week. I was completely blown away by his brilliance. How he got us to sing along with the numbers. How he got us to understand the story of Berlin’s life through music and anecdote and we were never bored once. Not one time. I mean none of us in the sell-out crowd.

And then I thought…

Why am I so impressed? Isn’t that exactly what every lawyer I know does every time he or she tries a case? A one person show – with costume and lights and scenery and the best “help” in all the world…but…when the lights come up there is the lawyer. And every new trial the lawyer had a new group of people (jurors) who need to be wooed and won and to be charmed into singing along with the tunes.

I’m getting ready to write a one-person show. I’ve been asked to submit one to Green Light Productions. I’ve done two in my lifetime – many decades ago. Full evenings. Just me. The thought of doing one for even a single act I find quite challenging.

So…hats off to each and every one of you who tries cases. Check out Hershey when he comes to a theater near you – which he is bound to – for some inspiration to take you through the rehearsal for that next trial!

TIP: What are you doing that makes them sing along with you?

Problem Play vs Crowd Pleaser: ALLS WELL and MUCH ADO – The Act Of Communication Point Of View

Posted by Katherine James & Alan Blumenfeld on July 31st, 2014


Why are some plays of Shakespeare’s crowd-pleasing favorites? Why are others rarely performed and considered to be “problem plays” by scholars and audiences? And what can lawyers learn from this fact?

This summer at Theatricum Botanicum is the opportunity to have the pleasure of seeing two such plays side by side – each one a critically acclaimed and brilliantly delightful production. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING has been one of Shakespeare’s crowd pleasers for centuries. If I told you right now that you could see a show about two people who start out loudly and vehemently declaring that they hate love and one another and end up falling in love with one another…well…don’t you want to see that right now?

The other is ALLS WELL THAT ENDS WELL  one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. If I told you right now that you could see the pure vision and journey of a young woman to get the man of her dreams…and there is a lot of “stuff” around it that’s somewhat bewildering occasionally but she is a great character and you’ll walk away saying “Crazy about that Helena!”…well…don’t you see how this play is challenging?

The wonderful actress playing Helena in ALLS WELL, Willow Geer, also was the assistant director for MUCH ADO. I have gotten to speak with her this season about both experiences throughout the rehearsal and performance of both and it has really been eye opening for us both.

When I spoke to her while she was getting ready to play Helena, she said to me, “Gawd, Kathy, the language is so confusing! Getting this one into my head is so hard!” I said, “Honey, you are by yourself up there.” As brilliantly as director Ellen Geer has solved the problems and made the plots as clear as anyone I’ve seen, nothing can take away the fact that there is only one character in this play with a single bright line of journey. Playing Helena, you find yourself alone up there – even surrounded by other people talking at you and to you. That makes it awfully hard to get the lines inside your head!

When she came to assistant directing MUCH ADO Willow said to me, “So easy! So much fun! I am so jealous that I have to sit in the audience and not do this one – it is like a breeze after ALLS WELL.” Yes, it is. All the characters have bright lines and goals and the plot just points in that direction. There is nothing confusing. It is funny and satisfying and a “no brainer” since you know exactly what should happen – the lovers (who we are crazy about!) should fall in love and all should be right with the world. ALLS WELL is filled with muddled plot lines, gigantic question marks and a potentially unsatisfying love relationship. Why unsatisfying? If Helena didn’t love him so purely there wouldn’t be anything to the relationship. Bertram is basically a jerk for most of the show. More than a bit like Orsino in TWELFTH NIGHT. I always want to say to Viola (except when I played her, because the following thought is too dangerous for an actor), “Really? Of all the guys on the planet you want this whiny and depressive immature puppy? Maybe you need to consider your co-dependence issues.”

And then there are the muddled plot lines and gigantic question marks. Ellen said to me, “I don’t know why people call this a ‘problem play’ — I didn’t find it problematic.” Yeah, well…that’s because she is a genius at making sense of muddled plot lines and gigantic question marks.

One of these gigantic question marks is the character LaVatch, played by Alan Blumenfeld. Alan, like Willow, complained to me early in the rehearsal process – and since I live with him and not Willow, I got to hear it a lot more about what a bizarre character LaVatch is than about the Helena challenges. About how none of his lines made a lot of sense. About how they were basically just an unrelated series of topical jokes from the late 16th century. You know how sometimes you have to explain to someone why we thought something was funny, like the word “Bippy” from Laugh In? Okay. That was only about 40-45 years ago. Add a few centuries to that and you’ll see the problem. I didn’t remember LaVatch in the production we did in Ashland in 1975 – that’s because director Jon Jory cut the character out completely. Jory isn’t alone – this is a common thing to do when directing ALLS WELL as the character is easily simply lifted out of the plot without disturbing anything or anyone. As Alan read everything he could about the character and inquired of the scholarly theater folks we trust for answers to questions about Shakespeare – including our pal David Hammond – the “why” of the character came clear.

In Shakespeare’s company there was an actor named Will Kempe. He played a lot of the early clowns, and then was fired. Why? Because instead of sticking to the script, he would just start doing a song and dance (literally), and then crack a few jokes from his “act” (think Elizabethan Stand Up Comedian Vegas Show). He, of course, felt his public wanted to see his shtick, Shakespeare and company wanted the show to go on without interruption. Reminds me of a story I heard about how Ray Bolger – aka The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Apparently he used to spontaneously burst into “Once In Love With Amy” from his big hit “Where’s Charley?”  in every curtain call in every play he ever did after that. Even after management threatened to fire him.

So Shakespeare wanted to make it up to Will Kempe and wrote the character of LaVatch especially for him. The lines are filled with bawdy and delicious 16th century humor – and — could be traded at a moment’s notice for a joke Will might come up with in his spontaneous way – without being a problem for the rest of the actors or the plot. Alan is playing him as a tribute to all the great borscht belt comedians he grew up on as a kid – and, of course, Will Kempe. He’s plays with the audience during the show, won’t “keep going” with the play until he gets someone laughing (the only time he strays from Shakespeare’s language is when he says to an audience member “Really????” – this could change though – we are early in the run), spends the intermission walking around and talking to the audience. There is a moment when Alan, in character, takes off his hat and with it his wig and there he is with his short gray hair. Alan’s fans in the audience all gasp and giggle and you can hear them say, “Oh, look! It’s Alan!” Alan, with Ellen’s guidance, has really has taken an “impossible” role and made it an unforgettable gem and audience experience.

Now…what can lawyers learn from this experience?

How often have I seen an attorney make a case a clear “no brainer” like MUCH ADO? Many times. This is the goal – make your case a “no brainer”. The “plot” must be as simple and clean as you can make it – two people who hate love and one another end up falling in love with one another. That’s MUCH ADO. How about your case?

How often have I seen a younger attorney shine in the middle of a mess of a case when she or he puts on a witness with purity of purpose and heart? Much like Helena in ALLS WELL. If you are a younger member of a trial team and you get such a chance – you and your witness can offer a beacon of light to the way of a great result.

How often have I seen a sideshow that took away from the case? A song and dance that really was distracting and took away from what needed to be put in front of the jury to make the whole case a “no brainer”? I remember a lawyer insisting once that the most important fact in a sexual harassment case was that the outrageous behavior happened in the produce section of a grocery store. Not the behavior itself, but the fact that it was near open containers of fruit and vegetables. Really? Clearly a battle I lost. That LaVatch stayed in. Dang.

TIP: How do you eliminate the extraneous in this case? 

Susan Angelo and Robertson Dean

Willow Geer and Max Lawrence

Why should lawyers read what Nancy has to say in her blog post “Breathing In Summer”?

Posted by Katherine James & Alan Blumenfeld on July 10th, 2014
When I met the brilliant Nancy Houfek she was a student in my acting class in the summer congress at A.C.T. in 1976. Ever brilliant, ever talented, ever far thinking, Just as I found a way to connect theater and the law, Nancy has found her own way of combining what she knows as a theater artist and the “outside” world. She helps leaders become better at what they do through what she knows. A member of the esteemed faculty at Harvard for a number of years, she has recently moved to Oregon and is working as a consultant with leaders nationally and internationally.

Why should lawyers read what Nancy has to say in her blog post “Breathing In Summer”?

Because lawyers are leaders. You know that you spend a limited amount of time in a courtroom or a deposition room. You spend most of your time running your business, running your life, running around sometimes like a lunatic. Or maybe that’s just me.

I hope you find her words as inspiring as I do.

Breathing In Summer

By Nancy Houfek

Stop. Right now. Drop your shoulders. Drop them again — they will let go even more.  Lengthen the back of your neck. Let your jaw release and your mouth hang open. Uncross your legs. Let your belly release.  Let your body sink into your chair. Let your lungs fill with air.  What do you feel? What do you hear? What do you sense?

Even on my most relaxed summer days, I find it easy to stay braced against the world.  My mind is whirling with things to do, ideas to examine, words, words, words.  Do I stop to breathe the world in?  Can I see and hear and smell and taste and touch the beauty of each day?  Can I experience my non-words self? Can I fully experience others?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the essence of theater training and how to incorporate it into helping people exercise leadership. Theater training for leadership usually centers around creating charismatic speakers. It’s a mistake, however, to imagine that charisma can provide the depth and facility that true leadership demands.

A good actor hopes to listen with all senses open. This isn’t a simple task. The multiple times an actor says the same words and responds to the same lines can cause her brain to go on automatic pilot. Interchanges become mechanical repetitions, neither person hearing the other’s words. If the actor is unsure of her lines, her only concern may be calling up the words, cutting off any ability to hear what’s coming in.  The actor’s mind may be also distracted by questions, concerns, fears, mistakes, self-judgments, or irrelevant observations so that it cannot stay focused on anything else. What do actors do to bring listening back to a lively and present state?

Stop.  Drop your shoulders.  Release your belly.  Let your jaw go.  Allow a big breath to expand your ribcage.

In life, we are often too busy judging the content of what someone is saying, or framing a fantastic response, to really hear what’s being said. We might even be holding our breath to better focus on our own thinking, which keeps the body defended against really hearing.

A full breath expands our sensory awareness.  Listening the actor’s way gives us a chance to hear “the song beneath the words,” allowing the sub-text (the intent or emotion behind the words) to be perceived. We can learn to listen more fully by learning to breathe more fully. We are literally breathing each other in by taking in the air around us.

But then a problem arises. Actors are taught to respond spontaneously with their instinctual selves. If an actor pauses to reflect, she may be told, “Don’t decide how to say the line, just say the line.” This unfiltered response may be a liability in exercising leadership.

A full breath can access a trustworthy physical response. We must learn to recognize that impulsive reaction, mentally investigate the loyalties that prompted it, negotiate with those loyalties, and then choose the most appropriate words and tone.  Most of us err on the side of the actor, causing us to speak words that we might later regret.

How do we train to be both present with others and available to ourselves?  How do we learn to listen fully, investigate our reactions, and then choose the text and manner of delivery that will move our leadership work forward? Breathing is the first step. Taking at least one deep breath between reaction and action gives us that essential moment of contemplation.

Again, drop your shoulders.  Let your hands be soft.  Let go of your belly.  Soften your lips and your brow.  Soften your eyes.  Let your jaw drop and allow the air to fill your back.  What do you sense behind you?

Performing in a play is like a long moving meditation, where the mind is focused on the immediate present. Worrying about what’s next or lingering on what just happened is a distraction. Actors bring their performance energy to this one task:  existing moment-to-moment within the confines of their role. This mindful presence is a wonderful skill and breathing is at its center.

Unlike a performer, however, in the exercise of leadership one must try to see as much of the picture as possible. If an actor thinks in this way, she may be accused of having a director’s mind. The successful stage director quickly, easily and frequently traverses the gap between action and observation, moving from intimate conversation with each actor to seeing a broad view of the production.

Leadership action needs to combine both actors’ and directors’ skills: to be focused and present, yet able to see behind the scenes.  She can then perceive what factions are in play, what’s at stake for each faction, and who is allied with whom. Director Robert Woodruff calls this kind of mindfulness “having soft eyes.”  Breathing in the world around us is the core.

Do it now.  Breathe.  Feel the back of your neck open.  Feel your feet on the floor. Breathe.  Can  you feel your awareness expand as your body expands?

Revealing oneself in public night after night is a high-risk activity. Every actor has a personal ritual of transformation prior to performance to manage this risk.  Some do a physical or vocal warm-up. Others may listen to music or review the text as they slowly change into costume.  Some do a set of push-ups or joke around with the crew.  A small sacred space separates the concerns of daily life from the events to come onstage.

In leadership, this bulwark is often missing. We run from one meeting to another, prepare a talk on the fly, react to events without thinking, letting the stress of leading take a toll on both body and mind. This is where the nitty-gritty of actor training can really assist in act of leading: the body can be prepared, the mind cleared, and the focus reset on the tasks to come.  And it all comes down to taking time to breathe.

I don’t need to be in the hurly-burly of my professional life to do this.  I don’t need to be teaching or leading or performing.  I can practice this daily.  It’s not hard.

I can stop.  Notice my tensions.  Let them go. Watch my mind’s distractions disappear as I come back to the present.  See the world around me. Breathe it in.  Experience me.  Experience the sky and the wind and my husband.

Be in the garden.



Murder In The First – The Act Of Communication Point Of View

Posted by Katherine James & Alan Blumenfeld on June 23rd, 2014


Television shows that involve courtrooms have intrigued me long before I became interested in applying theater to the law. I vividly remember The Defenders and Perry Mason from my childhood. When I grew up and acted on the small screen I appeared in L.A. Law – a popular show back in the day. The tight writing was by none other than Steven Bochco, well-known and respected television writer and producer. Some of his shows have been wildly popular, others not so much, but I have consistently enjoyed whatever has intrigued him, especially when it comes to the courtroom.

His latest offering, Murder In The First, had me at “hello”. Brilliant casting, tight writing, interesting premise – follow one murder case from beginning to end in a handful of episodes. This isn’t the first time that Mr. Bochco has tried this concept – one case in a season. He also did it with Murder One. But that was a whole season per murder – twenty-two episodes to tell one story. And that didn’t go nearly as well as Murder In The First is going. How can that be?

Here’s where lawyers need to pay attention. Just as the landscape of television has changed – fewer episodes, many channels – so has the practice of trying a case. Today, you are expected to try a case in a shorter period of time. You no longer have the luxury of weeks and even months. “Try it in three days!” the judge barks. There seem to be a lot more “channels” competing for the attention of the whole system – and which one are you going to get on? Is being on the “cable channel” of courtrooms in your jurisdiction really worse that being on “network channel”? Doesn’t it really depend on the judge? And the audience has changed for you, just as it has for Mr. Bochco. How do you find a show and follow it for six weeks when you don’t even know where it is? How do you grab a group of jurors and get them focused on your case when the world is bombarding them with so many messages?

Just as Steven Bochco is discovering, telling a story in fewer rather than more episodes can be better. Putting on a case in less rather than more time can be better. Why? You are forced to hone in on the essence of the story that you need to tell. The result of honing in on the essential story means that your jurors can find you. They tune into you in the courtroom rather than spacing out into the myriad of other messages floating through their brains.

And for the Alan Blumenfeld fans – you can see him play a judge in episode four. Although it plays on Monday nights, the beauty of cable vs. network is you have several opportunities to catch the episodes during the week. Some day I may find a correlation between television and trying a case for multiple showings and On Demand. Stay tuned.

TIP: How much time do you really need to tell the story?


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