Yes, And …
Brian Breiter on improvisation, storytelling and getting beyond a “Just the facts” mindset
Published in 2024 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
By Jim Walsh on January 9, 2024
“Grown-Up Theater Kids Run the World” read the August 2023 New York Times headline, referring to the likes of MSNBC host Chris Hayes and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, and Brian Breiter wouldn’t disagree. His eight-week-long Improv for Trial class, which he teaches with actor Joseph Limbaugh, comes with a similar headline: “All the world is a stage, and so is the courtroom!”
“We’ve taught nearly a thousand lawyers at this point,” says Breiter, a personal injury attorney with offices in LA and Miami. “We started doing Zoom classes live during the pandemic; we were teaching lawyers around the country. Since then, we’ve built a theater at my office here, where we teach a weekly live class.”
“Improv is not just for actors, it’s for humans,” adds Limbaugh, who cites the late improv guru Keith Johnstone as the course’s guiding light. “We put ourselves in boxes, we put walls between each other, and improv makes you a better human being, because it makes you more empathetic, and it makes you able to connect with people in a way you didn’t know you could connect.”
That much was evident at a Zoom-held class last August, when a dozen attorneys were put through improv games, drills, role-playing, and riffing on specific scenarios. “Try having a conversation with each other without using words with the letter ‘T’ in them,” they were told. All of which amounted to two hours of laughter, learning, and sharpened connective chops.
Breiter and Limbaugh met at the ACME Theater Company in LA, but the idea for an improv course for attorneys began 12 years earlier in Atlanta when Limbaugh was hit by a car. In the subsequent case, he was underwhelmed by the performance of his attorney. Upon moving to California, his opinion on lackluster lawyering was reinforced when he was called in for jury duty.
“The defense came out, and he was a totally calm, cool guy. Talked to all of us, looked us in the eyes,” says Limbaugh. “When the prosecutor came out, it must have been his first trial, because he was so nervous. It was classic stage fright: shaking, sweating, looking at cards, not looking us in the eyes. I was just like, ‘That guy’s gonna lose. It doesn’t matter what his case is, he’s gonna lose.’ So all that stuff came up again when I started doing this with Brian.”
Breiter, a former child actor, had been teaching a course in improv for mediation with colleague Jeff Krivis, and things got cooking anew when they brought in Limbaugh, whom Breiter calls “a master improviser.”
“What we’re doing [as attorneys] is we’re telling our clients’ stories,” says Breiter. “But while we’re telling the story, we’re telling it to an audience of people who are involved in the case. I mean, who writes the end of the story in these trials? The jury, right? So we’re starting to involve the jury in the story and using the improvisational theater storytelling techniques to get those jurors invested in the case. By doing so, by not just telling them the facts of the case but really telling a story, you’re making them all feel like they’re part of this big story together.”
Improv for Trial has attracted not only lawyers but judges, mediators and actors, all looking to broaden their professional horizons. As that late summer class illustrated, attorneys who have been trained in the facts-only arena of law oftentimes need to be jarred out of their shell.
“As a lawyer,” Breiter says, “if you’re not hyperaware of everything that is going on in the courtroom from the moment that jury walks in, you are failing your client. That’s where improv comes in. Improv teaches us to be hyperaware, hyperpresent, and to be listening better than anyone else in the room. If we’re not listening to everything that’s being said, and observing everything that’s being done in that room, we are missing critical information. “More than anything, improv means listening, really listening, and taking the information and giving it to your partner or audience and building on it to tell a better story.”
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