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Actor teaches lawyers that 'all the court's a stage'

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''There is no right or wrong. There is only truth,'' actor Richard Grusin tells lawyers.

On stage, this maxim means that there is no right or wrong way of portraying a character -- only the one that will have the ring of truth for an audience.

But what relevance does this precept have to the courtroom, where hard facts, not illusions, are supposed to prevail?

Plenty, says Mr. Grusin, who teaches acting methodology to lawyers.

He maintains that acting methods can help attorneys unearth the elements of their personality that will make their courtroom performance more convincing.

Many lawyers seem to agree.

His recent 2 1/2-hour lecture at Harvard University was attended by 50 to 60 attorneys representing some of New England's most prestigious law firms. Because of the success of that seminar, the National Practice Institute, which offers continuing education for professionals, decided to sponsor several more at various universities across the country.

''You are not only the actor in that courtroom,'' Grusin told the lawyers at his Harvard seminar, ''you are the director, the screenwriter, the producer.''

He coaches attorneys on the use of dramatic devices, such as ''builds'' (an approach designed to ''create a sense of suspense in the jury's mind''), upstaging techniques (to distract the jury), and careful use of ''props'' (pieces of evidence) to ''invest them with life.''

''Mistakes can become weapons, very powerful weapons,'' he points out. ''Sometimes, you may want to make a mistake, because (then) the jury will relate to you as a human being. For the same reason, it's wonderful to look scared, because then (the jury will) want you to do well.''

How do such instructions sit with the nation's jurists? Is it ethical for attorneys to use stage techniques to ''create an image in the jury's mind,'' as Grusin suggests? Does such sophisticated methodology cross the line between persuasion and manipulation?

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