On your mark… get set… improvise!

Relax, commit and enjoy the moment

Shaina Colover
2016 August

I race from the parking lot, down the grassy hill and fly through the propped-open side door to the South Coast Rep Theatre. After checking-in at the desk, I snake through a series of hallways to arrive at the stage for my first Improv class. I step into the black box theatre at 7:00 p.m. on the dot, my heart is racing. I see raked seats to my left and a stage to my right where a group of 25 juror-esque characters are congregated in a circle. I enter the circle and peruse the diverse assortment of classmates when, seemingly out of nowhere, pops a mischievously intense, older man. He does one quick lap around the stage grinning ominously to himself, stops directly in front of me, leans in close and shouts:

“LIST FIVE ONE-WORD BREAKFAST CEREALS, before time runs out; GO!!!!”

All eyes on me. Timer ticking down loudly in my head. Images of childhood breakfast flashing through my mind. Fruit Loops, Cookie Crisp, Lucky Charms —ARGH, all 2 words! Then one comes to me: “TRIX,” I shout triumphantly.

Go, go, go brain! Surely, there are more one-word breakfast cereals on the planet! (Timer ticking, eyes staring.)  Colorful cereals dance through my panicking mind, Cocoa Puffs, Fruity Pebbles, Cap’n Crunch, Honey Bunches of Oats… really brain? We are headed in the wrong direction! (Timer ticking louder, stomach fluttering.) My brain screams, “concentrate, woman, you KNOW there are more!” The words “Trix are for kids” are now looping in my head like some eerie mantra. (Timer ticking faster, faces staring, smugly, clearly my classmates are thinking of one-word breakfast cereals I’ve missed.) It’s right there… on the tip of my tongue! Then like a ninja, the instructor appears and shouts, “TIME!” right as I shout, “CHEERIOS!!!”

Wow. That was brutal. Sixteen years as an attorney, countless years of training as an actress at U.C. San Diego and Oxford, a lifetime of smart-mouthing, and I’m stumped by…breakfast cereal? How could that be? It wasn’t until later that night following class, after driving myself directly to the market, and finding myself in the cereal aisle muttering cereal names to myself, (“Chex!” “Wheaties!” “Granola and Oatmeal…. I certainly could have made a case for those two counting!” “Ahh, I can’t believe I forgot Life cereal… I love Life cereal!”), that it dawned on me. Plain and simple, I panicked.

So, like a good trial lawyer, I began to break it down. What could I take from this Improv class to improve as an attorney and serve my clients more effectively? After more reflection, and a big bowl of cereal, I thought of three lessons that I could apply to my trial practice:


RELAX: When you panic, your brain goes into “fight or flight” mode. Your heart rate increases, breathing and hearing change; and your body turns its full attention to SURVIVAL. This is awesome if you’re running from a bear! However, not so awesome for remembering important case facts, (or reciting lists of breakfast cereal). Therefore, the first line of business when you realize you have started to panic is to CALM DOWN. There are a number of techniques that help me reduce anxiety and restore focus, including some as simple as closing my eyes and taking 5 deep breaths, picturing myself swinging in a hammock on a beach for a few minutes, listening to music, or eating a piece of chocolate, (that I may, possibly, have stashed in all pockets, purses and briefcases).

COMMIT: We’ve all seen local theatre productions or (bless ‘em), our children’s school productions, where the actor is just saying the words, as if speaking some foreign language they don’t understand. They are not “telling the story” in a way that moves you or tells you what’s about to happen to their character, because they themselves have not committed to understand the journey of their character. At the end of the day, that play may have been “cute” or “alright,” but you’re certainly not up at night replaying it in your head because you empathize with the characters or are vested in the outcome. That gut, visceral, empathetic response only comes when the actor commits, wholeheartedly.

Nowhere is lack of commitment more immediately evident than in improv. When you’re tasked, on the spot, with improvising scenes before an audience such as:  “you’re burying a body in the woods and you’ve been spotted” or “you’re twins in the womb and you’re fighting” or “you just discovered you can see through everyone’s clothes,” its ALL about commitment.  You commit = comic genius; you don’t commit = crash and burn. This lesson holds true in the legal world, as well. When you commit, wholeheartedly, from the second the case comes through the door, to bringing forward to the jury the FULL story of what happened to your client; commit to doing all the hard work necessary to be sure that you’re ready to win at trial; that’s a genius result in the making.

ENJOY THE MOMENT: You’ve committed yourself tirelessly for months and usually years; you’ve brought the case all this way, down long and challenging roads, to get to the day of trial; now that the time has come, and the curtains have opened, have confidence and faith that you’ve done enough! When the judge and jury are sitting there before you, and you’re finally at the moment where you can tell your client’s story…ENJOY the moment. Trust in yourself – you got this!

(I hop up from my seat; walk over to where you are reading this fine legal periodical, lean in close to you and with a mischievous look in my eye shout) “ARE YOU READY?  LIST 5 ONE-WORD MOVIE TITLES, before time runs out; GO!!!!”


In addition to our informative monthly MCLE dinner programs, OCTLA is getting ready to kick into our busy fall event schedule including Bowling Night at Tavern Bowl, our Annual Columbus Day Golf Tournament in October, topped off with our Top Gun Awards Dinner & Charity Auction in November. Check out our calendar of upcoming events at www.OCTLA.org and plan to join us.

Shaina Colover Shaina Colover

Shaina Colover is 2017 President of the Orange County Trial Lawyers Association and practices personal injury law with her dad at The Law Offices of Ronald B. Schwartz, upstairs from Muldoon’s Irish Pub in Newport Beach. She serves on the CAOC Diversity Committee and is former chair of the OCBA and OCTLA education committees.

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