Guide on the Side – Bringing Out the Actor Within: An Interview with a Law Librarian/Actor

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

In the third edition of his book Acting Skills for Life, Ron Cameron writes that the study of acting helps people increase poise and confidence, develop better awareness of their physical and vocal selves, and improve their ability to think and react quickly. What better way to learn how this applies to information professionals than to interview law librarian/actor, Mary Dryden.

Let’s start with a chicken or egg question, which career came first? Acting or law librarianship?

Neither. Actually I started my career at 3 with training in classical ballet with hopes of becoming a ballerina. But a skiing accident at 14 ended my future in dance. However, I always did well in school and Shakespeare was my first love. I saw plays in the West End of London and at the Old Globe in San Diego, where my parents lived. My sister was on her way to becoming a well-known photographer and I enjoyed getting my picture taken. I found the ballet training a contributing factor to later becoming a ramp model, where I became aware that I enjoyed feeling the sensation of approval from an audience.

Isn’t getting good strokes from an audience something everyone gets a buzz from?

Yes, I think so. I have noticed that the presenter/trainers among law librarians and lawyers acknowledge they savor getting positive feedback from an audience.

How did you get into law librarianship?

My husband and I bought our first house and needed a loan to make improvements. My husband had three jobs and I was doing modeling but the income was not enough to get the loan we wanted. Through friends I got a job with a small San Diego branch of a larger L.A. law firm. It was a small office and I had the luxury of time to learn about the law and legal publications. I went from that firm to a larger one and when my husband got a job with the Los Angeles Times, we moved to L.A. where I began working at Riordan & McKinzie and have been there ever since.

I confess I learned everything I know about the law and law librarianship on the job. It’s been a great way to learn, especially since I have the good fortune to start with a small firm and proceed gradually to a large, high-profile one. I learned computer-assisted research when everyone else did. I am honored to be a part of such a learned and diverse group as law librarians and grateful that I am taken seriously as a colleague, given that I do not have among my degrees an M.L.S. I also learned a lot from other law librarians, by serving on regional and national law library association committees, and speaking at continuing education programs sponsored by PLI, AALL and SCALL.

When did you start your acting career?

Ironically, it was when we moved to LA. I had some time and needed artistic stimulation and took a UCLA extension acting class. I was lucky. I had a WONDERFUL teacher and was offered a part in a Julie Brown music video that became a cult favorite, The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun. That lead to other music videos. A friend took me to a community theater in Pacific Palisades and I auditioned for a part. I didn’t get that part, but kept auditioning and finally got a good, big role in a British comedy, Table Manners by Alan Ayckbourn. It was my first part in a real play. Now I needed an agent.

I took my best headshot (I was married to a photographer) and sent it out with a letter to agents. Again, I was lucky and found an agent whom I really liked and have been with ever since. The following year I made a number of TV commercials and voiceovers. But I felt I needed more stage training.

Where did you go for your continuing education in acting?

I took the better part of a year off to participate in a special curriculum at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art I learned so much at LAMDA, I can’t even begin to tell you. Voice, movement, projection, make-up, costumes, lighting, stage management, dramaturgy, play selection. It was wonderful. Again I was lucky. I was invited to play Cleopatra in a production of Anthony & Cleopatra. It got me notices, kind reviews and my British Equity card.

Back in the States, I found little trouble in getting parts on the community theater level. I have performed at the Theater Palisades, the Westchester Playhouse, the Long Beach Playhouse, the Palos Verdes Players, the Theater of Art and the Fountainhead Theater. I was cast in a feature part in Eddie Murphy’s remake of The Nutty Professor and that made me eligible for the Screen Actor’s Guild.

What skills does a person need to become an actor?

A successful actor needs three things: a vivid imagination, a desire to perform and a dedicated commitment to the discipline necessary to hone his craft. Most people don’t realize how much technique is behind every fine acting performance and that is a good thing because the absence of inside know-how allows an audience to willingly suspend its disbelief and become involved with the characters and the plot on a personal level.

One of the first acting techniques is movement. “Blocking” is the process of selecting and marking the points on the stage or set where the actor physically moves during a scene. Another important acting skill is the use of the voice. A pleasing voice, or at least a unique one, is a great asset to an actor and there are many exercises one can do to refine that gift. After movement and voice, I would say that the next important skill is the ability to listen. When you listen to other actors, you’re “in” the scene. If you’re standing around waiting for your line, you’re just waiting for your line and certainly not acting. Reactions are so important that audiences frequently focus on the actor who isn’t speaking rather than the one who is because that actor is much more interesting to watch.

You say that acting skills can help people with presentations and handling themselves before an audience. I know that some lawyers learn acting skills to help them in court and with clients. Can you expand?

Yes, acting skills and techniques can definitely help people with presentations and handling themselves in front of an audience. First of all, getting used to speaking in front of people makes the fear and subsequent adrenaline rush less scary because it becomes familiar. There are physical things you can do to your voice and body to make sure that you are relaxed enough to speak clearly and confidently. Dedicated actors read aloud at least 15 minutes a day. Singing in church would be a good way for a non-actors to get used to their voice, as would reading aloud to children or the blind. Make a tape recording of your voice and assess it. Are you speaking clearly? Do you like listening to it? Take a yoga, martial arts or dance class to get in touch with your body. Then arrange to have yourself videotaped and watch yourself perform before an audience. This is what is done at the TRIPLL programs and it is invaluable. You see whether you have found your authentic stage presence and know how to relax before an audience.

Another, and very easy, thing to learn from acting is how to make and keep eye contact. Looking someone directly in the eye without staring or making them uncomfortable is essential to good communication.

As for attorneys learning acting, this is absolutely true. I have been in classes with them. In addition to learning techniques, studying acting forces a person to see another person’s point of view. In the case of trial attorneys, character study will allow them to understand their client, opposing counsel, the judge and the jury.

Where can non-actors learn acting skills?

University extension and community college are good places to find acting classes. Try out for community theater productions. Enroll in an actors workshop. Encourage your children to take drama classes and learn with them.

What are the benefits for law librarians and attorneys to learn acting skills.
The list is long. Acting helps you be comfortable before an audience, teaches you how to engage an audience and read its feedback, and enhances your communication skills by teaching you to use your body, voice and movement. Like many disciplines, acting teaches you to prepare your material and to work with others. Finally, it gives you confidence so that when an opportunity presents itself, you are not afraid to go with it. The more you’re aware of your own identity, the more powerful you’ll be as a presenter and the less judgmental you’ll be about your own performances. There is an actor within everyone. It is just a matter of “unwrapping” the real self.

Mary Dryden

Degrees and Education

B.A. Scripps College
M. Litt. University of Edinburgh, Scotland
Cite Universite, Rheims, France
Cite International, Paris
University of London, College of Education
Bath University, England
University of California at San Diego and Los Angeles
Claremont Graduate School

Law Librarian

Library Director for Riordan & McKinzie, Los Angeles
1983 to date
Library Consultant, Jonathan Club, Los Angeles
Library Director for Fredman, Silverberg & Lewis, San Diego
Library Director for Hahn, Cazier & Leff, San Diego

Acting – Film

The Nutty Professor
The Sophia Replacement
Porn Queens of the ’70’s
Eye Opener
Private Collections
The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun

Acting – Theater

Song of Myself
Sweet Bird of Youth
Richard III
Angel Street
Come & Go
Absent Friends
The Dresser
The Actor’s Nightmare
Witness for the Prosecution
Table Manners
Julius Caesar
Anthony & Cleopatra

Awards & Distinctions

Phi Beta Kappa
Who’s Who in American Women

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills