Intersections of Law and Theatre

Opportunities for learning


Intersections of Law and Theatre

Law and theatre have intertwined through the ages. In the European legal tradition, elements of ritual and storytelling have played similar functions in both juridical processes and entertainment: rituals highlight the importance of the event while emotionally engaging storytelling deepens learning. Orators and lawyers have performed in and written plays for at least 2,500 years. Notably, during the English Renaissance, holiday “revels” at the Inns of Court encouraged the development of courtroom dramas and involved the Inns’ residents in performances akin to the modern articling student skit at holiday parties.

Currently, TV with a legal focus (Billions, The Lincoln Lawyer) and modern versions of morality plays (Breaking Bad, Yellowjackets, Dead to Me) abound in the world of entertainment. While it is outside the scope of this article, the ways in which storytelling in these legal entertainments simultaneously relies on the inherent drama of an adversarial legal system and arguably reinforces competitive social norms are thought-provoking consequences of the mutual history of law and theatre. Making space for Indigenous legal orders and processes and building more collaborative decision-making models may require making space for alternative forms of storytelling and theatre.

With so many historical and contemporary interconnections and cross-influences between law and theatre, it’s surprising that legal education draws less from drama pedagogy than it could. While moot courts and negotiation role plays continue the learning traditions of the Renaissance-era Inns of Court, are there other forms of theatre skills that might serve legal professionals? Let’s focus here on two areas where theatre offers particularly relevant learning opportunities for lawyers: applied improvisation skills as they support engagement with clients, negotiation, and collaborative decision-making; and techniques for examining both systemic and personal power dynamics used in Theatre of the Oppressed, status games, and theatre for community and dialogue.

This summer, Vancouver hosts the global Applied Improvisation Network conference. Conference headliner Kat Koppett is well-recognized for breaking down improv skills for business audiences interested in professional development. For lawyers, skills in trust-building, storytelling, and listening are clearly relevant. Sometimes less obvious is the fundamental skill that improvisers call “accepting offers” or the “yes, and…” principle; for negotiators, mediators, and others engaged in collaborative processes, this can translate to letting go of the legally trained habit of “listening to rebut” so as to open up alternative solutions. As a long-time mediation trainer, I can attest that cross-training for this skill by engaging in improv games can advance a new mediator’s skills surprisingly much faster than mediation role play and practice alone.

Law Society Advisory Committees, Working Groups and Task Forces are engaged in topics directly connected with examining power and privilege in our legal systems, including Truth and Reconciliation, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Mental Health. In the theatre world, tools and techniques for such explorations have been growing for decades. Augusto Boal, in particular, advanced interactive theatre techniques to support the voices of disempowered individuals and communities. At its most explicitly law-oriented, Boal’s work included the creation of “legislative theatre” to invite constituents to contribute opinions to lawmaking processes. Under David Diamond’s leadership, the local “Theatre for Living” undertook a legislative theatre project in 2004, and produced numerous other projects exploring power in ways that could directly inform our work around access to justice.

As individual lawyers seek to develop skills in collaboration and the legal community undertakes increasing work around systemic challenges, we could lean into our history of learning from the theatre. There is scope for lawyers to adopt (or adapt) theatrical tools that were created to enhance the ability to work together, to address problematic power dynamics, and to increase voice in undertaking systemic change.