Practical Legal Theatre

What Bloggery, Friends, is This?

Lecturers delivering practical legal training (PLT) are usuallyArlequino experienced lawyers. They may be less experienced as educators. Advocates know a bit about presenting an argument and some of what I say here will be familiar to them.

Before becoming a lawyer I worked in performing arts for over 20 years, mostly in theatre and film and a bit of television and commercial work. I performed in large theatres, small theatres, in the street and in amphitheatres. Each space has its own demands but some general principles apply to most situations.

Firstly, I will explain what I mean by the term, “Theatre”, I then explain why I think it has something to do with Practical Legal Training with reference to some taxonomic aspects; I will also refer to the notions of the mise-en-scène and denouement.

I submit that adopting a Practical Legal Theatre approach can improve our law graduates’ emotional response, engagement and perception of the importance of the learning task and the graduates’ perception of self-efficacy.


This can refer to the space in which the “play” or spectacle is presented and the play itself.

The theatrical space need not comply with modern Western notions of a large room with tiered seating facing a raised stage embraced by a proscenium arch.

There is a saying in theatre, possibly derived from the Italian Commedia dell’arte, that all you need for a theatre is “Two Planks, and a Passion”. In other words, you need a means of being seen and heard and a desire for the same. More on this soon.


Plays are usually written by playwrights. I am fond of noticing the word includes “wright”, as in “shipwright”, someone who crafts a vessel that floats. When I think of this I imagine a person carefully cutting, planning, bending and fixing timber with each piece uniquely shaped to unite into a coherent whole to achieve its desired purpose: to float, to make way, to weather rough weather, to do this with grace.

It seems to me that a play, and in turn, our teaching session whether it is face-to-face (f2f) or online should be similarly well crafted.

The Play’s the Thing

On a similar theme, you might be familiar with the saying, “The Play’s the Thing”, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act II Scene 2, in which Hamlet produces a play to catch out the murderous King.

I submit that Shakespeare may have intended a meta-theatrical meaning too (ie Shakespeare was commenting on theatre itself). That everything in the play should be directed toward furthering the play, nothing should be superfluous. The play’s the thing, everything should serve the play.

Similarly (and you can probably see how this ties in with my comments about “wrighting” above) I submit that in your instructional design and teaching you should ask yourself, “What is the learning objective, the desired learning outcome?” and then examine the content and delivery of your teaching to ensure that all things serve that objective.

That said, it is not desirable to suppress innovation or spontaneous ‘reflection in action’ type moments. Rather, it is important to observe an overarching framework within which these things can occur.

A Taxonomy of Educational Objectives

This part connects with the questions about learning objectives and outcomes above. In this part I draw heavily on Marzano and Kendall’s new taxonomy of educational objectives (Marzano).*

As a lawyer learning to be an educator and mentor I found this very helpful to organising my own thinking about instructional design and assessment. That said, there are other worthy taxonomies and I think it is a good idea to read widely in this area.

Briefly, Marzano identifies three Domains, and six Levels of Processing knowledge. The three Domains are: Information, Mental Procedures, and Psychomotor Procedures.

The six Levels of Processing are (starting from the simplest): Retrieval (cognitive), Comprehension (cognitive), Analysis (cognitive), Knowledge Utilisation (cognitive), Metacognitive System, and the Self System. So the first four levels are cognitive, and the metacognitive and self systems are higher order levels of processing.

Each level of processing can interact with each of the three domains (Information, Mental Procedures, and Psychomotor Procedures).

Now do not worry, I am not going to delve into the cognitive levels of processing just now, I will save that for another blog. What I really want to connect to here is the importance of the highest Level of Processing, the learner’s Self System.

Self System

The learner’s Self System involves how the learner perceives the Importance of the learning task and their Self Efficacy for undertaking and completing that task.

The perceived importance of the learning task will be affected by its perceived relevance, for example its relevance to professional practice, or perhaps whether it is relevant to assessment in the subject.

The learner’s perception of their self-efficacy relates to their perception of the resources they can access to complete the task. Those resources may be internal (eg understanding how to use a computer) or external (eg believing they have the support materials or processes necessary to complete the task).

The learner’s Emotional Response is likely to affect their perceptions of Importance and Self-Efficacy. That emotional response can in turn affect the learner’s Engagement with the learning task, the Motivation to undertake and Persistence with the learning task, and their Satisfaction with the learning experience.

I submit that adopting a Practical Legal Theatre approach can improve our law graduates’ emotional response, engagement and perception of the importance of the learning task and the graduates’ perception of self-efficacy.

The mise-en-scène

The mise-en-scène is a comfortably artistic way of describing the design aspects of theatre or film. In cinema it can refer to the design and direction of everything that takes place before the camera.

Broadly speaking, I use the term here to refer to things like setting, style, lighting, arrangement of space, costume and acting.

Every thing signifies some thing. Each part of the mise-en-scène is a sign that affects your learners’ perception of the teaching event.

Ask yourself, do all the things within the space say what I mean to say?

Practically speaking one of the first things needing attention is the theatrical space. In PLT our theatrical space may be a lecture theatre or a workshop room or a moot court and the like. It is something we often take for granted and the way we use the space is often constrained by logistical considerations. Nevertheless, I suggest that we can be thoughtful about how we use this space.

The space creates the first impression. Usually our law graduates enter the space before they meet a lecturer. As advocates we know that first impressions can count for a lot; it is one of the inchoate factors to consider when conducting an examination in chief for example.

So, look at your performance space and consider things like:

  • Does the layout serve the purpose? Are tables and chairs arranged cafe style suitable for workshop activities, or in rows facing the lecturer suitable for note-taking etc?
  • What are the sightlines like from every part of the room? Try sitting in places where the graduates sit and see for yourself. Can they see you? The presentation screen? The whiteboard? The audio-visual playback? Can they see other graduates?
  • Does the space allow for lecturer mobility and/or learner mobility, where appropriate?
  • Does the lay out require excessive head-turning? If you are in workshop mode, but needing to give brief lectures at points during the day, how will you accommodate the head-turn factor? If the graduate is uncomfortable when attempting to see you they will disengage eventually.

Blocking (is not blocking). “Blocking” is a term used in theatre and film-making to plan the moves for the actors and props. The idea is to accomplish the action necessary to the best dramatic (story-telling) effect. Think about and plan how you will use your space. In a short session involving a lecture you might choose to remain fairly stationary, however if you are using visual aids or taking questions you can still “block” your movements. During a day-long workshop you might use more of the room and an array of visual aids to add variety and encourage bursts of engagement.

Following on from the last sentence, consider “focal points” in the room. In sessions running for a day or longer you might establish focal points in the room to which the learners can return from time to time. Giant post-it notes generated by the graduates can be placed at one focal point; diagrams on a whiteboard can be another and so on.

No “fourth wall”. In many theatrical and filmic conventions it is as if there is an invisible fourth wall separating the performers from the audience. The audience is spying on the action and the actors are seemingly unaware of the audience’s existence. In other forms, however, there is no fourth wall. The performers can and will engage directly with the audience. Stand up comedy is an obvious example and so is its great-great-grandmother, the commedia dell’arte, that I mentioned previously. Shakespeare often had characters speaking directly to the audience, think of Richard of Gloucester at the opening of Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent…”

I submit that there should be no fourth wall in PLT. Even when you deliver a lecture (I confess that I am personally not fond of lectures). The preferred approach is to see it as one part of a conversation with the graduates. Engage directly, make eye contact. It is not Luther’s “I have a dream” speech.

Lighting and Audio Visual – change lighting to suit the purpose. Ensure adequate lighting for writing and taking notes when necessary. Provide brighter lighting on the presenter when possible; dim it when it is not required.

There is an old convention in the theatre that when the “star” enters the scene the light intensity would be increased by 10%. Not to mention a follow spot! With a Lee No. 36 ‘Surprise Pink’ filter to enhance the skin tones. Well, that is probably going a bit far, however you can give attention to lighting placement and intensity and consider how it can be used to best effect.

Similarly, if you are using an overhead projector and/or a data projector for visual aids, turn them OFF when they are not directly relevant to the present activity. With PowerPoint you can press the “b” button on your computer to black out the screen – the remote control for many data projectors also includes an “AV mute” button that will black out the data projector but allow you to keep seeing the presentation on your own computer screen. Why? If the visual aid is not directly relevant it is distracting. Also, if the visual aid is ever-present it loses dramatic effect.

Remember that space can be virtual space. You can give the same attention to an online teaching space as you do to a real life space. I will write about this in another blog.

Costume – are you dressed for the part? What does your clothing convey about you and your credibility? I often remind my law graduates that when dressing for court they should consider they ought to act in the client’s best interests first, being “fabulous” or “fashionable” may not always serve the client’s best interests. The same rationale applies to us as lecturers. That said, I am personally not a snappy dresser but work a sort of “rumpled” effect into my teaching persona that seems to work for me. I wear a suit and tie, button the coat on first meeting and then gradually lose the coat as we work through the day. If there is a mini-lecture during the day, on goes the coat again, buttoned up. There is no absolute rule, but consider how you can use these ordinary things to further the learning experience.


Props are treated with great care in theatre and film-making. Props can include fairly ordinary things like bits of furniture, lamps, tools, etc. Any actor using a prop takes care to understand how to use it and also to know where it is at any given moment. In the theatre, a prop is “pre-set” at a designated location every time, makes its journey through the play and is returned to the pre-set when the play is over. Being systematic avoids stuff-ups.

Your props might include things like visual aids such as whiteboard, data projector and computer, overhead projector, hand outs, DVD players, posters etc. Be systematic. Learn how to use these things. Check them before every learning event (particularly AV equipment) to ensure they work. Plan when you are going to use them and how you are physically going to manage them. Avoid stuff-ups. Have a contingency plan.

Using giant post-it notes and hand outs promotes interaction and assists learning by kinaesthesia. Plan to use these to best effect within contemplation of the learning goals.


There are different styles of acting. Most people have an experience of “bad acting”. Often this is due to either a mismatch of styles or purpose. The result is that the actor is perceived as not genuine or credible, and that can undermine the whole of the play.

A well-known theatrical aphorism is to “know your lines and don’t bump in the furniture”.

It is not necessary to script everything and it is possible to improvise, however do know what you are going to say and have a reason for saying it. Similarly do not act purely for effect, your decisions should be based on a “truth” drawn from the learning objective. Improvisation framed in this way can add to a sense of spontaneity without detracting from the main goal.

Remember? The play’s the thing.

Knowing your space and knowing your props will help with the not bumping into the furniture bit. I often observe to my students that an advocate who has properly marshalled their documents and is able to present submissions without flapping about conveys a sense of preparedness and integrity that encourages engagement and a sense of credibility. The same is true for us.

If you get this right the group will suspend its disbelief and will follow you a long way, which in turn opens up opportunities for innovative experiences to improve engagement and learning.

Humour can be useful; however take care with sensitivities such as cross-cultural considerations. One of the safest approaches is instructive self-deprecation – a funny story against yourself can illustrate a point and humanise you at the same time.

When things go wrong … confess and avoid. Face up to it. You can say something like, “Well, that didn’t fly quite the way I hoped”, and move on. Most groups will warm to you in this.

I recall playing “Roo” in a production of Ray Lawler’s ‘Kid Stakes’ about 25 years ago. The leading lady playing “Olive” fell ill and was unable to perform on one night during the six week run. There was a mad search for someone to step in. We were only able to get a very inexperienced actress who had never read or seen the play. That courageous woman played Olive that night with a copy of the script in her hand, even during the renowned intimate cigarette rolling scene between Roo and Olive. The rest of us played it for real, accommodating the occasional little bumps as the actress worked with the book in hand.

The audience loved it. There was a standing ovation and three encores.

To me, the big lesson from this is that if you maintain truthfulness to the main game and your credibility the audience will follow you anywhere – they love a challenge provided that it is based on something they can believe in.

Audience Participation

Following along from the “no fourth wall” rule is the idea of direct engagement with the learners. It is worthwhile having regard to some theory about teaching and learning. Without drilling into it here, one theory of learning is the constructivist theory that suggests learners construct their own learning from their own experiences and inputs. The training we deliver is just a part of that. We recognise that our graduates are not just empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. Knowledge is constructed (and this is where the Taxonomy of Education Objectives can be useful in organising our thinking about this).

One useful teaching method is enquiry-based learning. At its simplest this can consist of us putting a question to the graduates and relying on their recall/retrieval cognitive processes to produce the answer. Possibly the biggest challenge to me as a teacher, is to know when to ‘shut up and wait’. It can take great self-discipline to resist answering our own question (to fill the silence) and wait long enough to allow the graduates to retrieve and produce the answer.

Using an enquiry based learning approach from the start can help to frame and manage the learners’ expectations about the learning event. You might have to take this in baby steps, however if you lend support to those who volunteer answers and adopt a ‘no opt out’ approach by directing questions to peripheral participants, it is likely that you will increase constructive interactions and improve engagement with the learning event.

There are some excellent teaching strategies used by primary and secondary school teachers toward an enquiry based learning approach and many of these are also useful with adult learners. See for example Doug Lemov’s “Teach like a Champion” published by Jossey-Bass.

Dramatic Structure – the 5 Act play

In the Western theatrical and cinematic convention the 5 Act structure is dominant. I have read elsewhere that if you are “pitching” a script in Hollywood and your script does not comply with the five act structure it is unlikely you will get very far.

In précis the five act structure can be described as: 1. Exposition, 2. Complications, 3. Action Climax, 4. Reversals, 5. Resolution/Transformation.

This structure is so ingrained into our collective psyche many of us will resist a story that does not comply with it. It is worth remembering that we want to engage our learners, so using something that we know is likely to work makes sense.

How can we translate this 5 Act structure into a learning event? Well, here is an example using an Advocacy Workshop.

Act 1 Exposition We introduce ourselves. We frame up the workshop. Explain why it is important and relevant, what the tasks are, and what the desired learning outcomes are. Describe the resources available to the learners for their self-efficacy.

Act 2 Complications We set the learning tasks and introduce challenges, one big challenge with incremental challenges along the way. For example, “The graduate will prepare for a trial using proof-making methods, chronologies, case theory, and representational theme. The graduate will consider and prepare for the admissibility of evidence and objections. The graduate will proof a witness and prepare for examination in chief of that witness. The graduate will prepare for cross-examination of a witness. The graduate will conduct the examination in chief of their allocated witness, and conduct the cross-examination of an opponent’s witness. The graduate will make proper objections to evidence.”

Act 3 Action Climax The graduates perform those learning tasks!

Act 4 Reversals Maybe the performance of the learning tasks does not go as well at the graduate hopes. Feedback is supplied. The graduate gets another go to improve performance and demonstrate learning.

Act 5 Transformation The graduate “breaks through” on all or some of the learning tasks and demonstrates new learning and realises the learning goal.

Overtly setting up the 5 Act structure can add to the drama of and engagement with the learning event. Sometimes “riffing” a reality television program can introduce humour to the learning event while remaining focused on the learning tasks and learning outcomes.


In theatre this usually refers to the final resolution or transformation, a pause for thought at the end of the journey. It is good to do this at the end of a learning event and so I do so here.

Remember that the play is the thing. Use all things within the mise-en-scene purposefully and with regard to the learning objective. Ask yourself if each of these things say what you mean them to say. Be a playwright – craft each unique part so it supports the unity as a whole. Know your lines and know your props. Think about how to best use the space in which the learning events occurs. Be systematic and structured but allow for innovation and spontaneity. Be true to yourself and to the learning object.

You can view a presentation on this subject via SlideShare here:

iPad and mobile users can view the presentation here.

Subscribe to PleagleTrainer Blog by Email

*Marzano, RJ & Kendall, JS (eds) 2007, The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, 2nd edn, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, California.


5 thoughts on “Practical Legal Theatre”

  1. What a great post – the law is indeed theatre and this is not limited to court appearances but includes client interviews, negotiation and other ADR. What a powerful way of conceptualising what it is graduates need to know and why.

Comments are closed.