Theater becomes part of the UM Law School curriculum

Photo courtesy Pixabay user kellierae.

The UM Law Health Rights Clinic is revolutionizing the way students and interns learn to practice law by taking an old theater concept called Forum Theatre and applying it to the modern classroom setting.

Some undergraduate students may be familiar with the idea from a similar program used during Orientation events, called “Theatre in Action: Bystander Intervention.” Though organized by different groups, the concept is the same: training for real-life situations through theatrical simulations.

It works by having students watch a realistic scene play out in front of them. Then, students discuss what happened and what they would have done to intervene. Students then get the chance to replay the scene and enter it themselves to change the outcome.

At the Health Rights Clinic, a 6-credit course at UM School of Law, students begin their first class or orientation with this method. They watch a scene in which a lawyer is representing a client in an oppressive way, all played by other members of the clinic. Then the students can stop the scene and replace the actor playing the lawyer, improving the treatment of the client.

By starting with Forum Theatre, students experience first-hand some of the ethical dilemmas they will face when they begin their careers.

“It has the elements that you can discuss what’s wrong, so you’re doing a theoretical approach, and you can practice and force yourself to become involved and find out what’s wrong and correct it yourself,” said Joshua Mandel, a third-year fellow in the clinic.

Mandel acts as the Joker in the scenes, meaning he narrates and facilitates the scene. He said the theater-based learning is effective because it it creative, innovative and fun for students.

“It’s a bunch of peers and a bunch of people who know each other,” Mandel said. “They’re laughing. We all get a kick out of it.”

Director of the Health Rights Clinic JoNel Newman and Assistant Director Melissa Swain were first introduced to Forum Theatre in Strathclyde, Scotland, during one of their exchange programs. One of the professors at the University of Strathclyde demonstrated the technique, impressing the UM students.

“Everyone else did papers and PowerPoints, but they came up with this cool script that really depicted the ethical dilemmas at both universities, and the whole audience was able to participate and stop the action and give their own version of how they would handle it,” Swain said.

Because of the great feedback they got from students, Newman and Swain brought the technique back to campus for UM Law orientation and the first classes of the Health Rights Clinic.

Now they also showcase the technique at conferences around the world in conjunction with the first students and colleagues from Strathclyde. Newman and Swain said they hope to expand the concept of Forum Theatre to other areas of study and to one day take it back to South America, where it began.

Newman and Swain have applied to take Forum Theatre to Colombia and perform it in Spanish.

“We’re playing with the idea that we’ve done it in English,” Swain said. “Now can we make the transition to do it in Spanish? That would be just amazing. This is something that on the Miami campus we could be running in Spanish and in English.”

Photo courtesy Pixabay user kellierae.