Arizona Law Students Use Improv Comedy to Loosen Up, Listen Up

Angelo Lavo

Lawyers starting from a place of agreement? It may sound counterintuitive, but that is just one of the exercises a group of 13 University of Arizona Law students practiced recently in a workshop at Unscrewed Theater, a Tucson improvisational comedy company.
 
The students were from Professor Barbara Bergman’s advocacy class and jumped at the opportunity to try improv when she mentioned it is a useful tool for building trial skills.
 
Bergman said improv is an ideal tool for helping students learn how to prepare for the unexpected, which is critical in mastering the skills she teaches in her advocacy class, such as interviewing, counseling and pretrial negotiating.
 
Unscrewed Theater founding director Michael Vietinghoff teaching University of Arizona Law students in an improv workshopTo begin, Unscrewed Theater founding directors Chris Seidman and Michael Vietinghoff (far right, with students) led the group in a classic improv game called “Yes, and” to teach the students about coming to any situation from a place of agreement.
 
With “Yes, and,” one person establishes a scene (For example, “I’m a baseball player on Mars.”). Then their partner accepts that reality (“Yes”) and builds on it to advance the scene (“and”). From this ongoing agreement, trust is established and the scene moves along. The game establishes a safe space where even the most reluctant can climb out of their shells to participate.
 
“It went a lot better than I thought, it was a lot more encouraging than I thought,” said 3L Brendan Lenihan. “It was really about helping other people out when they’re feeling on the spot or not doing well. Then you jump in, so you realize everybody is helping each other, and it really is kind of empowering.”
 
And while lawyers might be better known for being the subject of jokes than the creators, Bergman said the skills needed in improv—observing, listening, and reacting quickly—are directly applicable in the courtroom.
 
“Trial lawyers have to learn to listen, and they tend to want things scripted and planned and everything prepared a certain way,” Bergman said. “But things happen in courtrooms that you don’t expect, and you have to learn to pay attention and be reactive to the moment.”
 
A game called “Whoosh, Bang, Boom” challenged the students’ ability to do just that by having them pass an imaginary ball of energy to each other while uttering different sounds to signal the direction of the pass and whether the recipient rejected or accepted it. What started out as a lumbering attempt soon evolved into more confident, rapid-fire transfer exchanges.
 
3L Lenihan found it refreshing to move at the faster pace.
 
“I think there is a tendency for law students to be really cerebral and think everything through,” Lenihan said. “My father used to say, ‘contemplation to the point of paralysis’ and ‘analysis leads to paralysis,’ and here you don’t have the time to overanalyze anything.”
 
Bergman agreed that improv helps people tap into other ways of processing information and connecting with others. 
 
“You come to law school, and you are taught to reason and analyze and think critically,” she said. “But if you are going to persuade a jury, you have to connect to them emotionally as well as rationally. The studies tend to show that once a jury decides this is the outcome they want, and usually they do it for emotional reasons, they figure out a way to get there.”
 
The big idea, say the improv theater’s founders, is that connecting with people on stage helps lead to connecting more seamlessly off, in your career and elsewhere.
 
The connection with classmates is what made an impression on 3L Sarah Farid.
 
“I loved that doing these exercises, we understood each other’s body language and developed a sense of trust in each other without even conversing about anything directly. It just felt like we were building a connection with each other and that we could then work together better in the future.”