Theater and Law

Theater and Law


For a decade the Faculty of Law has offered a unique workshop addressing the interface between law and theater. To an outside observer the two fields might seem to have little in common, but those who have experienced their common aspects report that the connection is evident and even intuitive.

-Yuval Simhi-

“We established the workshop 10 years ago,” begins Professor Hanina Ben Menachem, the founder of the program. “I thought of the idea after spending time at Harvard Law School as a visiting Professor. Some of my brightest and hardest-working students there participated in a theater workshop and I was very impressed by the idea. When I first suggested this idea here in Jerusalem, the senior echelon at the Faculty wasn’t very enthusiastic at first, but I didn’t give up. I waited for some personnel changes and eventually the idea was accepted. I have to admit that we had to struggle for the first few years. But the present dean is supportive, and I think that the theater workshop has become an honorary citizen at the Faculty. I hope this will continue to be the case in the future.” 

The first play staged by the workshop 10 years ago, called “Peeking,” dealt with the subject of trafficking in women. “Many of the participants in the first workshop were women students who were also working in a legal clinic focusing on prostitution. The students told me that they couldn’t relate to the women they worked with at the clinic. That changed after they took part in the play, because they had to put themselves in these women’s shoes. After the play the students told me that their attitudes had changed and they could understand the women now. As I see it, every attorney has to put themselves in someone else’s shoes whenever they appear in the court. The trick is to identify with the other person, but not totally. We don’t want someone who plays the part of a criminal to identify so much that they adopt a criminal lifestyle. The actor has to understand the balance between identification on the one hand and maintaining a distance on the other. These are skills that can be practiced in the theater,” Professor Ben Menachem explains. 

If we stopped someone on the street and asked them whether there is any connection between law and theater, they might well have a hard time thinking of any points of contact. “The legal field has a serious image, whereas the theater is perceived as part of the world of entertainment and fun. But I don’t think that’s really true. A trial is basically a play that unfolds before us. There are also deeper philosophical connections between the model called the theater and the model called the trial. The workshop exposes the students to these connections, and I think this helps them become more sensitive lawyers and human beings and to understand the other side. You can read and hear about the other, but there’s nothing like playing the role of the other.” 


Professor Hanina Ben Menachem

 Professor Ben Menachem says that every year the students who participate in the workshop rate it as one of their best and most enriching experiences during their studies. They do so despite the fact that the workshop demands a lot of time and energy relative to other courses. “In the past, some people in the Faculty weren’t sure that we could award academic credit for the workshop. After all, it doesn’t include lectures, exercises, exams, and so forth. But we need to remember that there are different formats for academic study that can enrich and expand knowledge. Although this learning doesn’t use the routine method, it is surely no less enriching and nurturing. I think it’s a pity that the workshop is a one-year project – it should be a three-year track.” 

At the beginning of June, the Faculty hosted its first international conference on the subject of law and theater. Professor Ben Menachem hopes that the field will continue to develop: “I think the Faculty should develop this field as an academic discipline in its own right, with its center here at the Faculty. Perhaps lecturers at the Faculty could also take part in the workshop alongside the students. The more the Faculty expands the concept of law, the more interesting a place we will be, and the more attractive and fascinating. Law isn’t just about the articles in the legal code, or law and economics, but also about law and culture in the broad sense of the term.” 

The workshop was intensive, including weekly sessions as well as numerous rehearsals toward the end of the year. The participants report that it was an enriching and enjoyable experience. “During the first semester, we performed basic exercises – acting training exercises, improvisation, movement, and so on,” says Rimon Rafaeli, a participant in the workshop. “We also discussed the interface between the theater and law: we had to take court rulings from the criminal field and build the character of the defendant. We wrote monologues for the defendant, tried to understand his feelings, and really got under his skin. In the second semester we began to work on our play. We looked for material and edited the script. I think this experience and acting skills have really helped me to identify with the other. In the final analysis, as an attorney you represent a given individual, and you should develop an ability to identify with any client, whoever they are.” 

Tamar Ventura, another participant in the workshop, highlights the difference between the workshop experience and other courses at the Faculty. “In our regular studies we use our minds rather than our emotions. In the theater, the emphasis is on working on emotions and doing what feels right, rather than what you’re supposed to do. Our work on the play included an adaptation of The Stranger. We read the play, discussed its message, and asked ourselves what we wanted to convey. After a brainstorming session, we began to write and adapt the scenes. We went over each scene and decided what statements needed to be included, what important messages we wanted to convey, and what act or event we wanted to make happen on the stage.” 

Under the direction of Bentzi Faber and Shlomit Cohen-Skali, and with the assistance of the Cohen Wilchik law firm, the group staged the play “Mother Died Today,” based on “The Stranger” by Albert Camus. “The play tells the story of a guy called Marceau, who killed a man,” Tamar explains. “The story also touches on Marceau’s private life – his late mother and his friendship with his pimp neighbor and with his girlfriend Marie. The audience got the impression that during Marceau’s trial the focus was less on the crime he committed and more on his character. The decision in the trial seems to be made more on the basis of the person than on the act he committed.” Tamar confesses that she did not have an intuitive grasp of the connection between theater and law when she began the workshop. “I thought the workshop would be a hands-on experience and break up my routine. That’s why I signed up for it. It was only at the end of the year, when I played the role of Marceau, that I understood the amazing connection between these two worlds. I found it difficult to get into the character and to understand what he was feeling in thinking and how I was supposed to convey that to the audience. I had to undergo a process with this character, and during the course of my work I suddenly thought of a sentence I had heard in one of my classes in the Introduction to Law course. In the class we were discussing the Emanuel case (when a Haredi local authority segregated Ashkenazi and Sephardi students in girls’ schools). The initial instinct of the students was to declare that the segregation was unacceptable, but the teacher asked us to think about it from a different angle: to try to see it from the standpoint of those who we felt had acted improperly and to put ourselves in their shoes. Suddenly, during the rehearsals, I realized what it means to put yourself in someone else’s place. I think this is something that helps us as lawyers. If I want to represent someone, I need to acknowledge that they are not a unidimensional character. They didn’t just ‘breach the contract.’ It’s much more complex than that. Once I manage to understand the individual’s feelings and perceptions, I’ll be able to understand their actions and represent them better. This is also relevant in the context of legal questions such as the clash between interests and rights. In order to create discourse and dialogue with the other, I think that we first and foremost have to put ourselves in their shoes. The workshop focused exactly on this point.”