Pitt Law professor uses improv comedy to help students to embrace mistakes


Improv comedy performers have to make up their lines as they go along, while lawyers need to be ultra-prepared — although not exactly scripted.

And yet, says law faculty member Ben Bratman, his students could learn a thing or three from improv.

Ben BratmanBratman has been taking classes at Shadyside’s Steel City Improv Theater and performing there for more than a year. He has blogged about the intersection of improv and law. Not only has it improved his classroom experience teaching legal writing and oral communications, he says, some ideas from the improv stage have helped his students embrace the idea of freer exploration and of learning from their mistakes.

Improv comedy performances often start with the audience tossing out the name of a location or occupation, and it’s the performers’ job to create characters for themselves and develop a story from those bare facts — on the fly. The traditional engine that drives the performance is the idea of “Yes, and”: Each performer must accept what the previous performer has said as reality and build upon it with a new line.

Being on an improv stage, Bratman says, “is sort of a mix of exhilaration and nervousness, but what reassures me the most are my teammates and the principle of what we’re doing, which is ‘Always make sure your teammates look good.’ I can go out on stage and make some bold, crazy move of some kind, and I know that my teammates will support me and turn it into something.”

Before realizing he should share improv ideas with his class, he noticed its effect on his own classroom performance.

“I find that in front of the classroom I am less concerned about vulnerability and potential mistakes, for lack of a better term, that I might make,” he explains. “Going with the flow bothers me not at all now.”

When a classroom discussion takes an unexpected but relevant detour, “off we go. We’ve got to do whatever works best right in the moment and I just do it. That used to make me more uptight. I wasn’t as confident that I could pull it off.”

He says it has had a noticeable effect on his ability to reach his students. “I had a great rapport with my legal writing students last year. If my evaluations mean anything, they agreed — not just that I taught them what they needed to learn, but that I related well to them.

“If something funny happens in class, I’m not going to pass it up,” Bratman adds. “I’m going to get some mileage out of it,” showing students the value of exploring ideas and even making mistakes.

“I am really putting a lot of emphasis in class on students’ willingness to speak up and give wrong answers, because that’s how they’re going to learn,” he says. In improv, performers must “make bold choices and put yourself out there, and it may not go smoothly.”

Bratman’s first-year law students must learn the basics of legal analysis so that they can write persuasive briefs and other important documents. But they also need to learn how to switch gears during a much-rehearsed oral argument, if the judge interrupts them with an unexpected question. That means they need the sort of confidence an improv performance requires.

Now, when students are trying their oral arguments in class, Bratman instructs those who are role-playing as judges to throw out unexpected questions that are designed to push the argument off kilter.

“You have to listen to the judge really well, and you have to remain confident enough in your position that you can answer the question really well,” Bratman says — just as improv performers must maintain their particular character but immediately adapt to new information. “As a lawyer at oral argument, you have to stick to your positions and argue for your client. That is your character, so to speak. I literally have them say, ‘Yes, and ...’ ”

While it’s a bit early to try improv games in his law classes, he says someday he may propose an entire course using them as tools to improve legal communications. This March, Bratman is bringing to campus Olwyn Conway, assistant clinical professor of law at Ohio State’s law school, to speak about her new class using improv in Columbus.

Bratman hopes some of his law students will seek classes at an improv theater to improve their own communication skills. He says he may work with the education director at his own improv stage to set up continuing legal education credits.

In the meantime, he’ll be listening extra hard to the directions his students’ thinking takes. “Improv emphasizes listening,” Bratman says. “One is a better communicator if you are an effective listener.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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