Translating Improvisation | Hydra

Initial pilot of Hydra – December 2014 to February 2015
Participants: Ivanka Antova, Adnan Marquez-Borbon, Kathryn McNeilly, Matilde Meireles, Thomas Muinzer, Seamus Mulholland, Sara Ramshaw, Hannah Russell, Paul Stapleton and Timothy Waddell.

What is Hydra?

Traditional moot court training is often criticised for failing to adequately prepare advocates to be nimble-footed in the courtroom and able to respond quickly and responsively to unexpected situations. In contrast, Hydra, named after the serpent-like water monster with numerous heads in Greek mythology, hones legal argumentation skills, requiring participants to be Hydra-headed and skilled at rapidly analysing a legal issue from a variety of angles and perspectives, teaching advocates to be prepared for the unexpected. Inspired by Cobra, John Zorn’s improvised musical game piece, Hydra sharpens these skills by requiring participants to:

Within the same case:
– Move to a new thread of argument;
– Rehearse an argument already advanced;
– Become a witness;
– Advocate on behalf of a different party;
– Deal-with a witness having gone off-script:
– Rebut what the witness has said by recollection of contradictory evidence; and
– Lead the witness to a conclusion which assists their argument;
– Become at ease with overarching techniques;
– Better cope with unexpected disruptions and uncertainties; and
– Reduce argument to a time limited form.

The format of Hydra begins with participants being provided with a fact scenario of a legal case and an overview of the basic law relating to this scenario. In the initial pilot of Hydra we used facts from a real child protection case and the related “welfare of the child” legal test. Participants acted as barrister for the mother, or the mother herself, barrister for the father, or the father himself, and barrister for the local Health and Social Care Trust/Local Authority, or a social worker. Through the use of hand gestures or cue cards communicated to the judge, participants put forward legal argumentation in relation to the case, but could at any point in time be directed by the judge (as either a conduit of the participants or of her own accord) to switch argument, to switch from a client to a barrister, to switch parties and argue for an opposing side, to increase or decrease the volume of their argument or to end their argument abruptly or to keep on expanding their argument. Participants could also elect to become witnesses to add information to the fact scenario and be cross-examined by barristers in the case. In addition, following our focus groups with local legal professionals, the latest version of Hydra develops the character of the judge by allowing her or him to actively respond to and/or challenge the arguments being put forward by participants.

Why Hydra?
It is through our creation of Hydra that we hope to directly impact the manner in which law students, members of the legal profession, and the general public, view improvisational practices, combatting the common myth that improvisation is simply “making it up as you go along”, an entirely spontaneous activity that is not constrained by trained expertise, cultural history or social norms. Rather improvisation is better understood as the ability to draw on prior knowledge and expertise in response to dynamically unfolding situations, which frequently require deviations from normative behaviours. Improvisation conceived as such is not simply an intuitive art form, but a socially engaged ethical practice that directly impacts on our ability to make creative decisions, engage in critical dialogue, take risks that allow for the discovery of new knowledge and new social relationships, and engage in collaborations across diverse domains and levels of expertise.

Applied to legal advocacy, the improvisational practices taught and honed through Hydra assist law students and trainee/practicing barristers in identifying the most fundamental tools required for skilled advocacy and learning them so exquisitely well that it is possible to pull together excellent argumentation and reasoning extemporarily. In essence, it is about a process through which advocates can safely hone their adversarial agility and attentive listening skills, the latter being especially necessary for professional responsibility and ethics.