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When law and comedy collide

Some of the most high profile people in the world of business, law, comedy and stage started out in the peculiar tradition of ‘law revues’ at unis the world over – that includes people like Stephen Fry, and Rowan Atkinson, and locally, Libbi Gorr, Magda Szubanski. But in the legal profession in Melbourne, that also includes Hugh de Kretzer (now heading up the Human Rights Law Centre), Fiona McLeod SC (Victorian Bar Chair 2013 and well known for her work fighting human trafficking and slavery) and former TV actor – now Slater & Gordon lawyer Anna Jennings-Edquist

These days it’s a ‘multidisciplinary team’ from all faculties and not just law schools. It can loosely be described as a comedy / musical sketch theatre concert – the catch is that the material must all be original (music, songs, jokes, choreography), and it must all be, you know, actually good.

I was commissioned to write an article on the 2012 Melbourne Uni Law Review for its 60th anniversary year (that’s JD students Brigitte Wise & Lachie McKenzie in the thumbnail for this post). I saw the Revue that year (at the Lithuanian Club in North Melbourne) and was honestly pretty impressed (Shaun Micallef  & Working Dog got involved via pre-record and generally being encouraging). It’s quite seriously worth buying a ticket – and I’ve heard similar great things about the Monash Law Revue.

It’s surprising who gets a mention, why they got involved, where they thought they were going and where they ended up. And a few names worth watching – given the stunning roll call of notable types that have made their way through law revue productions.

I had a ball writing it.

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Setting the stage for stellar performances

With Melbourne Law School’s tradition of harbouring intellectual excellence and academic rigour, it’s refreshing to know that it is also fertile ground for the best of creative and comedic talent.

But the art of theatre and comedy is not lost to the alumni of the Melbourne University Law Revue who moved into the law.

“There are parallels between getting on stage and presenting in court,” said Hugh de Kretser (LLB(Hons) 1997), the Executive Officer of the Federation of Community Legal Centres whose last revue was in 1994. “You have to perform, you know you’ve got to get it right and sometimes, a bit like stand-up comedy, you’ve got to improvise.”

The Victorian Bar’s Senior Vice Chairman, Fiona McLeod SC (LLB 1987), alumna of the 1984 revue, agrees. Her practice in the law and work in human rights – specifically in human trafficking and sex slavery – has meant some time back in the public spotlight. But, like Hugh, her time treading the boards in school theatre and productions, including the revue, added something to her advocacy skills. “I have very little performance anxiety,” she explains. “Sure, I get butterflies when I’m about to go to court on a big matter, but I have a grounding which gives a confidence that I can handle it.”

The intensity of the process of producing a revue bears similarities with the collaboration of preparing for litigation; both bring together people within a discipline but with varying expertise and strengths. The moment on stage (or in court) belies the days and nights of
research, preparation, drafting and generally trying to make it all fit together.

“More than the actual performances themselves, I remember the process of creating the shows,” said Anna Jennings-Edquist (LLB 2010), former TV actor, now a lawyer at Slater and Gordon. She was in the cast of the 2005 revue, and directed in 2006.

Creating revues is a stretch. “Everyone in the cast has to write skits and perform. It’s not one or the other,” says Charles Hopkins who directed this year’s revue which marked 60 years since the first performance of a Melbourne Law Revue. JD student and cast member
Jason Perri was not planning to be on stage when he initially took an interest: “I had been involved in high school performance, but I was really interested in writing comedy – that’s why I wanted to be a part of it. Then I found out it didn’t work like that”.

Jason’s performances included a Hollywood news reporter, an exam invigilator, the lead singer in a boy band and a man too dull to purchase life insurance.

Conversely, fellow JD student Brigitte Wise was not so keen on writing, given her theatre and dance background: “It wasn’t my strength, but I wrote a few. The workshopping of the actual performances was much more my thing.”

It’s not easy to put a finger on just why the Melbourne Law Revue has given us so many household names in comedy. But it’s a university tradition the world over, this production of extraordinary comedic talent from revues, including from the ranks of (allegedly) aspirant lawyers.

Think of Monty Python, Stephen Fry, Hugh Lawrie, Rowan Atkinson and Dudley Moore. In fact, the tradition of the revue (sometimes called ‘tealights’) is thriving at Oxford, Canterbury, Cambridge and Edinburgh universities, as well as universities throughout Australia.

The list of Melbourne University Revue alumni who have made it in comedic creative pursuits is impressive, including Libbi Gorr, Magda Szubanski, Steve Vizard, Tony Rickards, Costas Kilias and Rob Sitch. The Melbourne Law Revue was one of a few Australian university revues that were part of the formative years for many of the people who went on to revive sketch comedy in Australian TV –
such as the D-Generation, The Late Show, Full Frontal, Fast Forward and Skithouse.

A soft spot for the revue remains with Santo Cilauro (LLB 1986) and Tom Gleisner (LLB 1986) who agreed to take part in a number of video sketches for the 2012 revue – the 30th anniversary of the first revue involving the crew from Working Dog.

“It’s no coincidence that many of Australia’s great comic personalities found their start in law revues across the country; we loved working together in those early days at uni and that’s what set the whole Working Dog idea off,” said Tom.

For some, the Law Revue was an awakening period leading them to think differently about their careers – and the law. The creative freedom and outlet, and the friendships formed, were integral.

“I didn’t enjoy my law studies in the early years,” confesses Fiona McLeod. “I didn’t know why I was there. I felt like I was in the wrong place.” And so she escaped on campus to her first love – theatre. Fiona had been involved in experimental theatre and clowning, and
was seriously considering pursuing acting.

She was enrolled in a combined law/science degree at the time, and came from a family of medical types. Why law? “I had this idea it was about courtroom performance, so I thought it was kind of like theatre in some way,” she laughs.

“Someone said to me, ‘you’d be really good at comedy’ and so I gave it a go. I didn’t know anyone in the cast of 20 or so people, but we became close. It was a creative, wonderful, liberating time,” which also included a spot with fellow cast members on the popular Hey Hey It’s Saturday. “We thought it was hysterical, but it was a disaster,” she admits.

“But when you’re at uni and a part of something like this, you can take risks with humour and experimenting with different things. In some ways you’re too immature to know things will fail, and to hold back … I look back and think, ‘Thank God I did that; it was a great experience’”.

But things were changing. “Two things happened. One was that I came to the realisation that I didn’t have a lot of confidence that I’d be a good actor. The other was that I was inspired in the law by a lecturer in international law,  Professor Gillian Triggs (now President
of the Australian Human Rights Commission)”. Fiona had found her “right place”

Hugh de Kretser, also from a medical/science family, never had any serious ambitions as a performer – although he was keen on music, theatre and debating at high school and began his law degree with the idea of becoming a journalist. He happily confesses to still playing around on his guitar (at home) and “telling bad jokes” (in the office).

He recalls a skit he wrote and performed in a revue – a guitar country and western number, Happy Couples, with a fellow student who is now an immigration lawyer.

“I had never done any comedy before in my life – except what might pass for it at the pub … I did it just for fun. It was something I enjoyed doing and I got a kick out of it.”

This extended to being involved in two revues in 1993 and 1994. He finally went on to a career in corporate, and then community, law.

Being involved with the revue, he says, added something to his tool kit as a lawyer and media spokesperson.

“If you want people to listen to you, you’ve got to keep it interesting,” he says. “The ability to communicate sometimes dry legal content in a more creative or lively context is important.” Hugh muses that “a lot of suppressed creative types are in the law,” while Anna Jennings-Edquist notices the law develops some key skills transferable into comedy: “A lot of people who study law have quick minds, confidence, an interest in human interactions and behaviour, and a strong writing ability… Maybe having to force yourself to be serious, pay attention and replace your personality with statute means you need a creative outlet where you can be ridiculous and not take anything seriously.”

The 2012 revue completed its season in August. For this year’s JD participants, life after law school is wide open to possibility. They may tread the boards of the courtroom, the stage, or somewhere entirely different, but now join a unique cohort from Melbourne Law School – often glowing brightly in the law, and sometimes sparkling in comedy.

This article was first published in Melbourne Law School News in October 2012. You can find it in the flip book on-line – go to page 8.

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