18 October 2023

Role models: Play helps legal profession support clients with mental health issues

| James Day
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Two actors speaking while sitting across from each other at a desk.

Actors Merryn Byrne and Craig Alexander will perform in Just Hearing on 18 and 20 October. Photo: Rebus Theatre.

Getting involved with the justice system is bad enough. But if you’re struggling with your mental health and don’t trust your lawyer, it’s almost unbearable.

While the justice system can’t be entirely avoided, a new Rebus Theatre production, Just Hearing, is training the legal fraternity to better interact with those struggling through it. To celebrate October as a nominee for the Mental Health Month award, the theatre group is holding two performances of the show that’s been developed by a creative team of actors and writers with lived experience of mental health difficulties.

Rebus Theatre production manager Fi Peel got involved as the show’s writer after working on the group’s Systems and Sanity performance, which sold out all three of its live shows. Despite being well prepared for the work through her previous role at Lived Experience Australia, she says it was no easy job to bring Just Hearing together.

“I didn’t just go in blind,” she says. ”We did a lot of consultation with Canberra Community Law and solicitors as we crafted these scripts. There was a lot of sentiment from those in the legal trade that, in spite of their dedication to helping their clients, what they were doing wasn’t working for various reasons.”

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Fi says the show teaches the audience how to have a positive experience for the client when there are already certain expectations that need to be managed.

“We have a scene where a father has had his children taken away from him,” she says. ”He comes blazing into the office going, ‘I’m gonna get them back tomorrow’, and the solicitor has to tell him it’s not actually possible.

“There’s a heated exchange because of all the passion involved, but the solicitor learns to help the client actually trust and work with them. So it doesn’t become yet another negative experience notched up in his life of mental health challenges and barriers that led him to interacting with the legal system in the first place.

“Getting the chance to take the fear out of it and doing trauma-informed practice in a safe, simulated environment is great for them to be able to take these theoretical principles and apply them in the real world.”

four people standing in front of a poster

Just Hearing is a three-year project with performances in October and March each year. It’s being funded federally through the National Legal Assistance Partnership. Photo: Rebus Theatre.

The show is modelled on a style of performance named ”Forum Theatre”, which was developed by Brazilian director Augusto Boal in the 1960s. An audience first watches a scene play out until it ends tragically. Next, the actors restart the scene, but this time encourage the audience to call out ”Stop!” at any point along the way. Whoever called out stop then gets on stage and replaces one of the actors before resuming the scene and trying to bring about a better outcome.

In the Just Hearing model, Fi explains that audience members will swap out with the actor playing the solicitor role, and be guided into a reflective discussion with artistic director Robin Davidson.

“We’ve seen it played out quite a few times now and it definitely has an impact,” Fi says.

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Head of Canberra Community Law’s Mental Health Justice Clinic, Farzana Choudhury, commissioned the show with ACT Legal Aid in 2022 to explore how they can better train legal practitioners with a trauma-informed approach.

“It has been a privilege to work with Rebus Theatre to deliver Just Hearing, and to actively elevate the voices of people with lived experience through the process,” she says.

”We hope that in sharing Just Hearing with the legal community, frontline legal assistance and other justice sector workers will be better equipped to support and empower people with lived experience of mental ill-health who engage with the justice system.”

Rebus Theatre will hold a private performance for service providers, advocacy groups, mental health sector workers and consumers on 18 October. But for interested members of the public, there’ll be a show at the Gorman Arts Centre on 20 October from 7 to 8:30 pm.

Just Hearing will be performed over the coming seasons until March 2025 and can be booked by interested parties. Given the nature of the show, a social worker will be available during and after the performance for any audience member who needs support.

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