20 Years On: The First Lawyer Play
by Ian Stauffer
It’s hard for me to fathom, but the 20th Lawyer Play will take to the boards in June.
How did this phenomenon begin?
November 18, 1999. A cold night in Ottawa.
12 lawyers and 2 Judges were about to put themselves in front of an audience. Not in Court, but on a small stage before a live audience.
They were about to perform the first Lawyer Play.
How had it come to this? What on earth had possessed 14 apparently sane members of the legal profession to commit themselves to potential embarrassment before an undoubtedly skeptical public?
As has often been the case in our community, the spark was John Cardill.
John had had a call from the Treasurer of the Great Canadian Theatre Company, an established acting troupe since 1975. The Theatre needed money. Ticket sales were down. The GCTC faced hard times.
The Treasurer asked: what can lawyers do to help?
John asked me the same question. Canvass lawyers for donations? Sponsor one of the GCTC’s shows?
He’d come to me because he knew I had the ham in me. He didn’t think much of me as an actor but I was the closest thing at the office who had any connection to ‘theatre’. I’d embarrassed myself on a number of occasions doing some form of stand up comedy at the civil litigation conferences, first at Mont Ste Marie, then on to the more staid Montebello. He was the first to throw a bun at me. Now, he threw me a question whose answer would alter the legal landscape, not to sound too dramatic.
I recalled that the Advocates’ Society had found enough lawyers in Toronto to put on a show to raise money for Campbell House. Could the same thing be done in Ottawa? Could we actually find enough lawyers who were ready to create a production which might flop?
I started to call around. Don Quixote, look out!
My first victim was Mr Justice McKinnon, as he then was. I’d seen Colin do his own version of stand up on many an occasion and I was right that he’d be the next spark in the fire.
I called Giovanna Roccamo. She was on board. We called everyone we thought would bite.
When it looked like we had a critical mass, the first gathering took place.
I can still see the proposed Director, Micheline Chevrier, eyeballing a very motley crew.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Board of the GCTC had voluntold Micheline that it was going to be the responsibility of the Artistic Director to put on a show that would raise money for the Theatre.
This tradition of the AD acting as the Director of the ‘Lawyer Play’ (as it only became known as the years went by) lasted for a good number of subsequent shows, until others were eventually brought in to direct.
Back to the summer of ’99 and the first meeting of those budding thespians.
In hindsight, Micheline was very brave. Here she was, used to professional actors, coming to grips with a group, talent in the raw perhaps, but with no formal training.
She chose as her play an old chestnut, easy to stage with minimal set and props. Simple blocking. A plot she figured lawyers would take to: the deliberation of a jury in a murder trial.
However, she’d changed the title from Twelve Angry Men to Twelve Angry Jurors. Many of you will know the original 1957 story which was first a black and white drama, then 40 years later was remade with a new set of actors, now in colour.
Both casts had all been men.
A few women had come to our first gathering. The Director made it clear that her cast would be male and female.
As with many artistic projects, controversy immediately ensued. There were the purists who maintained that the script was written specifically for a male jury. This was countered with the obvious fact that we were now in 1999, not 1957 when Reginald Rose wrote the piece.
The final, most persuasive argument was that the women who came out for our show all were very talented (perhaps, even more so than the diehard #malesforever sect).
As the perceived ‘coordinator’ I was tasked by the Director to bring around those male diehards. Despite a long, drinking session with one of the ringleaders, I only emerged with a hangover.
Women were in and the diehards marched away.
Many more phone calls were made to round up a cast that would become the Original 14.
Besides the 12 actual jurors, the script called for a Narrator. Who else but that inimitable raconteur, F. Allan Huckabone, QC? Allan made the long trek from Pembroke to help us out.
We also needed what was described as a ‘guard’. Mr Justice Frank Iacobucci, as he then was, kindly took time out of his Supreme Court schedule to act as the CSO for the jury, essentially the wrangler for the following:
Foreman: Bruce Carr-Harris
Juror 2: Heather Williams (as she then was)
Juror 3: Ben Marcus, QC
Juror 4: Mr Justice Colin McKinnon (as he then was)
Juror 5: Sheila Bayne
Juror 6: Peter Hagen
Juror 7: Ted Mann
Juror 8: Giovanna Roccamo (as she then was)
Juror 9: E. Peter Newcombe, QC
Juror 10: Brian Parnega
Juror 11: Ian Stauffer
Juror 12: Lise Parent (as she then was)
We secured rehearsal space at Christ Church Cathedral. We entered that strange world of acting. A world which you think you may know from watching TV or movies, but which really is foreign and, surprisingly hard work.
Many people assume lawyers are natural actors. That is not quite true. While many love to talk, and even orate, they are not used to learning lines. As well, many do not actually listen to someone speaking to them. Lawyers feel they must make a point. They must win. Acting requires making your point, but also active listening so a cue line is not missed. Most importantly, actors play off against each other to create the tension and tell the story. Concentrating, focussing, while not drawing focus from the speaker—it’s exhausting.
While we were learning the rudiments of acting, the ever-present question floated over our heads: will anybody pay money to come see us?
We all had egos, but we were also acutely aware that this was a project never done in the living memory of even our oldest cast member.
When the GCTC told us that a ticket would cost $100, the apprehension increased. $100 to see a bunch of amateurs? Would someone you had professionally fought with over the years shell out that kind of money?
We came upon a plan: we must sell tickets not just to raise money for the Theatre, but for, what we hoped, would be seen as an even worthier cause.
Madam Justice Judith Bell saved the day. Her Honour kindly consented to allow us to use her name if some of the show’s proceeds went to fund brain cancer research. This gracious gesture gave the cast a huge jolt of confidence.
We needed sponsors. Even though our production was shoestring, to put it modestly, there were expenses, not the least of which was renting the auditorium of the Museum of Nature, the performance site. No freebies from the Feds.
God Bless, in alphabetical order, Bell Baker, Doyle Salewski, QuickLaw and Soloway Wright.
Rehearsals took place in the Fall, a constant scrambling to accommodate the cast and crew’s schedules. Finding time to eat was a challenge.
Those of you who have acted well know that rehearsals create a huge appetite. It’s the nervous energy.
We would all bring snacks, but the real food came from GCTC Board members such as Diana Kirkwood and Jane Panet and Ben’s and Brian’s wives.
There was often downtime as Micheline rehearsed with a couple of the cast. Then the stories would come out. The older hands, especially Peter and Ben, would remind us of the legal world from the ‘50s and ‘60s. They would try to one up each other with their war stories of stern-faced Toronto Judges visiting Ottawa on the Assizes.
Let’s just say Colin had one or two tales of his own.
A few moments stand out from rehearsals. Sheila Bayne, a very proper lady, having a temporary tattoo attached to her arm. She needed to be a ‘tough’ juror.
Brian perfecting ‘The Parnega’, which involved putting one foot on his chair and looking like Rodin’s Thinker. Not as easy as it sounds.
Endlessly rehearsing the re-enactment of the alleged killer’s stabbing gesture, so no real blood would be shed.
Ted Mann always arriving in a rush, his cellphone in hand (yes, there were such devices in the last century).
As our opening approached and ticket sales seemed ‘soft’, we took to the phones. Cajoling. Calling in favours. Puffery. All tactics were tried. Some worked.
Near the end of our rehearsals, the Director uttered those magical words, “I think we’ve got a show”. Perhaps it wasn’t delivered in a ringing fashion, but we all hoped she meant it.
It was time for the cast photo. Colin arranged for his brother, Rory, to snap us as we all tried to become our respective character.
Later, Trevor Goring used the photo and produced the painting which hangs in many of our offices and in the CCLA Library. That painting, and the cost involved, is another story for another time. Let’s just say I personally treasure my expensive copy.
We see Bruce Carr-Harris, in his ice cream suit, presiding over a pondering group. Notably, Giovanna is shooting laser beams at Ben, the hold out juror til the end.
And so we come to that cold opening night: November 18, 1999.
By then we had rehearsed on the stage at the Museum. Twice. Talk about trial by fire.
As is so often the case, the rehearsal and performance stages weren’t quite the same dimensions. The Museum’s was obviously built for much smaller people or smaller shows, or both.
We crammed ourselves on to it. The set was minimal with a big table and chairs. There was a backdrop of suspended ‘windows’. These swayed with the slightest breeze, which caused some anxiety, to put it mildly.
I recall three props: the knife, pencils all around and lots of paper (especially for Ben).
As with most amateur productions, our cast pitched in to help with setting up. I recall Ben and I lugging in huge bags of ice to chill the drinks for the post-show reception. As he tried to heft a particularly cumbersome beast, I offered help. Ben shoved me back and told me a story about the old days, working as a labourer. Touchy fella.
The caterers did knock themselves out for our show. I am ever grateful to Epicuria, The Place Next Door, Thyme & Again and Two Cooks Catering.
And people did come.
They came in droves.
For two nights!
The audience was with us. They knew we were doing our best and they responded with applause, that brief, evanescent mark of thanks. We were in actors’ Heaven.
Were the hundreds of hours of preparation and angst worth it?
Of course. We brought to our community something meaningful and special. We honoured Judy Bell. We became a family, albeit briefly. And we started what has become a tradition.
Just on that point. I often feel the only real contribution I’ve made to the Lawyer Play was in the aftermath.
You see, in the Green Room on closing night there was euphoria: They loved us! Let’s take this puppy on the road!!
But that enthusiasm had already dwindled as the last people left Sheila Bayne’s beautiful house where we had held the cast and crew party.
“Well, back to work on Monday,” was the sad refrain, even as we held our show’s t-shirts aloft in one last non-lawyer, defiant gesture.
It was only some months later, when I gathered together the rump of our cast and people from the GCTC, that a decision was made that we should try to do it all over again. But, as you would expect from lawyers, that decision came only after a good two hours’ of loud voices.
The anti-encore crowd argued:
“It was a one-off.” “How could we get any better?” “Maybe we weren’t that good…” “People will never come again, especially at $100 a pop.” “It’s too much work.” “There are no other plays with large casts which would work.” Etc.
But I found the ham in just enough people that we tentatively agreed to No. 2. The GCTC was keen. We would even be performing on its own stage next time!
Another wave of actor-lawyers came forward. Judith Allen, the Honourable Doug Rutherford, QC, Ann Scholberg, Master/Mr Justice Bob Beaudoin, David Scott, QC and many more. Witness for the Prosecution was born.
And the rest is history.