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Georgetown Law Students Get Big Break On Stage

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Members of the “jury” sing out in the Georgetown Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s 40th anniversary production of Trial By Jury.
Jonathan Zucker
Members of the “jury” sing out in the Georgetown Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s 40th anniversary production of Trial By Jury.

This past weekend, the Georgetown Gilbert & Sullivan Society presented its 40th anniversary production of Trial By Jury.

It was this same politically satirical operetta that launched the Georgetown Gilbert & Sullivan Society back in 1973, thanks to a first-year student by the name of Jack Marshall.

"Early on, I was sitting in what was then the moot courtroom; now it's called the Hart Auditorium," Marshall remembers. "And was looking at it, and it had this installed judge's bench and a jury box. I was just sitting there thinking, 'Boy! This is a set for Trial By Jury! What a great thing to do Trial By Jury!'"

Marshall convinced beloved Professor Dick Gordon to play the judge. He got his roommates to produce; he took on the role of director. And on opening night of the two-show run, he says the company was hoping to get a handful of people to show up.

"About 600 people showed up," he says with a laugh. "They had never had more than 200 in the moot courtroom. It was a complete mob scene!"

The same thing happened at the second performance. And next thing you know, the Georgetown Gilbert & Sullivan Society was born.

"Its motto has always been: 'America's only theater company with its own law school,'" Marshall explains. And that's pretty appropriate, given that W.S. Gilbert was himself a lawyer.

But that designation also sets Georgetown's Gilbert & Sullivan Society apart from the many other Gilbert & Sullivan Societies at other colleges and universities, like Harvard, MIT and Yale.

"I was a member of the [now defunct] Barnard Gilbert & Sullivan Society as an undergrad, and I will say it influenced my choice of where to go to law school," says Mattie Cohan, GULC 1988.

"I actually knew there was a Gilbert & Sullivan Society at Georgetown," she adds. "So the first day I was here, there was a student-organization bazaar going on with different tables. And I walked up to them and I said, 'I'm yours! Take me!' And that was the start of a lifelong relationship!"

Community involvement

That's the thing about the Georgetown Gilbert & Sullivan Society: through its 40 years, many things have changed. Like how it went from producing just one operetta a year to an operetta, a Broadway-style musical and a play.

But what hasn't changed, Mattie Cohan says, is the desire of alumni to remain involved -- as supporters, performers, and networking resources.

"Georgetown is a big impersonal place in many ways," she says. "And this was a very, very personal experience to take away and remain in that connection of community. I think that this is a very large, weird, sometimes dysfunctional family, but it's a really important one in a profession that can be isolating and very cutthroat."

Not to say that being involved with the Society isn't hard work. It means learning lines, building sets and attending rehearsals, all while juggling a heavy course load.

Learning skills

Robert Planthold knows that feeling well. He's wrapping up his third year at GULC and his term as the Society's president.

"Law students do have free time, but it's usually not structured," he remarks. And basically being in a student group like this theater group forces you to structure your time.

"I've had to ask for extensions a couple of times," he admits. "But we're very much about helping each other out to make sure we don't fail as law students just so we can succeed as a theater group."

Because the way Mattie Cohan sees it, law school can be one of two things. For some people, it "can be three years of their life, so all-encompassing."

But for others, like the folks in the Gilbert & Sullivan Society, "law school is something that happens during three years of your life," Cohan says. And, says Jack Marshall, once those three years are done, who knows where life may take you?

"There's a wonderful Hollywood actor you'll see on TV named Bobby Gant, known as 'Bobby Gonzalez' while he was here. And he graduated, moved to California, and I don't think he lasted more than a few months as a lawyer, and he's been a full-time actor ever since!"

Not that Bobby's Georgetown Law skills haven't come in handy. His latest television appearance was on NCIS, the popular crime drama, earlier this year.


[Music: "When I, good friends, was call'd to the Bar" by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan from Trial By Jury]

Photos: Georgetown Gilbert & Sullivan Society

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