This year marks the 40th anniversary of the only graduate student-operated theater company in the U.S., once dubbed by Newsweek, “the only theater company with its own law school.”
The Georgetown Gilbert and Sullivan Society was unwittingly launched with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial By Jury concocted by then first year law student Jack Marshall, now the artistic director of The American Century Theater, in 1973. The night of the first performance is part of Law Center lore. Marshall had recruited and trained the school’s “Prof. Kingsfield” clone, the intimidating Richard Alan Gordon, to play The Learned Judge, who enters to a mock Handelian chorus. Though the show had virtually no marketing and its organizers expected just a few friends of the cast in the seats, Marshall’s unlikely star and a school buzz produced an overflow crowd—estimated at 600 in an amphitheater that had never had to hold more than 200— requiring seating audience members on the stage and the stairs. “When Professor Gordon entered looking like a bearded version of Norman Bates’ mother,” Marshall remembers, “the audience went nuts, standing and cheering at a volume and level of enthusiasm that I have never heard in a theater since, drowning out the music.”
Marshall didn’t know it then, but a weird tradition was born. The Law Center’s Dean told him that the show had bound the law school community together as never before, and asked him to commit to directing more productions while he was a student. He was hired by the new Dean after graduation, in part, he believes, to keep the company going.
Now, 40 years the surprise success of a bored law student’s lark, the Georgetown Gilbert and Sullivan Society is an institution, promoted by the school’s admission office, with a remarkable legacy. The company’s success and popularity caused GULC to remodel what was a lecture hall into a fully-equipped theater. The stage was deepened and seats removed to accommodate staging and choreography as well as Supreme Court symposiums. Fans of the group have included Supreme Court Justices Tom Clark and William Rehnquist: it is believed that Rehnquist got the idea for the three gold stripes he wore on his judicial robe during the Senate Impeachment trial from a Lord Chancellor’s costume he watched for four and half hours sitting in on Marshall’s disastrous dress rehearsal for Iolanthe in 1975.
“Everything went wrong that night; the set even caught fire,” Marshall remembers. “I kept apologizing to Rehnquist, and all he kept saying was, “This is fun!” The group now does three shows a year—a Broadway musical in the Fall, a straight play in the Winter (GG&SS has the distinction of producing the Washington D.C. premiere of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, and the traditional Gilbert and Sullivan operetta in the spring. Alumni of the group include professional singer-actress Mary Milben, local professional actor and stage manager David Elias, former DC Court of Appeals Judge John Steadman, former Emory Law Dean Jack Kramer, and Hollywood actor Robert Gant, a regular on Queer As Folk with a long list of recent credits including NCIS.
Many of the group’s current student performers and alumni credit the organization with keeping them in law school, or keeping them sane in the stressful environment. Other found the shows rekindled their love of theater and music, leading to a lifetime of balancing show business with the law. On April 10-13, a large segment of GG&SS’s estimate thousand alumni are returning the scene of their former triumphs, to witness an ambitious evening that will feature a student Trial, and an alumni-performed Gilbert and Sullivan revue, written and directed by Marshall. He will be including alumni in the show as they arrive into D.C. through all four performances. “I’m going to have different cast and show every night,” Marshall says. “But they know the numbers. I’m not too worried.”
The event will also launch the Myron Dale Memorial Fund, dedicated to Marshall’s late law school room mate who produced the early productions and performed in many as well. There will be showings of videos of past shows, and the group plans of creating a video history using interviews.
“The whole phenomenon is amazing,” marvels Marshall, who says it is both amusing and humbling when students in the group react to him as if he was a mythic figure, since they have heard all the lore. “I think it demonstrates the power of theater and music that one little show could start this, and that so many talented students have cared enough and devoted so much time and passion to keep it going for four decades. April 13th is going to be something to see. Everyone in that theater—and it’s going to be packed, just like in 1973—knows that they built this tradition and this theater company. They didn’t let the law squeeze the fun and humanity out of them. That’s what we’ll all be celebrating that night.”
Trial by Jury plays at The Georgetown Gilbert and Sullivan Society on April 10 – 12, 8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m and April 13, 7:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m., at Hart Auditorium at Georgetown University Law Center – 600 New Jersey Ave., NW, in Washington, DC 20001.
Regular advance sale tickets are available here. Discounted advance sale tickets are available through Goldstar available here. Discounted advance sale tickets for students, faculty and staff of Georgetown and current & former members of GG&SS available here.
The Georgetown Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s website.