Hamilton law community members shine outside the courtroom in theatre production 'The Sting'

Latest show continues a long history of staging plays with lawyers, judges and clerks

Hamilton law community members shine outside the courtroom in theatre production 'The Sting'
The Hamilton legal community cast of The Sting go through their paces at rehearsals

If you’ve always thought of lawyers as having a theatrical streak in their natures – especially those who spend time in a courtroom – look no further for proof than the phenomenon of lawyers banding together to perform on the stage.

This includes everything from Twelve Angry Men (or Twelve Angry Jurors, as women are often part of the cast) and Witness for the Prosecution to non-lawyerly fare like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It’s most often done as an event to raise money for worthy causes. And the trend started in the early 1980s when Hamilton criminal defence lawyer Jeff Manishen (then working for the Crown) came up with the idea to have the Hamilton’s Lawyers Club mount a production of Twelve Angry Men, cast entirely with and directed by lawyers. 

And more than 40 years after that first production, the Hamilton legal community is back at it again this year, mounting its version of The Sting, based on the hit 1970s Oscar-winning movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. It will run for four performances at Theatre Aquarius from May 30 to June 1. 

Explaining where he got the idea for lawyers to prove their acting chops, Manishen says: “I happened to be in a bookstore and saw a book about five great plays for television, and 12 Angry Men was one of them [it was originally scripted for television]. I thought it would be great to stage with people with legal backgrounds.” Manishen had starred in plays from when he was a nine-year-old in Winnipeg, “so it’s easy to see why this was appealing to me.”

After rounding up some fellow lawyers with acting abilities, or at least a desire to act, Manishen says they started their first rehearsal in an actual jury room at the local courthouse “to get the feeling of a confined space.” The selection of the play and roles was a collaborative process, with each participant bringing their unique perspective and skills. That helped develop their characters, he says, “especially as lawyers cannot be called for jury duty and therefore didn’t know the experience.”

Staged at Hamilton Place (now First Ontario Concert Hall) in 1983, Twelve Angry Men was a hit, especially among those connected to the tight-knit legal community in Hamilton. “We sold out the dress rehearsal and three performances,” says Manishen.

As to why lawyers might be keen to join a stage play cast, Manishen says that many lawyers, especially litigators, “do have a creative side to them - a side that likes performance.” Acting in a play “gives them a chance to let that creative side shine.”

He adds: “There are certainly many lawyers who have a style or flair in the delivery. Even I feel the itch to perform in a courtroom when I am making a submission to a judge - I want to be persuasive.”

A friend of Manishen’s, Steven Schipper, who later went on to spend more than 30 years as the artistic director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) in Winnipeg, went to see Manishen in Twelve Angry Men that year, and, in 1989 staged the company’s version of the play using members of the Winnipeg legal community. It met with so much success that MTC staged annual plays with members of the Manitoba Bar as a fundraising event for the theatre.

Other professional companies picked up the idea, and since then, lawyers in Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto and Ottawa, as well as the group in Hamilton, have been supporting local charities and theatres. They collectively have raised millions. It has even caught on in English-speaking countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and South Africa.

This year’s version production of The Sting is the first time the Hamilton legal community has staged a play since Witness for the Prosecution in 2017, and follows productions of A Few Good Men (2001), To Kill a Mockingbird (2003), Inherit the Wind (2006) and A Man for All Seasons (2011). These came about from an alliance between Hamilton’s lawyers, judges, and the theatre professionals at Hamilton’s Aquarius Theatre. Proceeds of these productions support Aquarius and The Lawyers’ Legacy for Children - The Ray Harris Fund. 

Inspired by the late Justice Ray Harris, the Hamilton Lawyers’ Club created the fund in 2008 to “collectively inspire and enable children and young people to nourish and develop their knowledge.” Since then, the capital in the endowment has grown to over $500,000, with the interest used to give to worthy projects.

The Sting’s cast comprises lawyers, judges and law clerks who have been rehearsing since mid-January. Hamilton criminal defence lawyer John East plays Johnny Hooker, the role made famous by Robert Redford in the 1973 film directed by George Roy Hill. Steve O’Brien, who retired as a Crown Attorney in 2023, takes on the Paul Newman role of Harry Gondorff.

This is O’Brien’s sixth time on the stage for this event, having played roles such as one of the lawyers in A Few Good Men, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, the Judge in Inherit the Wind, Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons and Sir Wilfred Robarts Q.C. in Witness for the Prosecution.

However, what also makes this year’s production of The Sting unique is that the director is Manishen’s friend Schipper, who retired from MTC (now the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre) but soon after took over the role of Executive Director of the Rose Theatre in Brampton.

Schipper says that those with a legal background may indeed have a “performance side” to them, and many of them will have had an amateur acting career, but he believes that their intelligence makes them great on the stage. “They can grasp the concept that a director might put forward and accelerate their acting abilities based on their smarts.” 

He adds he’s been amazed by the performances of those such as retired Senator and Manitoba Court of King’s Bench Associate Chief Justice Murray Sinclair, who has played Bottom in Midsummer’s Night Dream, Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and one of the leads in “Inherit the Wind” a fictionalized account of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial (It’s a 1925 case that resulted in teacher John Scopes’ conviction for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to a high school science class, contrary to a Tennessee state law).”

Says Schipper: “It was amazing to see him bring so much humanity to his roles, like that of Chief Bromden.”

Both Schipper and Manishen say they are also impressed at how much time the legal types cast in these plays have committed to the production.

Expressed in “billable” hours, it would be four hours twice a week, often on weekends, since January, he says. Multiply that by a cast of about 30, Schipper notes, “and you can see how much effort and time they have given.

“I think lawyers have a collegiality about this event that is truly inspiring and demonstrates a true generosity of character.”

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