Scenarist Aaron Sorkin once wrote a memorable line for Casey McCall to recite at the anchor desk for Sports Night: “If you haven’t seen Davis Love play Pebble Beach, you haven’t seen Shakespeare the way it was meant to be done.” Nothing against Mr. Love or his beach, but I was seated Sunday afternoon in the Great Room of the Cumberland School of Law, and I saw Shakespeare the way it was meant to be done.
It is a style known as O.P., for Original Practices. There are no spotlights, no microphones, no sets. There are but actors and audience and the fertile imagination of each to bring the immortal creations of William Shakespeare to jaw-dropping life.
The Bard turns 450 in April, and for 25 of those years, an outfit called the American Shakespeare Center has been sending out troupes from Staunton, Virginia, to perform Shakespeare’s plays in a manner his original audiences would have appreciated, which is to say lively, engaging and, because the staging is on the same level as the spectators, in your face. As part of its current “World’s Mine Oyster” tour, last weekend a remarkable ASC unit performed Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor at Samford University.
But why at a law school instead of in a regular theater? After all, in Henry VI, Part Two, Shakespeare had a character, musing the prospect of a perfect world, declare, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
A crackerjack lawyer, very much alive, named Kimberly R. West is why. Besides practicing at the firm of Wallace, Jordan, Ratliff and Brandt, West is also a member of the Shakespeare Association of America. She came by the dichotomy honestly enough, earning a B.A. in English at UAH before enrolling in the University of Alabama School of Law. After graduation, she clerked for a year with the legendary federal judge Frank Johnson before beginning a successful legal career in Birmingham.
West’s continuing love of letters propelled her into studying for an MFA in English Literature at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where her path crossed that of Dr. Ann Jennalie Cook Calhoun, one of the world’s foremost Shakespeare scholars. Mentored by Calhoun, West realized that language and the law intersect in the works of William Shakespeare. “If you go into a legal search engine [like Westlaw] and enter Measure for Measure, it’ll spit out five or six decisions that judges have written citing portions of the play,” she said. “Same is true of The Merchant of Venice.”
A few years ago, West approached the Cumberland School of Law with an idea that combined her intellectual loves. Incoming Dean Henry C. Strickland III remembers being unimpressed when he first learned West wanted to teach a course in Shakespeare. “The more she described it, though, I realized, this is not law and literature, this is trial advocacy training from the texts of Shakespeare,” he said. “I’d not thought of this, but it sounded too good to pass up.”
Students who sign up for West’s course tend not to be Shakespeare scholars, but their unfamiliarity with his works seems no impediment. “They get it really fast, because most of them have not been exposed to the way Shakespeare is taught in this country,” she said, meaning the reading of plays that were written to be performed live.
Serving on the ASC’s board of directors, West realized that bringing live plays to Cumberland could powerfully demonstrate the bond between law and language. She consulted with the center about using its actors in a moot court situation derived from the first act of Othello, showing the effective use of argumentation in a courtroom situation. “To be an effective trial lawyer, you have to do a couple of things, one of which is, you have to interact with people,” West said. “With O.P. Shakespeare, there’s an intimacy between the audience and the actor that’s critical to trial lawyers. The audience becomes your jury.”
West and the ASC designed a Saturday morning workshop for which students could earn Continuing Legal Education credits. Thanks to the Cumberland School of Law and West’s law firm, the ASC troupe was booked for a full weekend, with the workshop followed by a Saturday night performance of Othello and a Sunday afternoon with The Merry Wives.
When West surveyed the school’s Great Room, prepared for its first theatrical performance, she was struck by its resemblance to the space at Gray’s Inn, a London law school, where Shakespeare’s actors first performed Twelfth Night in 1602. “It was a nice synergy,” she said. The ASC actors, none of whom had performed in a law school before, also found a special impetus in the space. Stephanie Earl, playing Desdemona in Othello, said, “I noticed that doing the speeches that had argument in them, my imagination was alive because of this place. I found myself arguing to lawyers, and I enjoyed that.”
Though I missed the tragedy, I saw the comedy, and I can tell ya, Shakespeare still kills in the 21st century. Some critics find the material weak, but the ASC troupe infused it with crackling physical energy, confident dialogue delivery and split-second timing that turned entrances and exits into smooth cross-fades. Just as the no-huddle offense transforms football, O. P. Shakespeare is a game-changer. No matter how contemporary directors attempt to “modernize” the Bard, the original is still the greatest.
As the actors loaded out for departure, a clearly elated Kim West talked about inviting them back for a week’s residency in the Magic City: “To see Shakespeare here in a law school great room, performed the way it’s supposed to be, and to see the joy and vitality that people who have never been exposed to it before manifest — it just lights you up to see how exciting it is.”