When the curtain goes up for “A Courthouse Line X” at the 14th Street Playhouse on Nov. 7, Catherine M. O’Neil will be frenetically busy backstage, directing the popular fundraiser for the Atlanta Bar Foundation. Then, she will dance.
O’Neil, a litigation partner at King & Spalding, has always been “a bit of a ham,” she says, so the co-founder, director and producer of the long-running Bard Show, as the musical revue has come to be called, can’t help but step out in front of the footlights and perform.
It’s all for a good cause. The Bard Show has raised several hundred thousand dollars since the curtain first went up in March 1999, O’Neil said, adding that the contributions to the Atlanta Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the Atlanta Bar Association, provide support to pro bono legal services and other projects, including the Minority and Diversity Clerkship program, the Truancy Intervention Project, summer law internships and scholarships for children of police officers injured or killed in the line of duty.
Money from the Bard Show also goes to the Rowland W. Barnes Scholarship fund at Emory University, named in memory of Judge Rowland Barnes, who participated in all the shows before his death.
The 10th Bard Show runs Nov. 7-9. O’Neil talked to the Daily Report about the show.
How did you first get interested in theater?
I guess I have always been a bit of a ham. When I was young I would put a fake wooden floor down in our living room to show off my tap dancing to my parents’ friends. I started doing local theater when I was in elementary school and continued through high school, college and law school.
Did you perform in law school?
Yes. Harvard Law School did four or five shows each year, including an original musical comedy, original script and original music. I performed in most of the productions while I was there, and also choreographed several of the revues and musicals. One of my favorites was It’s a Long, Long Way to Certiorari.
Very funny. The Bard Show titles are clever, too. Did you bring that idea from school?
Yes. We thought we needed to have something catchy when advertising the show. The first show was called A Courthouse Line, and we decided to keep that as part of every show.
Can you tell me the name of this year’s show?
Courthouse Line X: Back in the Black.
How did the idea for the Bard Show come about?
When I was at the U.S. Attorneys’ Office in 1998, Greg Smith [then president of the Atlanta Bar, and a lawyer with the Federal Defenders] approached me with an idea he had for a bar event/fundraiser. He wanted to put on a musical revue of some sort. I thought it sounded like a terrific idea, so I agreed to help organize and direct the first production.
Has your role in the show changed over the years?
In some ways my role has gotten easier because we have gotten the production process down to a science. We know how many months lead time we need to write the show; we can predict pretty well how many characters and songs we need; and we know how to engineer and run a tight rehearsal schedule.
Of course, for a few years, I was working in Washington, D.C. [for the U.S. Attorney General], so others stepped up to lead the production. Strangely, they were all more than happy to have me take it back, however.
Can you tell me about a favorite moment in the first nine shows?
I have so many wonderful memories, and there have been so many hilarious moments, I’m not sure I could pick one. My favorite moment in every show is curtain call, however. The audience is generally on its feet for the cast, and it’s a moment of great pride for me.
How about a crisis moment?
We had one year, Courthouse Line III, I believe, where our lighting technician was a disaster, and dress rehearsal went extremely poorly. I remember being in tears that night, leaving the theater around midnight unsure of what opening night would look like. Luckily, we were able to get another technician with the theater to step in and spent the entire next morning with me redoing the lighting cues. When the curtain went up, everything was wonderful, and the audience got a great show. They say a bad dress rehearsal means a good show, but I prefer not to push it quite that far.
We also had one of our lead singers get sick one year. We do not have understudies, as you might imagine, so we had to improvise. We rearranged the scene to use three people, with scripts, to sing her song in her place. The show must go on, as they say.
I’m sure there are many others, but in order to maintain my sanity, I have erased them from my memory.
This show requires a big commitment in time and energy for you and everyone involved. Why do it?
We do it for charity, and for fun. All of us are so busy, and it is difficult to find the time to get involved in all the worthy organizations, like the Atlanta Bar Foundation, that we might wish to support.
At the same time, our jobs are serious and demanding, and it is difficult to find time for other interests and for fun. The Bard lets us do both.
The Courthouse Line productions have been a welcome distraction to the many of us lawyer/thespians for more than 10 years. The show gives us a chance to escape the hectic pace of our day jobs for a hectic pace of a very different kind. During the weeks of rehearsals and on stage, we can play some music, sing some songs, act a little crazy, marvel at the talents of our fellow lawyers, make longtime friends, and just have fun.
And we do it all for a good cause. I think that’s what keeps us coming back. I love this show.
What will your husband [Georgia Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias] do in this year’s show?
He has had a role in seven of the 10 shows. He has sung, danced and acted. But now he prefers the smaller cameo roles where he, as he describes it, “just talks.” He will be playing a real stretch role this year as “Supreme Court Justice.”
Will you perform this year?
I will perform in a few dance numbers. During the show, I have to be backstage on a headset calling the lighting and sound and curtain cues, so it limits my ability to have an onstage role. But I can’t resist getting out there for a few moments.