GCTC's annual Lawyer Play features legendary whodunit author Agatha Christie

Ottawa lawyers donate hundreds of hours, raise more than $1.7 million for charity
lawyer play
Natasha Chettiar, an associate lawyer with Nelligan O'Brien Payne, and Brett Hodgins, a lawyer with Mann Lawyers, during recent rehearsals for the 19th Annual Lawyer Play fundraiser — Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three — for the Great Canadian Theatre Company and this year's charity partner, Tungasuvvingat Inuit. Photo by Caroline Phillips 

Don’t blame the butler, blame his lawyer, because behind every suspicious character in Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three is a member of the Ottawa legal community standing up there on the stage.

The legal eagles have been busy learning their lines and attending rehearsals over the past three months in an effort to raise serious dough for the Great Canadian Theatre Company. Now in its 19th year, the Lawyer Play has brought in more than $1.7 million, making it the longest-running and most successful fundraiser of its kind.

Audiences can expect to be drawn into murder, theft and deception, combined with light-hearted comedy, as the 23 lawyers perform in a triple bill of one-act Christie plays: Afternoon at the Seaside, The Rats and The Patient.

The gala performances, with catering from Thyme & Again and Coconut Lagoon, run Thursday, June 7 to Saturday, June 9 and include two intermissions. 

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Lawyer Dan Hohnstein, a partner at Tereposky & DeRose LLP, with Falon Milligan, a lawyer with Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall LLP, during recent rehearsals for Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three play opening this week as part of the 19th annual Lawyer Play fundraiser for the Great Canadian Theatre Company and its charity partner, Tungasuvvingat Inuit. Photo by Caroline Phillips 
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Dan Moore, counsel for human rights law section at Justice Canada, with lawyer Tara Berish during rehearsals for Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three as part of the upcoming 19th annual Lawyer Play fundraiser for the Great Canadian Theatre Company and its charity partner, Tungasuvvingat Inuit. Photo by Caroline Phillips 

The play is co-presented each year by the GCTC and County of Carleton Law Association. This year, it will feature cameo appearances by Coun. Catherine McKenney on the Wednesday sold-out preview night; Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo, and lawyers Jacques Emond and Lynn Harnden (Emond Harnden LLP) on Thursday; Liberal Ottawa-Vanier MP Mona Fortier and mediator/arbitrator Joy Noonan on Friday; and Superior Court Justice Heather Williams and CBC journalist Rita Celli on Saturday night.

GCTC's artistic director, Eric Coates, is directing with Pamela Feghali, who's an intern at the GCTC through the Shannon Reynolds Memorial Endowment Fund.

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From right, director Eric Coates, who's also artistic director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company, gives guidance to lawyers Brett Hodgins and Natasha Chettiar during rehearsals for Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three for the upcoming 19th Annual Lawyer Play fundraiser for the GCTC and its charity partner, Tungasuvvingat Inuit. Photo by Caroline Phillips 

Janice Payne, a partner at Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP, and Mitch Charness, a partner at Ridout & Maybee LLP, spoke with OBJ.social about their continued involvement in the popular fundraiser, and about their experience of working with "a consummate professional" like Coates, and with Feghali, for whom they have "tremendous regard".

“We think this is going to be one of our most entertaining,” said Payne of this year's production. “It's classic Agatha Christie."

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Janice Payne in rehearsals for Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three as part of the upcoming 19th Annual Lawyer Play fundraiser for the Great Canadian Theatre Company. Photo by Caroline Phillips 

Payne has always had a passion for theatre but her involvement fell by the wayside after high school and university — until she made a cameo appearance in one of the Lawyer Plays. She returned the following year, in 2011, as a cast member in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and has been part of the arts benefit ever since.

She's been in eight plays, including this year's The Rule of Three.

It’s not easy to find the time, she admits. The cast rehearses twice a week, beginning in early March, before stepping it up to four to five times a week as the opening night approaches. Not only do the lawyers have to learn their lines, but they also attract sponsorship and sell tickets. By the time the production is done, they've donated hundreds of hours of their time.

“All the lawyers make a terrific contribution to the community through this effort,” said Payne, while adding that she gets tremendous satisfaction from her involvement with the Lawyer Play.

“I tend to be pretty dedicated to my practice, and it can be all consuming. The commitment I make to this forces me to do something else and to do something creative. At the same time, it’s important, in terms of our firm’s role in the community.

"I really enjoy raising money for the GCTC and our charity."

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Janice Payne with lawyer Ted Mann, partner at Mann Lawyers, in rehearsals for Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three as part of the upcoming 19th Annual Lawyer Play fundraiser for the Great Canadian Theatre Company. Photo by Caroline Phillips 

Every year, organizers choose a different charity to donate a portion of the proceeds to.

This year, the Lawyer Play committee selected the Ottawa-based Tungasuvvingat Inuit, which provides Inuit-specific social support, cultural activities, counselling and crisis intervention as a one-stop resource centre to meet the needs of Inuit people.

What's also rewarding, said both Payne and Charness, are the friendships that one forms with other lawyers, who work in different areas of law and are in various stages of their careers. “I’ve created some great friendships over the years with lawyers I wouldn’t have dealt with otherwise,” said Charness.

Like Payne, Charness also has a passion for theatre. “I never got a chance to do it in high school because it was always musical theatre, and I could neither sing nor dance,” he explained.

He saw a call for auditions for a Lawyer Play being staged in 2002 and decided to give it a try. “Once you’re on stage — for me, anyway — I got hooked and loved it," said Charness, who has now acted in 14 of the Lawyer Plays.

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From left, lawyer Ted Mann with lawyer Lyndra Griffith and Mitch Charness, partner at Ridout & Maybee, in rehearsals for Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three as part of the upcoming 19th Annual Lawyer Play fundraiser for the Great Canadian Theatre Company. Photo by Caroline Phillips 

Charness’s favourite role was playing the donkey-headed Bottom in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, in 2014. "I really got to ham it up, and I really got to embarrass my kids, too, which was a bonus."

As for finding the time to volunteer, he says, "You make time for what you enjoy. An understanding family helps. I always clear it with my family before I audition."

His unofficial acting coach is his 14-year-old daughter, who helps him run through his lines at home. “She tries to get me to do every single word perfectly,” he says with a laugh.

New this year will be an array of silent auction items, including a luxury eight-day cruise of the Rhine or Danube donated by Viking River Cruises and Lush Life Travel. As well, there will also be wine, beer and whisky tastings. Andrew Peller, Kichesippi Beer, Top Shelf Distillers, Harwood Estate Winery, Kinsip House of Fine Spirits and North of 7 Distillery will be making appearances on selected nights to hand out samples.

Tickets for the gala performances are $110 each but come with a $60 tax receipt.

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Brett Hodgins in rehearsals for Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three as part of the GCTC/CCLA upcoming 19th Annual Lawyer Play fundraiser. Photo by Caroline Phillips 
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From left, Natasha Chettiar with Julia Kennedy during rehearsals for Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three for the GCTC/CCLA's upcoming 19th Annual Lawyer Play fundraiser. Photo by Caroline Phillips 
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Dan Hohnstein performs his happy dance in rehearsals for Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three as part of the GCTC/CCLA's upcoming 19th Annual Lawyer Play fundraiser. Photo by Caroline Phillips 
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Natasha Chettiar with Brett Hodgins in rehearsals for Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three for the GCTC/CCLA's upcoming 19th Annual Lawyer Play fundraiser. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Lawyer Dan Hohnstein with articling student Natasha Melfi rehearsing for Agatha Christie's The Rule of Three for the GCTC/CCLA's upcoming 19th Annual Lawyer Play. Photo by Caroline Phillips

— caroline@obj.ca