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BWW Interview: Abbe David Lowell of MOCK TRIAL at the Shakespeare Theatre Company


BWW Interview: Abbe David Lowell of MOCK TRIAL at the Shakespeare Theatre Company When most people hear "mock trial," it conjures up memories of high school debate classes and Model United Nations clubs. The phase has an all-together different meaning for Washingtonians, one associated less with teenage extra circular activities and more with laughter, law, and the legacy of William Shakespeare.

Held bi-annually, the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Mock Trials showcase a side of "official" Washington too rarely seen. Bringing together the capital's top legal minds, the cases seek to entertain as well as educate. Veteran Washington lawyer Abbe David Lowell will serve as an Advocate at the upcoming June 22nd trial, and says that each of the cases seeks to accomplish four goals.

"First is, of course, to be educational - both as to some legal issue and the play in which the legal issue is set. Second, is to introduce the timelessness of both classical theater and legal issues which we can conjure up. Third is to be entertaining! And, fourth is to provide another way for judges and lawyers and non-lawyers to see each other in different contexts and create a better understanding of what we all do and who we all are," says Lowell.

The cases themselves are not real legal cases. They usually involve an issue arising from one of the Bard's plays, in this case A Midsummers Night's Dream, and often tend to have a topical theme.

"We started this Mock Trial process this time with an idea to see what might be relevant to the times," says Lowell. "The legal issue that jumped out was obvious - how do unplanned events like a pandemic change contract relations between parties who did not plan for them. A phrase no one knew before March 2020, force majeure, or act of god, is now making the daily news. This issue is arising for every business and non-profit in our country."

Lowell adds, "In A Midsummer Night's Dream, what could be a better example of an 'act of the gods' than the principal actor in the play-within-the-play being turned into a donkey head and not being able to perform?"

Having been an Elizabethan period English Literature major in college, before going to law school, the Mock Trial seems like the perfect fit for Lowell. Having served as the Chief Minority Counsel during the Clinton Impeachment Trial, represented big name clients like Jared Kushner, and having argued before the Supreme Court, he's no stranger to high visibility.

However, with the Mock Trial, he says there is one difference.

"Most people would be surprised how many hours are spent by the advocates and the judges who sit on our bench to get ready. The only real difference in the mock trial versus a regular case is the imperative and challenge to be funny," says Lowell.

The idea of a Mock Trial was the brain child of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He had the idea of doing a real trial based on Hamlet.

"We tried whether the prince was not guilty of killing Polonius by reason of insanity. There were expert witnesses and a jury, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. From there, every year there has been one or two events - mostly framed as appellate arguments," says Lowell.

Making the event extra special is the presence of legal VIPs who try the case. This year they include former Obama White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, who will serve as the other Advocate, and a slate of three judges who will try the case. Most notable among them, Judge Merrick B. Garland of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, who was nominated to the Supreme Court, but never received a confirmation hearing in the Senate.

The Mock Trials have become Shakespeare Theatre Company mainstays, and a highly anticipated event for Washington theatergoers. For the first time in its history, this month's Mock Trial is being held virtually, a move Lowell hopes will expand the audience nationally.

"What all theaters and performers are also realizing, and it reinforces the lasting value and future of the theater, is that audience participation and feedback are crucial," says Lowell. "It is hard to make presentations that are intended to get laughs without hearing the laughs. We are working on how to fix that."

The Mock Trial is sponsored by Shakespeare Theatre Company's Bard Association, which seeks to build connections between the legal and theatre communities.

"As chair of the sponsoring Bard Association, I may be the person who gets to announce or moderate, but without the work of the scenario committee and the STC [Shakespeare Theatre Company] staff, these would never happen. Also, whether it has been our repeat Supreme Court Justices or other judges, and now our having reached out to judges from other countries, and the dozens of attorneys who have participated, what makes this program work is the contribution of all these participants," says Lowell.

By time court is in session on June 22nd, Washington theaters will have been closed for three months. With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, it is unclear when performances will resume. It is a moment not lost on Lowell, and all those involved with the Mock Trial.

"It may be that we now have such good television screens and sound systems that we do not need to go to a dark room to see a movie as often as we did, but the organic and living nature of theater with its spontaneity and interaction among actors on the stage and especially between the stage and the audience cannot be replaced. There is a reason that from ancient Greece, through the Elizabethan period to today, theater has survived. We need that art form more than ever to tell the classic stories and portray the feelings and emotions of people that have been and always will be relevant," says Lowell.

Your honor, the court and theatre are now in session. Break a leg Counsellor Lowell.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company's Mock Trial will be held on June 22nd. For tickets and more information, please click here.

Photo: Abbe David Lowell. Credit: Shakespeare Theatre Company

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