Armen Pandola did not set out to become a lawyer. He was originally a theater major in college, but he hasn't looked back after embarking on his career as a solo civil trial attorney.
Now, as the curtain opens on the second week of Green Light Theatrical Productions' sophomore show, Pandola finds theater taking center stage again.
As an undergraduate at St. Joseph's University, Pandola received a fellowship for playwriting before pursuing his legal career. He decided to go into law, he said, because he had friends who had become lawyers and who encouraged him to give it a try. Living on his own at the time, he knew he wouldn't be able to afford tuition without financial aid. When he received a scholarship for the only law school to which he applied, Temple, he decided to give it a try.
Pandola soon found that being a trial lawyer shares certain similarities with being in theater. A jury is still an audience that has to be convinced, and attorneys, like actors and directors, have real stories to tell. "Every person has their own story or a problem," Pandola explained, "which is similar to the theater, where conflicts drive the stories." Now, though, instead of staging battles onstage, he fights real battles in the courtroom.
Pandola's return to the theater after 25 years came about unexpectedly. His daughter, Alexandria, graduated from American University with a degree in theater and began contemplating going to graduate school. She came up with the idea to start her own theater company to explore the role of women in society as depicted in drama, a move Pandola supported wholeheartedly.
"It was better than going to grad school for theater, which I thought might not lead her to anything," he said.
And so Green Light Theatrical Productions came to be. Little did Pandola know what an impact her decision would have on his life.
'Mrs. Warren's Profession'
Last year, Pandola and his daughter staged Green Light Theatrical Productions' first show, an original play by Pandola about the lives of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Pandola not only wrote it, but also played Fitzgerald opposite his daughter during the 2003 Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
The company's second production is a comedy by George Bernard Shaw called "Mrs. Warren's Profession." Alexandria initially chose it for production, but it was Pandola who decided to try his hand at "adapting it for a modern audience."
As he read through the script, Pandola realized that contemporizing the play would entail much more than changing a bit of dialogue. "Once I started," he said, "I saw that I would have to do a lot more."
The play, originally set at end of the 19th century, tells the story of Vivie Warren, a young woman who has lived a life of privilege because of her mother's wealth.
However, her mother refuses to tell Vivie how she makes her money. When Vivie presses her mother for answers, Mrs. Warren reveals far more than Vivie expected to hear.
Pandola loved the idea that the storyline is "ripped from the headlines," highlighting the issues with censorship that are sweeping the legal community.
The best part about adapting this particular play, Pandola said, was that he was able to preserve the humorous way in which Shaw presents these resonating issues.
"Shaw was very good at bringing up social stereotypes in very funny ways, and bringing them into people's consciousness through humor," he said. "The play keeps you laughing all the way home, until you start to think, wait, there's more to that.
"Lawyers would agree," Pandola said, "that from a legal point of view, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to censor someone a little."
In Shaw's age, society at large decided what was acceptable in civil society and what was taboo. Today, Pandola said, that battle continues in the courtroom.
The play also touches on society's hypocritical stance on women's social roles and participation in sexual industries like prostitution and pornography, topics Pandola says are particularly intriguing to the legal community in a time when all social disputes are being turned into legal disputes.
Yet another issue that the play addresses that will ring true for attorneys, Pandola said, is the struggle for Vivie to accept her mother's profession. In the original play, Mrs. Warren's profession is that of brothel madam; in Pandola's updated script, she runs a pornographic Web site.
"The question at hand is, Does what you do professionally define who you are personally?" Pandola said.
For example, he said, Hollywood has perpetuated the image of the lawyer who defends murderers and rapists for the sake of the almighty dollar, becoming as crooked and villainous as the people he represents. But for many lawyers, Pandola said, it is a reality to have to handle clients and cases that they personally don't agree with. The play questions whether their professional activities compromise them as people.
Finding the Balance
Being a solo practitioner both helps and hampers Pandola pursue his "second job." The upside, he said, is that he is able to determine his own schedule and there is no higher power to answer to. "Unfortunately," Pandola said, "that also means there is also nobody to help share the caseload."
To solve the problem, Pandola shared directing responsibilities with his co-director, Christopher Schimpf, an arrangement that made the process run much more smoothly. "When I couldn't attend rehearsals because of conflicts with my legal schedule, Chris could take over."
It was a fateful accident that Pandola was also not scheduled for any trials during the final two weeks leading up to the opening or the week after it closes. He still had depositions to work on, but that, he said, is "workable."
However, Pandola's membership in Philadelphia's legal community turned out to be essential to the production of this second play. Since Green Light Theater Productions is a nonprofit company, he explained, it was forced to use the money it made on its first production to finance the second. The problem this time around was that there was no rehearsal space available to prepare the new play.
During a personal conversation with a colleague at Buchanan Ingersoll, Pandola mentioned in passing that he was looking for a place to rehearse his new play. The lawyer, unsolicited by Pandola, explained the situation to the firm, which then came forward and offered a large room in its offices as a rehearsal space.
"The play would not have come about if not for the generosity of the people at Buchanan Ingersoll," Pandola said. "Without them, this couldn't have happened."
While it has taken "a lot of struggle" to balance his legal career with his writing and directing, Pandola maintains that he wouldn't have it any other way. "Doing this is so different from practicing -- it's not like work at all!"
He insists that his love of the law and his belief that devoting himself to theater full time would make it lose its "luster of being new" will keep him from changing career paths. But for now, he's enjoying the opportunity to do both.