In Recess September 2022

'I could not believe a bunch of lawyers and judges would brave making fools of themselves in the name of charity'

Houston Municipal Courts Associate Judge Joe Villarreal returns to acting in Houston's Night Court

Interview by Eric Quitugua
Photos Courtesy Joe Villarreal

For more than 20 years, Associate Judge Joe Villarreal has worn many hats in Night Court. No, not that night court or Night Court, the Emmy Award-winning TV series of the 1980s and 1990s. It’s Houston’s longstanding all-lawyer musical comedy, Night Court, which raises money for area legal charities. It’s where Villarreal has gotten on stage as Benjamin Franklin, Chucky, and Sherlock Holmes, among other characters. Ahead of his return to the stage in Justice by the Dozen, Villarreal spoke to the Texas Bar Journal about his love of acting and measuring up to his castmates.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN ACTING?
I first took to the stage in the second grade as the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. My mom made the costume, which I wore again for Halloween that year. I do not recall acting in anything else until my senior year in high school. It was a tradition for the senior class to put on a play to raise funds to defray the cost of the senior prom. As a class officer, I thought it was important for me to participate. We did Cactus Flower. I played Señor Sánchez—most likely because I was the only Hispanic student who auditioned for the play.

As an undergraduate student, I did a couple of plays in French. I played the king in The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) and the fire chief in The Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice chauve by Eugène Ionesco). I also undertook the production and the lead character in a short play as a project for my Spanish literature class: The Love of Don Perlimplín and Belisa in the Garden (Amor de don Perlimplín con Belisa en su jardín by Federico García Lorca). It had only one performance, with mandatory attendance for the entire class. We got rave reviews, with the entire cast being rewarded with an “A” for the project.

My only other artistic endeavor during my undergraduate years included singing with the Rice University Chorale and also the Texas Commerce Bank Christmas Choir. One year after joining the Night Court cast, I auditioned for the Houston Symphony Chorus and performed with them for 11 years.

WHAT KINDS OF CHARACTERS DO YOU LIKE PORTRAYING?
I prefer to play characters who can sing, act, and do comedy. Dance, not so much. I’ve got the rhythm in me. It just somehow does not quite flow through my body and to my extremities. However, I usually do not get to choose the characters I portray. After more than 20 years in the Night Court cast, I trust the writers and director to assign a part to me that suits my abilities and best contributes to the overall production.

WHO ARE YOU PORTRAYING FOR THE UPCOMING NIGHT COURT?
I’m playing a bailiff. Not just any bailiff, of course. After all, this is Night Court. You never know what antics might arise in the courtroom.

HOW DO YOU NORMALLY PREPARE FOR ROLES?
I start by reading the entire script so I get a sense of the storyline. There is always a complete story, and every scene helps develop the storyline. Then I focus on the scene I’m in and the other characters within that scene. I familiarize myself with my lines. The scene comes to life once rehearsals begin and our director shares her vision and stages the scenes. I take notes and jot down stage directions as we go through the scenes. Once familiar with the staging, it is easier to learn the lines. As the scene develops, there may be a song, a dance, a legal lesson (for CLE purposes), a sponsor commercial, or all these things. Night Court is known for incorporating sponsor commercials into the show. Attorneys can also get continuing legal education credit for attending the show.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE BEFORE YOU FEEL CONFIDENT ABOUT YOUR PART AND HOW THE CAST IS CLICKING?
Our cast is a fairly cohesive group—more of a family. Trust is a given. Camaraderie abounds. Many cast members have been friends and show regulars for years. They know the ropes and welcome the newbies so they, too, quickly become part of the family. After that, it is just a matter of learning lines and rehearsing until all the pieces come together.

As for the script itself, it is constantly evolving. As sponsors come on board, a scene can be adapted to seamlessly incorporate the commercial into the storyline.

The goal of the cast is to raise money for local legal charities. Further, we strive to present the best show for our audience—not just to give the audience their money’s worth, but to cultivate fans who will return every year to see what shenanigans have been woven into current events with a comedic plot twist, complemented by a stage full of lawyers and judges giving their best impression of “lawyers entertaining for charity.”

WHAT IS IT LIKE GETTING TO ACT WITH OTHER ATTORNEYS?
Most attorneys are frustrated performers. The courtroom is their captive venue. What better place for attorneys to express their creative side than on stage in front of an audience? Everyone is so talented, and not just in their chosen, legal profession. I just hope to keep up with them. I am more nervous about delivering my lines in front of my castmates than I am about performing for an audience.

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT TO ADD?
I first heard of Night Court a couple of years after I finished law school. One of my friends, a former law school classmate, called me one evening to see if I was interested in going to Night Court. I thought she was talking about municipal traffic court. Although I was not quite convinced, I wanted to support her and said I thought it might be interesting to see how cases were handled there. She quickly cleared me of that notion and went on to describe Night Court as an all-lawyer musical comedy that raises money for local legal charities.

Once I knew what my friend meant by Night Court, I said yes. I could not believe a bunch of lawyers and judges would brave making fools of themselves in the name of charity. I was hooked by the first show I attended. That night I learned Night Court was a sophisticated stage production of an original show, written by and performed by lawyers and featuring a fluid plotline; elaborate costumes; impressive production numbers; all with a cast, orchestra, and crew of lawyers and judges. Unexpected, but amazing talent.

I wanted to join the cast that night. Just one little problem: there was no way I could measure up to the talent I had just witnessed—acting, singing, dancing, telling jokes, etc. I went back to the show for the next two years and my desire to join the cast grew ever stronger. Still, I couldn’t see past that pesky talent issue. The following year, while at the Houston Bar Association office, I confided to one of the staff members how much I enjoyed Night Court and wished I had the talent to join the cast. She told me the performers were just ordinary lawyers like me and encouraged me to go for it. She gave me the contact information to reach out to Night Court. Despite my trepidation, I made the call, and the rest is history. I’m still trying to live up to the talent of my castmates.

For more information about Night Court, go to nightcourt.org. TBJ

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