Legal Practice

A historic playhouse in Detroit teaches local lawyers how to get into character

Streetlights illuminate Detroit’s historic playhouse at 3321 E. Jefferson Ave., revealing a two-story building tucked behind a low brick wall. Ten gargoyles peer out from the roofline; their stone faces grimacing and smiling upon a group of tuxedo-clad gentlemen like William J. Champion and his son, Michael, as they arrive for tonight’s performance.

The building is home to The Players Club of Detroit, a men’s amateur theater group founded in 1911. It’s a sight to behold, even in the dark. Though much of the surrounding cityscape has changed over the years, the Florentine Renaissance-style structure has remained the same: its red tiled roof, arched windows, and wrought iron balcony carefully preserved since the building’s construction in 1925. Inside, the Champions and fellow Players continue traditions of the men who came before them, performing a series of three one-act plays called “frolics.”

This particular Saturday night in October marks the first frolic of the season, and the air is electric as Players ­­— per tradition — gather in the lobby for a draught beer by the bar. When a bell tolls at 8 p.m., they put their mugs down in unison and slip into the dimly lit auditorium, where some take their seats at round cocktail tables. Others, like the Champions, disappear into the wings of the stage.

The Players President Tom Sloan delivers a speech in front of the curtain, followed by an announcement about a fundraiser to repair parts of the nearly century-old playhouse. Then the lights dim, the curtain rises, and the frolic begins.

Jeff Barry (left), Eric Christian, Michael Champion, William Champion, and Dave Costa
Jeff Barry (left), Eric Christian, Michael Champion, William Champion, and Dave Costa perform at the October frolic.

An hour and two short one-act plays later, the Champions take the stage. Tonight, they’re playing — coincidentally — a father-son duo in a show called Tenure, written and directed by fellow Player Matt Turnball, about a young man who becomes a tenured professor at a small liberal arts college. They perform their parts with the ease of such seasoned actors that some might never guess acting is not their profession. Rather, both men are lawyers.

“I know that if I’ve got to do a big closing argument, I can use the same techniques from Players. Having those in my toolkit makes it that much easier.”
— Tim Cordes

The club consists of 160 members of various vocations. Some are architects, doctors, and attorneys like William who operates a law office. The Grosse Pointe resident notes that participating in the theater troupe has its professional benefits, particularly for the club’s lawyers. In addition to developing a sense of professional presence, the men are often able to polish their public speaking skills.

Audience members clad in tuxedos
Audience members clad in tuxedos

“I know some folks who were just terrified the first time [they performed], but now they walk out onto the stage and own the place,” says William, 64. He first learned about The Players as a high school student, when an elder member of his church invited him to attend the club’s November Invitational. Though he was impressed by the evening’s lively performances and the palpable comradery among Players, William didn’t commit to joining the group until decades later.

Endowment Committee co-chairs William Robinson (left) and John Daly
Endowment Committee co-chairs William Robinson (left) and John Daly

Another attorney, Tim Cordes, 56, of Bloomfield Township, says that performing with The Players has also helped him to stay mentally agile when in the courtroom. Cordes discovered The Players through an article in the Detroit Free Press in 1997 shortly after he left New York City, where he spent five years professionally acting. After attending the May Invitational that same year, he joined the group and has since performed in nearly 50 shows.“It was cool, but I really didn’t think about it for 15, 20 years,” he says. After a five-year stint in Boston, where he earned his degree from Northeastern University and briefly practiced law, William returned to Grosse Pointe and looked to The Players as a way to connect with other men in metro Detroit. He joined the group in 1996 and has proudly been a Player ever since. His son, Michael, joined in 2010.

“I think that the habit of memorizing lines and blocking keeps you sharp,” says Cordes, who earned his degree from Michigan State University College of Law and now operates a law firm. “I know that if I’ve got to do a big closing argument, I can use the same techniques from Players. Having those in my toolkit makes it that much easier.”

The Players member Michael Dixon applies makeup.
The Players member Michael Dixon applies makeup.

Because Players only perform for each other, with the best three one-act plays being selected to perform for an invited audience at the season’s end, they gain the confidence needed to speak in front of a crowd — or a courtroom. That’s not to say that all Players act. Members are welcome to build sets, design costumes, and run lights if they so desire. Or, in William Robinson’s case, direct.

An attorney by trade, Robinson, 55, of Birmingham is a third-generation Player whose grandfather joined in 1917 shortly after the club was founded. He’s also a co-chair of the Endowment Commitee with The Players member John Daly. His father and uncle took up their tuxedos in the 1950s, and Robinson eventually became a member in 1979. He estimates directing up to 30 shows since, and he uses his management skills in and out of the playhouse.

Detailed Paintings and stonework can be found throughout the playhouse.
Detailed Paintings and stonework can be found throughout the playhouse.

“I always say that I do at Players what I do for work,” says Robinson, who earned his degree from Wayne State Law School but now owns and operates ATA National Title Group based in Farmington Hills. “Directing requires the same organizational and motivational skills. You need to find the right people to do particular things and you need to keep them motivated. It’s very similar to what I do for a living.”

One week after the October frolic, The Players historian Ed Priebe, 57, of Berkley, leads the way through the playhouse lobby and up the spiral staircase, which bears the first two lines to Shakespeare’s well-known monologue, “All the World’s a Stage.” Priebe has just come from the Detroit Historical Museum, where he was helping to prepare an exhibit on The Players that will run until Jan. 20, 2019.

As he enters the Founders Room on the second floor, Priebe speaks enthusiastically about what he’s seen so far of the exhibit. In addition to a full replica of the theater, the 2,000-square-foot space will highlight notable members — men like William Kapp, the architect who designed the playhouse, as well as several former U.S. Senators and governors.

When asked what he hopes will come of the exhibit, Priebe says that he wants to showcase another one of Detroit’s hidden gems. He looks carefully at the personalized mugs that line the walls, each one belonging to Players who have passed, and adds, “I hope we see some new membership interest.” Priebe says new Players make the efforts to keep the institution alive for future generations that much better.