Blue on Blue
The most popular theater group in Chico talks about its origins, rumors of moving, and where it’s actually going
“Do we invite the crowd … behind the scenes, into the workshops of the costume and scene designers; into the actress’ dressing room? Do we show the public the mechanism behind our effects? Do we explain to them the revisions, the improvisations adopted in rehearsal, and even to what extent instinct and sincerity are mixed with artifice and charlatanry …?”
The Blue Room is the best theater company in Chico. This is not simply a writer’s opinion. It is not the decision of effete drama critics huddled together in the back room of some downtown coffee shop, weighing the validity and quality of the pieces performed as well as the performances. It is not the verdict of wizardly academicians in some inaccessible ivory tower poised around a scrying crystal, anticipating a reflective epiphany of artistic insight. Rather, it is you, the theater-going public, who have rated the Blue Room the best. You decided.
Once again, the Blue Room has been voted best theater group in Chico by the readership of the Chico News & Review. Small wonder. Over the past year, the theater has enjoyed unprecedented attendance. Nearly every performance of every play produced in the last nine months has sold out. The box office has had to turn people away because there has been no room. Additionally, the numbers of those choosing to support the theater further by adding their names to its membership roster of paying supporters also has significantly increased. In terms of patronage, performance and prestige, the Blue Room is a success.
Yet, as with all success stories, this was not always the case. The visions that first fueled the formation of this company were, on the surface anyway, somewhat different than those that followed. Many characters provided these visions, from those who currently control the theater back to those who initially founded it. Many characters have both literally and figuratively crossed the Blue Room’s stage to contribute to its current success. And so it is that after over eight years of existence, amid rumors of a possible move from its present location, a brief history of the Blue Room seems in order.
We’re going back to the origin. We’re journeying back to the matrix from which this theater company sprang, back to the early ‘90s and a backyard not unlike any unassuming residence’s backyard except for those who occupied it. We’re going back to the beginning.
My childhood was a period of waiting for the moment when I could send everyone and everything connected with it to hell.
In the beginning there were two brothers, Denver and Dylan Latimer. They were young college students possessed of a love for theater. And as with all tales of wonder, the story of their founding of what was to become the Blue Room begins with a miraculous act, of sorts.
While their parents, lawyer Dennis Latimer and English teacher Mary Ann Latimer, were away on vacation one summer, the Brothers Latimer and a few friends decided to take a Skil saw and cut out the backyard-facing wall of their family’s garage!
“We were all Chico High drama graduates,” explains Denver Latimer on the phone from New York City, affirming the veracity of the wall-cutting story. The section of wall that fell on the lawn became the stage. But Denver, his brother and their vandalizing friends hadn’t initially intended to create a spontaneous stage space. “We wanted to make a film as sort of a summer project, but we didn’t have enough money. So we decided to cut open the side of the garage and put on a spectacle. It wasn’t really going to be a play. … We were going to blow up the garage! But it didn’t end up working out that way. And we were actually going to butcher a cow—that was our second idea.”
When asked why on earth anyone would conceive of such mayhem, Latimer humorously replies, “It was all from Artaud [the French avant-garde drama theorist who proposed a ‘Theater of Agony']. We were reading about him walking a cow around Paris [as a performance piece]. So then we decided we were going to finish off the walk of the cow with a butcher. And sort of throw blood on the audience!”
They didn’t, of course, follow through on that second, somewhat grisly idea; however, the notion did spawn the name that was to attach itself to subsequent backyard summertime performances: The Butcher Shop Show.
“We did the first Butcher Shop in ‘89,” Latimer remembers. “I think we did them for four or five years. I came back every summer to do them.”
One particularly memorable Butcher Shop Show exhibited a tableau entitled Birth of Penis. This featured (as near as this writer can remember) caterer and then-City Councilman David Guzzetti in the buff, posed as Botticelli’s Venus, hands strategically placed, and classical music playing in the background while former activist Kelly Meagher, in a Grecian robe, stood likewise frozen, his extended arms sans hooked prosthetics making him appear somewhat like a bearded Venus di Milo (if I have managed even to suggest how hilarious the effect was, then I have managed only a mere fraction of fact!).
That particular show also featured a puppet show, a couple of bewildering sketches, and an adaptation of a scene from one of James Joyce’s stories (foreshadowing Bloomsday, perhaps?)—I honestly don’t remember which. Generally, the Butcher Shop Shows afforded a pleasant excuse to drink some wine or beer and hang with fellow Chicoans while watching goofy, fun experiments in theater.
In 1993, Denver Latimer moved back to Chico. He and some friends had decided to “start an experimental theater company that would do puppetry and have a traveling component,” he says. “Initially, we didn’t envision that we would actually have a [performing] space.”
Even so, Latimer quickly points out that other, earlier theater groups in town, such as Theatre Out of a Suitcase and particularly The Other Theatre, were inspirational to them in their formative years.
“If The Other Theatre had survived, we might not have even started The Blue Room. We might have just integrated into that. I don’t know; we were smart-ass kids. So maybe we wouldn’t have!”
Initially, Latimer explains, the puppetry group had two goals: to perform shows in area schools dealing with the origin of jazz and the history of racism in America, and to raise funds for a dreamed-of national or international tour. “We thought we were going to travel around the world, doing puppetry on the Great Wall of China,” he says.
While fund-raising during the fall of ‘93, a mutual friend mentioned to Latimer that the Lucenas, who own Collier Hardware, had a space opening up. The Masons, whose lodge was situated above Collier Hardware, had moved out and into their own facility on East Avenue. The Lucenas were looking for a new tenant to take over the space. Denver met with the building’s owners. “They rented it to us for a fund-raiser,” he says. “I decided that I liked the space, and we decided to stay there.”
The Lucenas doubtless knew that their new tenants intended to perform theatrical productions in the space but likely had no idea the group also intended actually living there!
“We all lived there,” Latimer admits. “Initially, there were five guys, and we illegally just sort of moved in. We all paid rent.” Mostly, the new occupants of the space organized fund-raisers for their activities, everything from rock shows to spaghetti feeds. “It was just constant fund-raising,” he says. This led to the Blue Room’s first incarnation as the Cosmic Travel Agency.
“We immediately went into production with my play, Soup or Salad,” Latimer continues. “Once I decided we were going to stay, we kind of went into fund-raising/producing mode, which is where we stayed for a long time. In some ways, you could probably say we’re still like that.”
The Cosmic Travel Agency soon enough gave way to the Chico Creek Theatre Festival, the official name the Blue Room operated under for quite a few years.
“We were defining ourselves by what [other theater] was there in Chico at the time: Shakespeare in the Park, Chico City Light Opera, the university and so on,” explains Latimer. When asked if the material performed by the other companies led to a conscious decision to perform only original and avant-garde pieces, Latimer quickly responds.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “We defined ourselves by what they weren’t. And at the time, Shakespeare in the Park was kind of big budget. Duffy’s [actually, Chico Independent Actors] was doing a lot of David Mamet plays. And City Light Opera was doing musicals. So we knew that there was an opening for what we were interested in, which was more European and avant-garde works. We didn’t really think about how big an audience there was for it. We were all English literature majors. We weren’t actors necessarily; we were people who were more interested in putting literary works on the stage. And that was where we felt our niche was.”
The format was not without its critics, however.
“When we first started at The Blue Room,” he admits, “my play [Soup or Salad] got pretty much blasted out of the water by the critics.” Latimer explains that he appreciated the fact that the two local drama critics, Larry Tripp for the News & Review and John O’Brien for the Enterprise Record, had theater backgrounds. “We knew there was an informed criticism happening,” he says. “One of the things that kept us going was definitely having that review every month, even if it was negative.”
I ask Latimer what he’s doing now. Is he still acting?
He explains that he is currently the leader of an electronic performance dance band in New York City. “I did some acting at Yale and for the last three years some acting in cabaret. And I probably will act again. Right now, my focus is more on getting my music career going. And creating a new kind of theater, which has more to do with the audience participating with the actual event. In a way, bringing the performance out. That’s the process I’m in right now.”
He’s not looking for a permanent venue for his new group, however. “Living in The Blue Room and worrying about the rent for four years and worrying about the facilities, I decided I wasn’t going to run a facility,” he states. “That phase of my life is over.”
He who is not busy being born is busy dying.
During the latter part of the ‘90s, the artistic directorship previously held by Denver fell to his brother Dylan Latimer. That was a time of sporadic growth, during which The Blue Room slowly acquired an audience and a list of financial contributors who began to support the theater’s efforts. The period seems to have been an intermediary stage, during which the group went from presenting extremely experimental pieces to adding somewhat more mainstream fare. Shows became hit-and-miss productions, the house varying from sell-out status to sparsely attended.
Near the beginning of 2000, Dylan Latimer elected to continue his schooling back east. To fill the void created by his impending departure, he put an ad in a national acting journal soliciting potential candidates for the theater’s artistic director’s chair. One of those who saw the ad and applied was Joe Hilsee.
Hilsee, a familiar name in local theater, had grown up in Red Bluff and studied theater at Chico State University, where he’d been an outstanding performer. He’d been acting in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and considering how he could develop some theater ambitions of his own. After seeing the ad, he immediately considered relocating back to Chico.
Since Hilsee’s return and installation as the Blue Room’s artistic director, the Blue Room Theatre (now officially the name of both the venue and the company) has seemingly hit its stride. Month after month unveiled another highly enjoyable production. Seats began to fill, and membership soon reached an all-time high. And then, about early July of this year, rumors began circulating that the Blue Room had to move.
One rumor was that the troupe had in effect gotten kicked out of the space for arguing with the manager of the Arroyo Room, situated right next door.
The Arroyo Room rents out for receptions, parties, dances and other private functions. What led to the rumored argument was the noise created by one of these functions. During the opening night of The Santaland Diaries at the Blue Room, in late November of last year, one could scarcely ignore the thump-thump of the live band playing next door. After rushing over to see if maybe the partiers could turn things down a teeny bit, Hilsee was told he could like it or lump it. He seriously contemplated “lumping” it. So that was it: The Blue Room was moving. That was the rumor.
In July, Hilsee confirmed that the theater was in search of a new facility. One of the prospective venues was the old Stars Women’s Fitness space next to the Flume Street Fluff and Fold laundromat, near the Pageant Theatre. The space was controlled by the same board responsible for the King of Kings Church, which is situated in the building that once housed the much-missed Gold Country Market.
At the time Hilsee was hopeful about securing the space. But as decision-making dragged on among the church board members, and Hilsee’s eager inquiries were regularly met with noncommittal replies, he started to doubt the deal would occur at all. Then came the capper.
The church’s representatives finally offered the Blue Room a document that in effect required the theater not to produce any show that could be considered anti-Christian in content. And that was just one of the limiting demands in the lease agreement.
"[Their conditions] were exceeded only by the smallness of their minds,” Hilsee quips. “They didn’t want the Blue Room in there. They said, ‘Well, here’s our proposal.’ We went in face-to-face; we said, ‘We know you’re a church, but we’re just as passionate about what we do as you are about what you do. And we need full artistic freedom,’ which they could not give us.”
Unable to force himself to sign the papers and running out of other workable options, Hilsee elected to keep the theater in its current location, deciding instead to improve the existing facilities.
“What we’re looking at now are other ways of addressing the problem that we have, the challenge of the noise,” says Hilsee. Goateed for his role as Valentin in the theater’s current production of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman and comfortably perched upon a bench at the table in the Blue Room’s office, Hilsee projects his usual gabby, upbeat energy. Apparently, the disagreement between owners and renter was not quite as serious as previously rumored.
“There was some consternation, because I said, ‘Look, there’s this problem [the noise],'” explains Hilsee. “They said, ‘Yeah, it’s a problem.’ We said, ‘Well, fix it!’ And they said, ‘It’s not our problem; it’s your problem. You fix it!’ No one was calling any names. It didn’t get to the point where it was, ‘We’re packing our bags and we’re leaving!’ We sat down and we talked about our options: ‘You can do this, or you can do this … or you could move.’ And we said, ‘Well, we’re gonna move out,’ and they said ‘Fine, no problem.’
“When this [the Stars space deal] fell through,” Hilsee continues, “and we realized we weren’t going to find another place, we came back to them [the Lucenas] and said, ‘We like this place.'” Hilsee says they ran the notion by the Lucenas of moving the actual theater space across the stairwell, to the so-called “Wood Room.” This space is included in the lease and has served as the scene shop, where sets are constructed, and as the setting of many a rock show, now sadly a thing of the past.
Hilsee also ran the idea of soundproofing the existing theater space by the landlords. “They said, ‘Fine,'” he says. “'You can stay as long as you want.'”
With the problem of a performance space more or less behind them, Hilsee and company began investigating the possibilities of eliminating the noise factor from next door. “We’d raised money through fund-raising for the move,” Hilsee says. “In talking to the Lucenas, we said, ‘Well, how about if we just use this money to renovate the area we have?’ Some of the problems we can’t fix. We’re on the second floor; we’re not crazy about that. What we want to do is address the challenge of the noise.”
Hilsee says a sound engineer examined the space and told them he could eliminate almost all of the noise. But it would be costly.
“So what we’re looking at now is taking that same six weeks we were going to take off to move, Thanksgiving to New Year’s, and renovating this theater.”
As of press time, Hilsee was still considering the possibility of moving the theater to the “Wood Room.” The Blue Room most likely will still be located above Collier Hardware come next January, but it could be in a totally different space than previously situated. Or it may simply baffle the existing space. As yet no firm decision has been reached.
Ain’t no drag/He’s got a brand new bag!
Coinciding with the decision to stay put, the Blue Room recently hired a new staff. Its former technical and managing directors, Mark Mueter and Rosa Alvarez, decided to fly the blue coop and soar to the greener pastures of Seattle. Replacing them will be local theater mainstays Jeremy Votava and Margot Melcon. Filling a recently created position, that of publicity and marketing director, is former local journalist and lately returned-to-the-fold Chicoan Sharon McKenna.
Melcon, the new managing director, is a pretty, intelligent 20-something who considers her words before speaking. She’s a lifelong Chicoan, having graduated from Chico High in ‘94. She’s been doing theater since she was 14, when she handled “backstage stuff” for the very first Shakespeare in the Park production.
“I did Shakespeare in the Park for six consecutive years after that,” she says. “Each year, I got more responsibility: I worked in the office, I was in one show, I did costumes for one show, I assistant-directed one show, I stage-managed a show. So gradually, I just worked my way up the ladder.”
Melcon is also connected with the history of the Blue Room, having appeared in a few Butcher Shop Shows. And she also directed a few of the New Works plays around the time the Cosmic Travel Agency was transforming into the Butte Creek Theatre Festival.
After high school, Melcon moved to Seattle for two years in pursuit of a degree at the somewhat posh Cornish College for the Arts. “I was in the performance production department,” she says. “Cornish is a really small school, probably only about 650 people. And my department was only 25 people, and we were responsible for the construction and design of all of the shows. That was super-intensive boot camp for how to do technical theater.” But after two years the cost and the narrow curriculum proved unsatisfying, and Melcon returned to Chico to finish her degree.
“After I graduated, I thought I was going to have to leave town to find a job that paid in theater,” Melcon admits. The coincidental opening of the position at the Blue Room allowed Melcon to stay in Chico and do something different. “Managing director is one step up, in terms of administration, from any of the other stuff I’ve done,” she says.
When asked how she sees her job and what is expected of her, Melcon humorously and honestly replies, “I don’t know! I sort of got the crash course! I think, as the theater grows and progresses, it will evolve to where, between the artistic director, the managing director, the technical director and the PR director, we will redefine how we share responsibilities.”
McKenna, the theater’s new marketing and PR director, is a handsome woman with angular features and medium-length locks of light-brown hair sporting gray streaks. She clearly takes her new position at the theater seriously and professionally, judging by her tone of voice. “I actually used to write for the News & Review,” McKenna says, “covering theater.”
From interning at the News & Review, McKenna went on to write for the Paradise Post, until she decided she’d had enough of life in Chico. She moved to Seattle, where she wrote for the Seattle Weekly before eventually landing a job at Microsoft. She says she was the publications director and editor-in-chief of all of the software giant’s magazines. “It was a big deal, but I didn’t really care for it much.”
After a stint in New York working for MSNBC and one at UCLA studying screenplay writing, she elected to return to Chico. “I wanted to come back here to raise my kids,” she explains. “And to live in a smaller town and get involved in the community again.”
The Blue Room’s new technical director is Jeremy Votava, a tall, amiable young man with dark hair and a chin-situated beard. He claims he got his first taste for theater in fourth grade. “I played Bob Cratchet in A Christmas Carol, in Southern California. Then I didn’t do anything till I got up here.” Votava worked on a bachelor’s degree in English at Chico State, which he completed in 2000. His work led him to theater. “Basically, I framed houses for about eight years, so that got me a job in the scene shop [at CSU, Chico].”
There, he met then musical-theater director Tim Herman, who convinced him to audition for a production of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. “It was a challenge,” says Votava. “But that was how I got bit again.”
He says that his post-college situation was similar to Melcon’s. “I was set to leave. I’d given my notice and was ready to order the truck and move back to Southern California. And about four days before I was supposed to leave, Joe called.” The job offer convinced Votava to stay. “I love this place,” he says of the Blue Room. “There’s just something about walking up those stairs that gets me every time.”
Apparently, there’s something about walking up those stairs that “gets” the local theater-going public as well. And while it might be argued that it is the choice of plays, the actual performances, the technical aspects or a myriad of other potential reasons that keep the public returning, it may well be a facet much more essential. Perhaps it is simply the quality that each involved individual brings to the whole—the personality, dedication and sheer joy that each person contributes to any given Blue Room production. That is why we like this group. That is why we like this theater. That is why it is the best.