Curtain coming down
Blue Room actors plan to quit, form new troupe following firing of Artistic DirectorJoe Hilsee
After this year’s run of Fresh Ink, the Blue Room Theatre will have to start looking for fresh talent.
Each year in late spring the Blue Room Company, the core group of actors at the theater, spends a week writing and rehearsing new plays, performing the much-anticipated festival of new plays as the season’s grand finale. And this year company members expect Fresh Ink to be their best season-ender ever.
Unfortunately, it will also mark the finale of their performance careers at the theater that they’ve been a major part of for the past seven years.
Last week the Blue Room’s board of directors decided to replace Artistic Director Joe Hilsee with Chico State University Professor Emerita Gail Holbrook, who will take on the role of executive director. The position will include being artistic director as well as the theater’s managerial head.
Disagreeing with the decision and upset that they weren’t directly consulted, the members of the company joined Hilsee in announcing they will resign at season’s end, June 15.
As with most stories, there are at least two sides here, but it is important to note that those leaving the theater have made it their goal to make their last plays at the Blue Room their best, and the directors and Holbrook will continue “challenging artists and audiences with plays of depth and vibrancy,” as stated in the theater’s mission statement.
The changes can be traced back to events in 2005, when board members drafted a new five-year plan and sought to create the executive-director position. For two seasons, with full support from the company, Hilsee—regarded as one of the finest local actors in recent years—filled the position and ran the theater.
At the beginning of this season, the board scheduled a national search to fill the position, a step that Hilsee and the company protested.
In a letter written by company member Amber Miller and signed by 13 others, including company members and acting contributors to the Blue Room, the group endorsed Hilsee after stating its case that no search was necessary because Hilsee was “the best person for the position.”
“If the search must take place, we the company and active contributors want the Board of Directors and hiring committee to know that Joe Hilsee has our support 100 percent,” the letter reads. “We feel it is imperative he remain the Blue Room Theatre’s Executive Director.”
Hilsee himself argued that the timing of the search would be disruptive to their artistic goals. “Like sports, theater has a season,” he said. “In baseball or football, the manager or coach typically gets fired at the end of the season.”
Still the search continued, and the Blue Room received over 30 applications from Chico to the East Coast, said Richard Collins, board president. Each applicant went through the same process and was screened by the search committee, consisting of Collins, board Vice President Linda McMichael and a former chairman of Chico State’s Theater Department, Randy Wonzong.
Collins maintains that the board took the company’s letter into consideration and also Hilsee’s suggestion that there be two directors, one artistic and one managerial. But in the end, the group decided to go with Holbrook.
Wonzong, who has worked with Holbrook for nearly 30 years, abstained from the vote on her, Collins said. He was asked to be part of the search committee because of his experience, and he brought the “skill set to ask true and important questions” in regard to theater.
Some company members say an awkward tension between the company and the directors has developed over the current season and many directors don’t even show up for opening nights anymore. Collins insisted that politics did not play a role in the board’s decision.
“Gail brings a love to the theater and can carry out the five-year plan,” he said. “Part of that is our commitment to have the theater become a professional theater to pay directors and actors who volunteer so much of their time. To be able to do that in Chico would be great.”
Holbrook, who revived Chico State’s Court Theatre in the late 1990s, said she wasn’t surprised Hilsee and the company have chosen to resign, saying that theater artists are a loyal bunch.
“You know, when Joe was hired, the company quit and a new one formed,” she said, confident history will repeat itself. “My big goal, and I think the reason I was hired, is to get butts in the seats.”
While Holbrook works on improving attendance next season, Hilsee and his troupe will look for a new venue.
“I feel sadness now,” said company member Betty Burns, who for 13 years has dedicated herself to the Blue Room. “But something positive comes out of everything, and the aspect of starting something new is exciting.”