Chico theater vet returns to town to run the Blue Room
Over its 18-year history, the Blue Room has been uniquely known in Chico as the local theater offering the most challenging, avant-garde stage productions. And its various artistic directors—including Joe Hilsee, Ben Allen, Gail Holbrook and the founding brothers Denver and Dylan Latimer—have, each in his or her own way, stayed true to the company’s exploratory nature.
And, last month, Fred Stuart, a local theater veteran with deep roots at the Blue Room moved back to Chico to try to carry on the legacy as the theater’s new executive and artistic director.
“The Blue Room has always been defined by doing rather risky theater, and I want to continue that,” said the new chief. During the mid-’90s, Stuart did a variety of work at the downtown theater, including directing The Man Who Came to Dinner (starring Jerry Miller and his then-5- or 6-year-old son, Loki Miller); acting in a Twilight Zone-based Nightmare at 27,000 Feet; and playing John and James—“identical twins who couldn’t be any more different”—in Love! Valour! Compassion!
Stuart and his wife and son just moved back to Chico from New York, where he worked for the past five years as director of marketing and creative development for Theatrical Rights Worldwide. Before that—after theatrical tours of duty in several cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York—the 49-year-old established and managed the Haymarket Theatre in Lincoln in his home state of Nebraska.
Now in Chico and in artistic-director mode, Stuart said he and the Blue Room staff are looking ahead in earnest, reading potential material for the 2012-13 season. An announcement of that schedule is expected in the next several weeks, with all plays relating to a general theme.
“We will explore the theme of civility and ask if it is a vanishing concept,” Stuart said. “We are building it around a Broadway play, God of Carnage. The rights just became available. For that one we’ll have a fine cast of Chico compatriots that can’t be announced yet.”
But before that, he’s been busy with the Young Company’s summer season. “Rebuilding the sustainability of the Blue Room slowly and effectively involves building up the children’s theater, which is crucial for success,” Stuart said. To that end, the Blue Room Young Company’s day camps are in full swing in preparation for upcoming performances that will include the Loki Miller-directed, Elvis-meets-Shakespeare-themed All Shook Up, followed by the Stuart-directed pirate musical comedy, Arrrrrrgh! and the Stuart-penned Harry Squiggles, Secret Agent 059.
“I originally wrote [that one] for my students in Lincoln, and it was popular there,” he said. “It’s a whole lot of fun.”
Born in Hastings, Neb., and raised in Lincoln, Stuart became interested in theater in a hands-on way when a “lucky landing” got him a foot in the door at the Pantages Theatre at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles, first as an usher and then as part of the house management team.
Stuart also spent several years as a performing artist in Los Angeles and San Francisco; the latter including a two-year run performing in the famed Beach Blanket Babylon, taking on the personas of Tom Jones and Bruce Springsteen. Did that mean he didn’t have to don one of the show’s trademark freakishly large hats?
“Oh no. Nobody dodges the big hats,” Stuart said affectionately.
While in San Francisco, Stuart met his future wife, Willo, a Chico native, and in 1992 the couple moved to town, with Stuart picking up classes at Butte College and pursuing a theater degree at Chico State while directing and performing in several Chico dramatic productions at the old Chico City Light Opera House and Shakespeare in the Park, in addition to the Blue Room.
Then, a different type of fame struck when Stuart became lead vocalist for Blue Plate Special, a neo-swing band that formed in Chico when the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy were reviving the jump and jive craze and swing dancing was all the rage in Chico and beyond.
“We moved to L.A., made a couple of records, and had two long stints in Vegas,” Stuart recalled.
While working and living in New York over the past several years, the old Chico energy worked its way back into Stuart’s psyche, thanks to some prodding by old-school Blue Room folks/current members of the board of directors Denver Latimer and one-time Blue Room managing director Yana Collins Lehman.
“It took about a year to work out the logistics to make it work, but we did and here we are,” Stuart said. “What we created at The Haymarket [in Nebraska] serves as a model in some ways for what we can do at the Blue Room—to create a sustainable future for a theater in downtown Chico that can take artistic risks and be a vital place for young people and the arts while retaining the adventurous mission established by the founders.”