Fables of the reconstruction
Blue Room hurries to finish renovations for start of its 2002 season
Hammers happily drum the sawdust-scented air. A Skil-saw glissandos, and falling wood punctuates a temporary cadence. Sections of plywood are nailed down, wiring installed. Overall, a kind of harmonic intensity permeates the room: The theater has only two more weeks to finish renovations before unveiling its 2002 season opener, Caryl Churchill’s peculiar yet funny gender-bending play Cloud 9.
Last summer, rumors abounded that the Blue Room Theatre was searching for a new space. Due to an unpleasantly distracting noise factor emanating from the Arroyo Room next door, the group had elected to move elsewhere. When a potential deal for a new venue fell through, Joe Hilsee, current Blue Room artistic director, announced that the troupe would instead renovate the space it currently occupies (see Chico News & Review, Sept. 27, 2001).
It’s happening. And nobody is happier than Hilsee himself.
He explains that, thanks to a CSUC sound engineer, three different “noise areas” near the stage were identified. A sound-catching enclosure was constructed around an Arroyo Room connecting door, and the sound/light booth was relocated to the upper-right corner of the seating section, effectively cutting off noise emanating from two windows situated there. It won’t be completely soundproof, Hilsee acknowledges, but almost 90 percent of the noise should be eliminated.
The renovation also provides a new seating area. “Over the last year, we’ve had a 25 percent increase in audience attendance,” says Hilsee. “And with the bigger shows, like Picasso, Wranglers or Catholic School Girls, we were turning 15 to 20 people away a night. So we’re moving from 99 to 130 seats.” (Hilsee swears me to secrecy regarding the three extra inches of legroom the new seating section offers; however, he insists I mention the improved bathrooms!)
“We haven’t raised our ticket prices in five years,” Hilsee states, “but the cost of doing theater has increased substantially since then.” Accommodating larger audiences will help keep ticket prices low. The new seating arrangement will also change the room’s dynamics.
“It’s really making [the space] more intimate,” Hilsee says, “because we’re going from the corner seating arrangement to a true three-quarter thrust.” He says scenery, lighting and even staging will be completely reconsidered.
Hilsee admits that, with the old space arrangement, he’d developed a few short cuts; the actors have done likewise over the years. “Well, all of a sudden it’s different,” he says. “I have to say [to the actors], ‘That’s not a good [stage] position anymore. What about these folks over here?'” Not only must he reconsider the blocking, the actors must rethink how to play the new space. “It’s a learning experience,” he says, “but everyone’s really excited.”
Equally exciting is the play the theater is currently rehearsing. Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 will star Betty Burns, Jocelyn Stringer, Amber Miller, Cal Reese, Paul Stout, Matt Hammonds and Isaiah Bent.
Of the play, Hilsee says, “It’s basically just Caryl Churchill taking every theatrical convention she can get her hands on and changing it somewhat. The play is just so overtly theatrical—men playing women, women playing men.” He points out that while in most plays it’s conventional to have a scene set, say, three weeks later, in this piece the second act occurs 100 years later, although the characters have aged little!
“This play is quite edgy, quirky," Hilsee states. "It’s really a nod to the past. Even though a lot of things about the Blue Room have changed, there are certain elements that we’re holding onto."