New theater company debuts with Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman
Chico, CA 95928
As the aphorism goes: “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” But creative minds tend to take the lemons and rise above the challenge, setting about making lemon meringue pie. And so it seems to be with Joe Hilsee, former artistic director of the Blue Room Theatre until he was cut loose this spring during an unexpected shakeup in the kitchen.
As a pretty solid indicator of the faith a team has in its leader, the entire Blue Room troupe quit in solidarity with Hilsee, as they moved off into what they felt were greener creative pastures to form a new outfit called the Rogue Theatre. Familiar names that fill the call sheet include Betty Burns, Amber Miller, Jerry Miller, Sherri Bagley, Erik Pedersen, Rob Wilson, Martin Chavira and Ben Allen.
“We want to continue the tradition of doing intelligent and humorous theater,” Hilsee offered as the mission of Chico’s newest theater company. “I think all of our plays in the current season fall into that.”
First on the slate is a production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, directed by Amber Miller. The play is a pitch-black comedy set in a totalitarian state, where a writer is interrogated by frustrated authorities about the gruesome content of his writing—stories that closely parallel a bizarre series of child murders that are occurring in the district.
“As a theater director and actor I am drawn to strong stories and facile use of language,” Hilsee said. “McDonagh is probably the best plotter I have ever come across—really an uncanny sense of suspense and rhythm and multiple plot twists.”
Hilsee says he’s been a fan of the Irish playwright’s work for years. In fact, the Blue Room was actually one of the first theaters in the country to produce McDonagh’s Cripple of Inishmaan, which was the first show Hilsee directed for the theater in 2000. He got hold of the script for The Pillowman about two years ago, and it lived up to McDonagh’s reputation—dark, daring and hilarious.
“Most of his characters are stunted or broken and selfish, just like most of us are in some way or other,” Hilsee explained. “There is a recognition and sympathy we all have with all of his fucked-up people.”
After The Pillowman ends its run, it will be followed in October by Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, directed by Burns. Longtime theater veteran Jerry Miller will helm Doubt: A Parable in December, and Killer Joe and Essential Self Defense will round out the season.
Hilsee said the company is currently developing a Fresh Ink-style play for May 2008 (a Blue Room staple in which multiple writers get a week to write a 20-minute play incorporating random elements).
As a company without theater space to call home, the Rogue is making do by using rotating venues, including 1078 Gallery, Lost on Main and The Crux Artist Collective.
“It would be nice to have our own home, and we’re definitely looking in that direction,” Hilsee said. “But it is nice having the low overhead, and no salaries or utilities to worry about.”
The Rogue Theatre also offers the theater experience at affordable prices, and then some. All plays will fall under “Lucky 7 pricing,” where theater-goers can choose to either pay $7 or roll a pair of dice and pay the amount that comes up. Boxcars (a six on each die) will get you in for free. Of course, Hilsee admits the system can only last until the company finds a permanent home and rent has to be paid.
All of the members of the Rogue have a deep commitment to keeping the entire organization volunteer—meaning no salaries. It will operate under a structure in which all decisions have to be approved by the entire company—no staff, no board, only the collective of artists.
“Our plan is not to create some place with national recognition or anything like that,” Hilsee said. “We just want to create an environment where theater artists can do what they want with like-minded people, and theater-loving members of the community can come and see what we are working on for less than the price of a movie ticket.”