Chico ex-pats bring Thunderbird Theatre production to Blue Room
For some members of the San Francisco- based Thunderbird Theatre Company, their appearance at the Blue Room Theatre next weekend (Aug. 22-23) is more than just a whistle-stop in a strange town; it’s a homecoming a decade in the making.
The troupe’s local roots run to its inception 16 years ago by four Chico ex-pats—Bryce Allemann, Kathy Hicks, Martin Chavira and Christy Gomez—looking to carve their niche in San Franciso’s theater scene. Ever since, the Thunderbird group has been a haven for Chico thespians who’ve made their way to the Bay.
“In the beginning there were a bunch of us who had lived in Chico, who’d either gone to school or grew up [there] … and we finally stopped talking about doing something together and started the Thunderbird,” said Allemann, who remains a part of the group with his wife, Hicks. The couple first met while working at KCHO public radio, which was then located on the Chico State campus in the basement of Meriam Library.
“Back then there were at least nine or 10 active theater companies in Chico,” Allemann continued, listing some now-defunct names like C.I.A. (Chico Independent Actors), Plank and a Passion, and the Cosmic Travel Agency, which eventually morphed into the Blue Room Theatre. “It was such an active and supportive community that we wanted to emulate what we’d experienced in Chico in San Francisco.
“The Blue Room’s focus on original works is what inspired us to exclusively do new, original works by local writers,” he continued. “We were basically tired of seeing stuff in San Francisco that just didn’t entertain us.”
Thus the troupe began, its name inspired by the iconic Thunderbird Lodge sign in downtown Chico. In the early days, the group returned often to share its new shows, but there hasn’t been a Thunderbird Theatre production in Chico in 10 years, since 2004’s Lusty Booty.
This time around, the Bay Area-based players will perform Show Down!, a play written by Allemann, Hicks and two S.F. playwrights, Claire Rice and Christine McClintock. The screwball comedy, which Allemann said is part soap opera and part classic workplace melodrama, takes place in the studios of KRAP, the world’s last live television studio. The head of the station dies, leaving its two top producers—traditionalist heroine Beth and digital-age-obsessed, steampunk hipster Commodore—to duke it out for control of the station. Along the way, kale, love triangles, cheese theft, and something called the iPlan play a part in the conflict.
Allemann said that, though the play is over-the-top and intentionally ridiculous, it contains a fair amount of commentary on the state of technology and entertainment, a pertinent topic to live theater.
“Here we are doing live theater, which movies were supposed to kill a long time ago,” he said. “Then television was supposed to kill movies; radio is largely a thing of the past; and now everyone’s streaming everything. You can watch or listen to whatever you want on your own schedule, which makes it more difficult than ever to get people to come see live theater.”
Allemann said the Thunderbird Theatre group averages a single production a year: “We’re all unpaid and there’s a lot of work involved and money spent for at least three months straight,” he said of the schedule. “Plus, since we focus on original works, we like to take the time to develop the scripts and the production.”
Allemann and Hicks are the only founders still with the Thunderbird (Chavira has since moved back to Chico and is the Blue Room’s current artistic director, and Gomez lives overseas), but several other Chicoans are still involved, even from younger generations—Show Down! features 21-year-old Chico native Zane Barrett in his first play ever.
When the Thunderbird crew rolls into town (Allemann expects about 20 cast and crew members to make the trip), they’ll take up residence at the motel that serves as their namesake for their two-day engagement.
“We’re excited to give the actors who grew up [in the Bay Area] in the fog an idea of what real heat is, take them swimming in Upper Park, and then everyone usually gets excited when they realize Chico is where Sierra Nevada is from and we’ll head to the brewery,” Allemann said. “Chico is just fantastic, and I can’t express how happy we are to come back after all this time.”