So many crazy stories

After 25 years, Blue Room Theatre continues to be a vital part of Chico

Hilary Tellesen and Louis Fuentes in <i>Bug</i> (Feb. 2018).

Hilary Tellesen and Louis Fuentes in Bug (Feb. 2018).

Photo by Joe Hilsee

Next on the boards:
Live Word!
(collaboration with North State Writers)
Saturday, Feb. 23, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Feb. 24, 2 p.m.
The Almond Orchard
(local adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard)
March 14-30
Blue Room Theatre
139 W. First St.

It’s easy to undervalue the out-of-sight black-box theater tucked away in the top story of the Collier Hardware building. But from the first opening night on April 28, 1994 (of co-founder Denver Latimer’s daring original work, Soup or Salad) to the recently closed Hand to God (starring a foul-mouthed puppet terrorizing folks in a church basement), the Blue Room Theatre has created a tradition of presenting challenging, thought-provoking art to our little rural oasis.

Now, on the cusp of its 25th anniversary, the theater seems to have rounded a corner. Though the Blue Room has enjoyed many different eras of artistic success since its backyard avant-garde beginnings, over the last four years, a committed core of seasoned theater vets has reorganized and refocused the theater, adding some stability to the adventurous spirit in order to continue telling all of those crazy stories.

The path to resurgence has been a circuitous one.

In 2007, after seven years on the job, the Blue Room board let Joe Hilsee go as the theater’s artistic director. The company at the time—which included his wife, Amber Miller (who had been at the theater since 1997)—followed in protest. The Rogue Theatre troupe that they formed soon after made a go of things by putting on high-quality productions at various locations—an art gallery, a warehouse, even a couple of co-productions at the Blue Room—before winding down in 2014.

Joe Hilsee (center) in <i>The Walworth Farce</i>.

Photo by Alex Hilse

During that time, fun and funky works continued happening at the Blue Room, with a wide range of musicals, classic and modern comedies and dramas, and spirited doses of late-night fare coming through in the first few years. Around 2012, however, the consistency of productions started to vary as a rotating cast of leaders came and went.

When local theater vets Steve Swim and Martin Chavira got on the board of directors, Hilsee said they approached him and Amber about coming back and getting things in order.

“It had kind of become a place where individual directors would do what they wanted on their own with their own people,” Hilsee said. “It was becoming more of a performing arts building rather than having its own artistic personality.”

In 2015, Miller was hired as the managing director, and an Artistic Direction Committee was formed, featuring Hilsee, Chavira and local actor/director/playwright Hillary Tellesen working together to curate the plays.

“We were just able to get a good group of people,” said Miller, who added that the combination of experience and a shared passion between her, the committee and theater’s board of directors has made it work. “It takes a community to have a community theater.”

Blue Room Theatre Managing Director Amber Miller.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

“The first thing … was to take the production aspect away from the director to allow that person to focus on what was going on onstage,” said Hilsee. “If the director is making the poster, and designing the set, and recording the sound effects, and making the Facebook invite, then something was going to get overlooked. This also helped instill a consistent quality to the product, which has to be in place in order to build a consistent audience base.”

Things have been markedly more consistent, with well-promoted and -balanced seasons of contemporary plays, modern classics and locally created works. The highlights have been many, but some of the CN&R’s most favorably reviewed Blue Room productions over the last four seasons include last fall’s dark comedy The Walworth Farce, by Irish playwright Enda Walsh; Tracy Letts’ Bug, an exploration of the “darker elements of the 21st century American zeitgeist”; and Tellesen’s original “postmodern self-referential comedy with an absurdly fractured chronology,” Good With Faces, in 2017.

“We purposefully try to give the audience something that they didn’t even know existed,” Hilsee explained. “When an audience member walks up the stairs, they should have no idea what to expect.”

“We like to also look at past works that were challenging to their time,” Miller added. In 2018, the schedule featured a handful of older works—including David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie—that contained themes that, for better or worse, remain relevant.

“But it really boils down to respect,” Hilsee said. “Respect the theater artists by giving them a chance to do something challenging and meaningful to work on, and respect the audience by always assuming they are cooler and smarter than you are.”

Before the Camp Fire hit, things were looking up at the box office as well. “We were doing really well, [then] November hit us really hard,” said Miller, who is hopeful things will turn around in the new year. With such devoted caretakers at the helm, there’s reason to be hopeful.

The conservative number of shows the Blue Room has produced over the past 25 years is 288. As Hilsee points out with regard to the hundreds of backdrops that have cycled through the space: “The paint on the back wall is pretty damn thick.”

—Jason Cassidy