A black plywood casket sat in the space once occupied by the Blue Room Theatre’s main stage, surrounded by the room’s figurative viscera: detached lighting rigs, speakers and piles of coiled-up cables.
The unintentional stage dressings were appropriate for the day’s drama. Though it was ostensibly a rummage sale on that hot Saturday (July 11), many visitors—admitted in groups of 10 every half-hour, each person with a mandatory facial covering that barely masked traces of grief—attended as much to bid farewell to the beloved theater space as to take a piece of it home.
Patrons filed through room after room filled with props and bits of the black box theater’s infrastructure, most of it available for a small donation. Even the seats were up for grabs ($25 apiece, $40 for a pair); takers were handed a hammer and wrench, and instructed to extract the chairs themselves.
The Blue Room’s board of directors announced July 2 that, due to lack of revenue and the uncertain future of live theater during the COVID-19 crisis, they would vacate the storied downtown theater space by Aug. 1. While many local nonprofit arts groups are struggling to survive in the face of restrictions, the Blue Room is the first to announce a closure.
During it’s 26-year tenure, the theater above Collier’s Hardware hosted thousands of concerts, comedy events and the most cutting edge dramatic productions in the area. The Blue Room will continue as a theater company, sharing new and old content via the internet for the time being and hoping to find a new home once the proverbial air is clear.
“My heart is heavy, and everyone that’s been a part of it is feeling this loss,” said Steve Swim, the theater’s development director and vice president of its board. “The way this virus has impacted all live performance everywhere, and the impact it’s having on Chico, is devastating. It’s difficult times for everybody.
“The thought that we can’t even meet up at Duffy’s and have a beer after we’re done shutting down the theater … it just kills me.”
Not for lack of trying
The Blue Room was notably proactive since the beginning of the outbreak. The company spaced out seating and reduced capacity per California Department of Public Health guidelines for the March 12-14
opening weekend of the locally created musical Stuff-N-Things: A Fair Retail Story, before a statewide restriction on public gatherings of 10 or more was announced the following week. No one suspected then that it would be the company’s final curtain call at the theater space.
“When the shutdowns got stricter, we realized that with actors on stage and their proximity, singing and shouting at each other, the ventilation of the room … there was no way to safely put on shows,” Swim said. “So we canceled the following weekends.”
Anticipating a few months of shutdown, Managing Director Amber Miller and members of theater’s staff and board reconfigured plans to present online-only performances for 2020—both prerecorded and live-streamed productions—dubbing it The Dark Season. The theater also organized a Zoom version of its summer camp for children online, but there was not much initial interest. Swim said the reality of the situation swiftly began to sink in.
“The likelihood of us being able to come back any time before, at best, Spring of 2021, it just isn’t feasible,” Swim said. “Live theater is literally the last on the list of [Gov. Gavin] Newsom’s plans to reopen.”
Erin Wade, president of the 1078 Gallery’s board of directors, said her organization faces the same difficulties. She explained the bulk of the nonprofit gallery’s funding comes from events and sales commissions from art exhibits, both of which are quashed by COVID-19. She said the gallery has held on to it’s Park Avenue home thus far because of “a flexible landlord” and the 1078 Rent Club fundraising drive established before the virus. (“Survival was always a struggle,” Wade said.) Members of the Rent Club commit to paying $50 monthly towards that expense.
“If not for that, we’d probably be doing the same thing [as the Blue Room]—putting our stuff in storage and waiting it out.”
After the board decided to leave the downtown spot, they moved the theater’s sound system and some lighting into storage, and sold or gave away everything else. Though homeless, the Blue Room will continue to create some original content on at least a monthly basis on its Patreon page, and members of the company hope to find a new home once the virus passes.
One of the Blue Room’s longtime associates who came forward to offer assistance during the theater’s COVID-19 struggle is Dylan Hillerman, a Chico expatriate who moved to Portland more than 20 years ago. He has maintained a close relationship with the theater and said he tries to return every year for the annual Butcher Shop Labor Day Weekend theater festival. (The Butcher Shop, Cosmic Travel Agency and Chico Creek Theatre Festival were forerunners to the Blue Room’s current incarnation.)
Hillerman was involved with the Blue Room throughout the 1990s and filmed many of its productions during that decade. He recently tapped into those recordings—he said he has more than 100 productions on video, though many have been damaged over the years—to be made available on the theater’s Patreon page.
Hillerman said digging through the old videos has led to the discovery of some lost gems, including a recently posted 1998 production of The Runt Life and Inexplicable Death of Mojo Chan.
“Every time I’m in Chico, someone asks me if I’ve found that tape yet, and I finally did,” he said by phone. “It was one of the early late-nite shows with a live band and was one of our best-selling and most popular plays at the time. I filmed it over seven nights and edited it together.
“The band was called Ant Farm, and they were roommates of mine. The organ player [former CN&R contributor Mary Rose Lovgren] told me watching it again made her year.”
Driving home the reality that arts organizations everywhere face, Hillerman said he’s also filming Portland performers and compiling video to help one of that city’s institutions—the century-old Clinton Street Theater, which shows films and does live stage productions—stay alive.
“One bit of light that I find in this darkness is the realization that we aren’t alone,” he said. “I think of my artist friends around the country, and I know they think of me because we’re all going through the same crap.”
More than a building
As Swim put it, the Blue Room as an entity can’t be contained in a building, and its importance to the local arts community extends far beyond the theater itself. Since its inception, the organization has served as a breeding ground for new ideas, original writing and avant garde experimentation. He noted that he had no theater training before he wrote a one-act for the Fresh Ink Festival (an annual event featuring local playwrights) in spring 2001.
“For actors, directors, patrons, volunteers, writers, musicians, all kinds of artists, it’s always been a home for people to meet like-minded souls, and to feel safe exploring art in the process of theater,” he said.
Julia Rue agrees. She moved to Chico from her native Germany in 2014. Her first role at the Blue Room was in Rick’s Café Américan (adapted from the film Casablanca), and in the past few years she’s gone on to direct productions and instruct the Blue Room’s Young Company. She credits her experience at the Blue Room with helping to discover her previously unknown love of directing and teaching children.
Rue referred to the theater as her “home away from home” and said she might not have remained in the United States this long if not for the Blue Room.
“It was perfect to come along in my life while I was away from Germany,” she said. “I felt like I found my people here.”
Said Hillerman: “The Blue Room will go on, that spirit will never leave Chico. It’s launched lots of seeds into the wind, and there are people all over the country [who] love it and will continue to support it.”
“Hopefully this isn’t the end,” Swim said, “but just some kind of metamorphosis.”