Going Rogue


Out of all the great local theatre companies we have in our area, the one that I’m really excited about is Rogue. Last year they gave us incredibly moving and thought provoking renditions of August, Osage County, and The Weir, far surpassing my expectations for what local theatre was capable of being. They will be debuting their 2014 season with Venus In Fur at their original stomping grounds, The Blue Room Theatre, running January 16th through February 1st.

The story of Rogue begins like any story, with a spark of inspiration and a powerful witch. But before that story could begin, there had to be a prologue wherein we are introduced to our hero, a young high school student named Joe Hilsee, and his quest to meet girls by getting into theatre. The alchemy that followed this fateful choice of electives would bring adventure, romance, reinvention, and some really effing amazing drama to our little college town. Behold, the tale of Joe Hilsee and The Rogue Theatre, in mostly his own words…

Was there any particular person or production you saw that inspired you? 

Yeah there were a few! I had a wonderful teacher when I was in high school, Cleo Gambetta, and she was just great. She was quite an influence on me, showing me that theatre was something more than just a way to meet girls. You could express yourself, get quite a wonderful sense of accomplishment from it. I was in the Shakespeare Club, and she took us to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Seeing that in high school was pretty amazing. I knew, then, that this was where I wanted to work; this was where I wanted to go. It took a long time…that would’ve been in 1985. It took 15 years, I think, but by 2001 I was working there as an actor.

I was like, “What do I have to do? I have to get a degree in theatre.” I looked in the program, and I noticed most people had a Master of fine arts, so I was like, “I guess I gotta do that.” The one school I saw represented more than any other was Southern Methodist University. I got a scholarship to go there, and from there I worked at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and then was picked up by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

So it all worked out, but [laughs] it’s one of those things— there I was 25 or 26, and I was like “I’ve realized my life dream! …What do I do now? I never really though past this moment…” And so I kinda had to reasses. I realized this wasn’t where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do for the next 40 years of my life. So, I was exploring writing a lot more, I was exploring directing and producing and things like that. And I kinda knew I wanted to go in that direction.

I managed to meet this person when I was working in Portland, playing Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, And the casting director up there, who—I didn’t know at the time, and she didn’t know it either—was some kind of powerful witch. I remember she had asked me out for lunch one day and said, “Well, Joe, what do you want to do?”

And I said, “Well, I want to run a small black box theatre, in a college town, on the west coast. That’s really where I really want to see myself!” It was right after that that the opening for an artistic director at The Blue Room came up, and so I applied for that. And I never thought I’d be back in Chico again—I mean I loved Chico and had always seen myself living in Chico, but I really didn’t see how I could do that—and then this came up. So just six months after that conversation I found myself running a small black box theatre, in a college town, on the west coast. Unfortunately, I never said, “With lots of money,” in that conversation [laughs]. I left that part out. But had I known she had these powers, I certainly would’ve added that as well.

A lot of your actors were with you when you started at the Blue Room too, who are those people? 

Well, Amber Miller…

That’s your wife, right? 

Yes! [He thinks to himself that I’m a creepy stalker] Yes, we met in the theatre. Well, she was actually the first person that I met when I came to Chico, in fact. Coincidentally or ironically…however you want to look at it. Then there’s Betty Burns, DeLisa Freistadt, and there were lots of other people who have since moved on…


How does it feel to be back at the Blue Room? Is it deja vu, is it odd? 

It’s great, I love the space, I’ve always loved this theatre. It feels good coming back, actually. It’s familiar. I like the people who are in here…Martin Chavira is kinda running the show here right now, and he’s an old Rogue member. He was a very influential part of the Rogue for years and years.

What’s your favorite production that you’ve done? 

I don’t know! Well, the first production that I felt was like, “I wanna do this and here I’m doing it.” was Hamlet on a bare stage, and it went over really well… One of the most exciting plays we did here was Quills a few years ago… I wanted to charge people and get them to sit up, and sit back, and cover their eyes, and turn them on all at the same time… We did quite a few plays by Martin McDonagh— basically everything he wrote—we did four or five of his plays up here.

The first play we ever did as The Rogue was The Pillowman, which was another Martin McDonagh play… We had absolutely no money, at all. Everyone was just sorta emptying their own pockets to try to put this thing up for nothing. I don’t know how we did it, but we did! And it turned out really, really well. A very challenging, difficult three hour production about this serial child killer. It was like “Who in their right mind is going to come see this!” But people came, and they loved it…it was one of those things where people were like “I can’t believe I just was laughing all the way through this comedy about this guy who was a serial child murderer.” But that’s what Martin McDonagh does: he makes you laugh and then makes you say can you believe that you’re laughing at this. But just showing that humanity isn’t just “you do this then you do this.” There are other aspects to being human that we can all identify with to a certain extent—not that we’re all going to be serial child killers—but he finds those things like, “There’s something in that guy that I identify with, and how tragic that it went that askew.”… And that’s the kind of thing I look for when I read scripts as a director and producer of theatre; those things that are VERY human, but because they are very human it means that there’s a complexity to them. People say, “What’s the story?” but it’s just like, well… I don’t know, it goes on but that’s not really the point. It’s what’s happening between these people. Usually how people get messed up somehow.

…And I’m excited about the new play coming up!

Please, talk about Venus in Fur! 

Again, it’s one of those things, I can tell you the story in a sentence, but it doesn’t sound that interesting. It’s about what happens to these strangers over the course of the hour and a half (it’s all in real time), from when this girl walks into this audition with this this guy, until what happens at the end.

But it’s dealing on so many different levels that as an audience member you never know exactly who these people are. Are they dealing in some sort of literary metaphor, or is this reality? And then they’re dealing with this play within a play—they’re rehearsing another play—so there are all these levels of “What is the reality of what’s going on?”

There’s the complexity in that, but also through that there’s the themes that they deal with. There’s a man and a woman, and they’re dealing with a lot of gender themes. It’s not a gender play though, there’s no issues in the play. That’s another thing that I just don’t do, I stay away from issue plays. I don’t like them, I call them the “letters to the editor plays.” You can’t ever pinpoint, “Oh, it’s about this!”

That’s one of my favorite things in the play, there’s this part when they talk about, “Oh, the play’s about this!”, “No, it’s not about anything. Some things might get discussed, but it’s not about anything. It just IS itself, and you get out of it what you can.” But anyway… It’s about two people, it’s very literate—the language is stunning—the complexity of the relationship goes everywhere. They start off as strangers and they end up…who knows how they end up? But they go through everything in between, all over the entire gamut of human experience, it seems.

And it’s sexy. And Suzanne [Papini]’s wearing a bra and panties the entire time, [laughing] and fishnet stockings, and garters…so you throw that on there, and you have a lot that the audience has to deal with. And here’s this poor guy who’s in this room with this woman who he’s trying to have a professional relationship with, and she’s in garters and panties, and, as it say in the script, “a fabulous bra.” They have to deal with that kind of attraction throughout the entire play as well, and that may or may not be happening. Is she using that to her advantage, or is she not? Is he just sort of objectifying her, or is she using the fact that she’s really sexy in order to get something. Is he using the fact that he’s extremely intelligent? He’s very handsome—well, it’s Jeremy Votava, you know. He’s this very handsome guy with a wonderful voice, who has written this very literate play, and is he using that to press his advantage on this other person? Is she using the assets that she has? She’s very disarming and intelligent as well. Are they both using these assets that they have in order to gain some advantage over the other person at any time? And if they are, what are they trying to gain? And where are they trying to go with it?

And those are the things that could be anywhere depending on where you’re sitting as an audience member—what you’re bringing into the play… I think it’s one of those ones that everyone’s going to come away from saying, “Oh yeah, that’s what was going on”, “Oh really? I didn’t see that…” you know… I’m excited because of that.

I can’t wait to see it! I’m totally excited. 

Venus in Fur runs Jan. 16th – Feb. 1st. Doors open at 7pm. Thursday tickets are $10, Friday & Saturday tickets are $12/ advance or $15 at the door. Advance tickets are available at blueroomtheatre.com & Lyon Books

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Managing Editor for Synthesis Weekly. Amy likes to make clothes, plant flowers, and chase butterflies.