Going Rogue

Joe Hilsee, graphics specialist for University Print and Mail Services, has owned Rogue Theatre in Chico since 2007.

Joe Hilsee, graphics specialist for University Print and Mail Services, has owned Rogue Theatre in Chico since 2007.

Former Adjunct Professor Calls CSU, Chico 'Home'

Chico State is a place that is very much about the place. The University and the city are each defined in part by the inextricable bond between them. For some, this sense of place is what brings them here, and for many, it is why they choose to stay.

Joe Hilsee, a 1988 alumnus, was working as an adjunct faculty member in the theatre department at Chico State in 2007 when severe state budget cuts led to the elimination of his position and many others. He was faced with a choice: uproot his two young daughters and further pursue his teaching career, or stay in Chico and find a different way to make a living.

He and his wife, Amber, a third-generation Chicoan and Chico State alumna (Studio Art, ’97) decided they were OK with making their lives about where they live rather than what they do. Hilsee turned down a teaching job at Santa Fe University in New Mexico and committed to making it work in the place they called home.

“I had no idea what I was going to do,” Hilsee says. “I didn’t have a job. And it was kind of insane, but it seemed even more insane to say goodbye to everything that I knew here and everything that was so important to me.”

Hilsee eventually made his way back to the University, a seeming magnet in his life, and has worked as a graphics specialist for University Print and Mail Services since 2013. The full-time staff position allows him to spend the work week completing campus graphic design jobs, which he enjoys—“I kind of like clean lines and things like that”—and in his free time pursue the passion that brought him back to Chico in the first place: theatre.

After graduating from the University with a BA in theatre in the late ’80s, Hilsee moved to Dallas, Texas, and earned an MFA in acting from Southern Methodist University. From there, he worked at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and then was picked up as a member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s acting company in Ashland, Oregon, a goal he had worked intensely for. The experience was well worth the work, Hilsee says, but with a dream realized at a relatively young age, he found himself asking, now what?

Hilsee, right, directs a scene with adjunct English professor Hilary Tellesen in 2012. Below, Hilsee as Bernard Nightingale in Tom Stoppard’s "Arcadia," a 2013 Rogue production.

Hilsee, right, directs a scene with adjunct English professor Hilary Tellesen in 2012. Below, Hilsee as Bernard Nightingale in Tom Stoppard’s "Arcadia," a 2013 Rogue production.

He spent a few years as a “I-5 gypsy actor,” working up and down the western corridor, but didn’t care much for the lifestyle. He wanted to settle down, which, Hilsee says, isn’t really feasible for a professional actor unless you live in Los Angeles. So when he came across a job posting for the artistic director of the Blue Room Theatre in 2000, he jumped at the chance to come back to Chico, the kind of place he had always seen himself living in long term.

He taught classes at Butte College for a year before getting the Chico State position in 2001 and worked as artistic director of the Blue Room until 2007, when the theatre’s board of directors decided to replace his position with one that encompassed both artistic direction and managerial duties. Hilsee and the theatre’s core group of actors left the Blue Room to form their own theatre company, Rogue Theatre, at the end of that year’s season. 

Rogue has been going steadily since then, with Hilsee performing a range of duties including directing, acting, sound and poster design, and publicity. The company is purposefully “without a home,” and all members work as volunteers. They put on about three to five plays a year, finding a venue that meets the needs of each production. Rogue’s most recent play was Venus in Fur, which was directed by Hilsee and performed at the Blue Room Theatre Jan. 16–Feb. 1. Rogue is toying around with the idea of producing a stage adaptation of Casablanca next. Hilsee says Rogue’s like-minded theatre lovers choose projects that “speak to an educated, witty, cool, funny, hip group of people.”

“You kind of have to have a university in order to do that,” he says. “The kind of theatre that I want to do isn’t going to really fly in Corning.”

Sometimes Hilsee is a “gun for hire:” His next project is directing Other Desert Cities, a non-Rogue show for which he will be paid, at Theatre on the Ridge in Paradise. But Chico is the home that he always seems to find his way back to. 

“To some people, this is the last thing they want, but for me it’s very much—this is my speed, this is my vibe, this is what I’m all about,” he says. “I really think that it’s just the perfect environment for my soul, for my psyche, for my mind.”

The only thing that makes his “gut start to tighten” is when people forget the role the community plays in making the University the special place that it is.

“One of the reasons that I’m glad I work at Chico State and volunteer in the community is I really am trying to, by example, just make sure that everyone who is student, faculty, staff always keeps in mind that Chico State would not be Chico State without it being in Chico, and Chico would not be Chico without Chico State being a part of it,” Hilsee says. “I’m always trying to tell other staff and faculty members, you know, get out there. Do something that’s not involved only with the University but with the community as well.”

—Kacey Gardner, Public Affairs and Publications

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