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Millibo Art Theatre's founders risk all in the name of original productions, and creating a lasting legacy

Setting the Stage


  • Sean Cayton

A typical day in the life of Jim Jackson and Birgitta DePree, Millibo Art Theatre's artistic directors, is anything but. As part of their annual summer camps, they've recently been jumping between activities like helping teens produce The Tempest and teaching younger kids how to unicycle.

Both are also performers, directors, artists, decorators, bookkeepers, hosts, cleanup crew, parking attendants and whatever else operating their own theater company requires them to be.

"Over the last 15 years, we've worn so many different hats," Jackson says. "And it's time to take off some hats," DePree adds. The joke reflects the day they've just had, knocking out administrative duties, those summer camps, booking shows and planning next season.

Each year the MAT puts on an average of 160 performances, shows for both kids and adults. They also take their bubble-blowing station to various local festivals like What If... and MeadowGrass, and spend their free time participating in other organizations' programming. Jackson recently directed a production of Archangels Don't Play Pinball at UCCS, and DePree performed in the Fine Arts Center's staging of Love, Loss and What I Wore.

While neither teaches every camp or performs in every piece, both are intimately involved in everything that goes on under the steepled roof of their relatively new Ivywild location, and a great deal of what goes on outside.

Now in its 15th season, the MAT has enjoyed tremendous growth, while its founders have worked to find the balance between running a nonprofit and maintaining the artistic curiosity that made it possible in the first place.

"Neither one of us want to give up being artists," Jackson says. "We don't want to go down that path where we're so sucked in by the work that we have no time to perform. And I think that's what we're particularly good at: performing, directing and creating."

  • Sean Cayton

DePree recalls a time when her sole role was as an actor. She grew up in Africa, the daughter of an American ambassador. The majority of her young life was spent at boarding school, where she says performance was a matter of life and death. "In boarding school, that's sort of how I survived the brutality. I was funny, I could make people laugh, I could tell great ghost stories at night so then they wouldn't beat me up.

"I think when you move around so much, and you're not the one who fits in, you have to hone your skills in communicating and connecting with people."

Those skills served her well, and though for a long time she was sure she wanted to become a doctor, eventually the pull of performance proved a little too much to resist.

It was after a year spent backpacking through Asia after college that she moved to San Francisco to take advantage of improv and acting opportunities. The Denver-based National Theatre Conservatory ended up bringing her to Colorado.

That competitive program lasted three years. At the end, each graduate was expected to move on to New York or LA, but DePree felt she wouldn't thrive there, and decided to stay in Denver. She joined an organization called Young Audiences, where her perception of her profession and self changed drastically.

"In grad school, they talked about you as an actor. And that was your role. You'd go to New York, you'd get an agent, and then audition and then maybe be chosen. And Young Audiences, they told you 'you're an artist.' It was a change in terms of taking ownership of the creative process."

This philosophy informs her work now as an educator and a performer. As such, she encourages other actors to consider themselves artists, to create their own plays or, in some cases, their own theater companies.

"There is this whole other way to realize a creative life," she says. "And it doesn't have to be New York."

  • Sean Cayton

Jackson's realization of his creative life arrived through a different avenue and discipline. Though both he and DePree are accomplished comedians, Jackson has a long legacy of professional clowning.

This year actually marks the 40th anniversary of his first paid clown gig. "Forty — so ungodly old. Older than dirt," he says. "Can we make it 30?"

In college at St. Louis at the time, Jackson had already formed a solid background in miming, even performing regularly as part of a mime troupe. The group was offered a job clowning for children with developmental disabilities, and the organizers thought the art of traditional mime would be too "esoteric" for the audience.

"None of us knew what a clown show was at all," he says. "We changed the makeup a little bit. I knew how to juggle, so I juggled. We did some magic tricks. It went over great. From there, you know, the sky is the limit."

But he didn't really fall in love with the idea of clowning for life until he went to Europe as a fresh-faced college grad. There he was introduced to the European method of clowning. These performers entertained audiences of adults and children alike, displaying a "sophisticated" kind of humor, but still, that wasn't what drew him in.

"It was the laughs," he says. "It was totally about the laughs. And even when I was doing more traditional mime, the pieces that were funny were really appealing to me. The comedy element."

The Cañon City native next brought the skills he learned to Denver, where he landed a job running the Denver Children's Museum theater. He performed three shows a day, which really clued him into what kind backstage work goes into planning and executing a show.

In winter, that backstage work literally involved chipping ice off the stage. "So it was very primitive," he says, "but it was a great place to work on routines."

The newly formed Smokebrush Foundation eventually brought him to Colorado Springs in 1992. He was thrilled with the opportunity to create original theater with the organization, a passion that carried itself into Millibo's mission statement.

As for how the couple met? Well, at first they didn't.

One of DePree's favorite stories is how she had the opportunity to meet Jackson long before she actually did. He was performing at the Philadelphia International Children's Festival, sometime in the early '90s. She attended every performance at that festival, except Jackson's.

"Because I thought 'oh, he's from Colorado, I can see him any time,'" she jokes.

Jackson mimics her: "'He's not some international avant garde performing theater person, just some guy from Colorado! I can see him in my backyard probably!'"

The story of how they actually met begins with the Colorado Arts Council. The organization was hosting a panel on theater for young audiences, and Jackson and DePree both participated. Later, she was invited to do a show with Smokebrush, where the two became better acquainted.

"I just remember Jim would show up and go 'would you like to go out for lunch? You want to do this? You want to do that?' And I had no idea — until he wrote this poem."

Jackson prefers not to go into detail about the poem, but he does say he remembers giving it to her at a stoplight. "I think I just threw it at her out the window and ran, drove away."

The two started dating. DePree remembers their first date, walking around downtown and making jokes about whatever it was they happened to be looking at.

"How is an ATM like a gypsy?" ... "They both tell your fortune."

"And I knew that this was going to be it," DePree says, "because we just had such a great time making up stupid jokes."

They married in 2001 but, true to form, they never did just one thing at a time. The months between their marriage and the end of the next year were jam-packed, thanks to an incredibly timely opportunity.

Jackson returned from a performance tour weeks after their wedding, having visited a cute little community theater where the actors enjoyed milk and cookies with the audience after each performance. He shared that story with DePree and they began to dream up what their own theater might be like, should they someday have the opportunity to create one.

Three days later, they did.

Deborah Thornton, who now runs Imagination Celebration, was working with the Business of Art Center (now the Manitou Art Center) at the time. At the end of a casual breakfast with her, DePree and Jackson mentioned that they'd concocted this wild dream.

It turned out that the BAC had recently acquired a new building, the 515 Manitou Avenue address, and they wanted to incorporate a performance art component. The grant application that could make it happen was due in less than a week. There'd be no time to clown around.

Two months later, in January 2002, they held their first performance as the Manitou Art Theatre. And that November, their daughter was born, as the MAT became a family theater in every sense of the word.

Lisbet Jackson, who turns 14 this year, has lived her whole life in the theater, making her first stage appearance at just 3 months old. She's intimately familiar with the transformations the MAT has undergone since those humble beginnings, and the struggles the family faces now.

When she was 5, the MAT moved from the BAC to a small building off Pecan Street. Four years later, the theater renamed itself "Millibo" after Millie Harrison and Bo Frese, two beloved performers who had passed away the previous summer.

When they outgrew that space in 2012, the family upgraded to the theater's fancy new digs in a former church in the Ivywild neighborhood.

They now seat 109, put on 10 times more performances than they did at the start, and continue to expand their educational programming and touring shows by the year.

"Whenever we have something big going on here," Lisbet says, "it can be stressful." Though friends tend to envy her, living the theater life isn't always easy.

"My schedule is different from a lot of other kids," she says. "A lot of what we do is on the weekend. I'm also really used to staying up late, being at the theater. I do like it. It can just sometimes get a little old always being here."

Even so, she loves the stage. She takes part in the MAT's yearly Shakespeare summer camp and usually performs in at least one family show per season. Last year was her first foray into stage managing, and she's excited to do it again for the Halloween show in October.

Though she wants to be a school librarian when she's older, she knows theater is in her blood and "it would be pretty hard to completely leave it behind."

But running the theater is decidedly not in her future, she says, though she wants very much to see it continue to succeed. "It would be nice to not have to worry about like, are we going to get this grant? It always feels like my parents are worrying about what's going to happen next."

But for all the theater drama, Lisbet loves the people involved. She's close to the employees and their children, so it does "feel like a family," she says.

"Even when it's hard we try to have fun. It's something I love about my parents. They're so optimistic. Even when it's hard they're like, 'Well, this is awful, but we have to keep going.' The show must go on." And it does.

There's a lot on the docket for the MAT in its coming season, in spite of the ongoing struggle for money and time. Between an operatic variety show in planning for a year, another visit by Paul Mesner Puppets and nationally touring acts like Robert Dubac and Dave Shirley, the MAT shows no signs of slowing down.

On top of all that, DePree will appear in Shear Madness, another FAC piece opening this month, and Jackson will be helping a batch of actors around the state create one-person shows.

  • Sean Cayton

Susan Edmondson, CEO of the Downtown Partnership, says the MAT's influence has been invaluable to the Springs' arts scene.

She first became aware of the couple when she was the entertainment editor for the Gazette in the late '90s, before they began the theater.

"I was excited," Edmondson says, "because here were artists committed to original works, as well as more small-scale, performer-driven shows, one-man shows. At the time, our community hadn't seen much of that."

She says Jackson and DePree helped "carve a path" for the other theater companies in the area.

"They were one of the first companies to bring the community together in meaningful ways," Edmondson says, remarking that the theater scene as it is now is incredibly supportive. Actors transition between theaters more frequently and audiences attend shows at multiple venues, rather than committing to one.

"Actors, directors, musicians — they've seen what an impact Jim and Birgitta have had on this community... They are so devoted to our entire arts scene. Whenever the arts community asks for their help, if they can possibly do it, they do."

According to Edmondson, one of the most incredible things about Millibo is its commitment to new work, meaning shows that have never been performed before, often created by local artists or friends of the theater. She calls original theater a "definite risk," a sentiment echoed by DePree and Jackson.

Both the producer and audience share the risk, says DePree, The audience "knows it's going to be different," she says, "a different syntax or vocabulary, so there's a different kind of risk they take."

Jackson says the MAT has been lucky here "to find an audience that's supportive of that and takes the risk and comes out for the experience." After all, we're generally talking a couple hours' time and a modest ticket price.

When Edmondson invites friends to MAT shows, they often ask "what is it about?"

"It's not always an 'about,'" she says. "It's not always a traditional piece with a traditional story."

She recalls Jackson's one-man show, Stick Guns, as a prime example of the MAT's work. In the play, Jackson portrays his young self, in addition to characters that seem to be aspects of his personality or other people in his life. The plot follows his childhood growing up in Cañon City, but it doesn't adhere to a traditional narrative arc. Stick Guns, originally staged in 2003, earned a reprise last season and remains widely regarded as one of the most moving and effective shows the MAT has ever put on, due in part to its unusual structure.

By contrast, the theater also produced Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest earlier this year, a safe classic. Similarly, they plan to stage The Crucible in 2017. They also put on variety shows and cabaret, as well as work by nationally touring performers such as Bill Bowers and Tomáš Kubínek. Original content will always drive the season.

"The key is to be forgiving of weak shows if you see them," Edmondson says, acknowledging that sometimes original theater can be hit-or-miss. But "focus on the joy you're going to get when you see something unexpected," she advises.

Jackson, too, knows some shows will not be received as well, but he says that's the price theaters pay. "I think there's a lot of risks for producers who are more interested in pushing along the art form and giving folks new stories and new ways of looking at life through theater. It's very different from a company that's really about producing shows that they know will sell."

DePree believes strongly that it isn't the show that they sell, but the experience. "Because we're taking risks and playing with the form, that fourth wall is a little more porous. There's a lot of cabaret, we talk to the audience, so the audience is a much bigger partner in it."

Jackson adds that even if a show isn't a cabaret or a variety piece, they frame it in such a way that the audience feels connected to it. Their personality goes into the production of each performance, which Jackson says is just what happens when you're a "mom-and-pop" company.

Those personal touches are important. Before each adult show, Jackson hands chocolates out to the audience. After family shows, guests and performers come together for milk, cookies and crafts.

"We have to do a little extra because the kinds of shows we do don't sell themselves," DePree says. The audience is more willing to take the risk on original theater if they've made a connection with the people putting it on.

  • Sean Cayton

The Millibo will never be the size of, say, the FAC, nor do they wish to be. What they want for the future is the freedom and ability to do what they do better, and to make it last.

"I'd like to move forward to create an organization that has the heartbeat or has the vision that we have put into place," DePree says. "An organization that has this love for new work and pushing boundaries, that could go on without us."

Jackson says all arts nonprofits face that dilemma. Once the founders leave, the vision flounders.

Right now, the MAT needs the kind of structure that will support longevity, which requires money and time.

"I would love to invite staff in and say 'I have benefits for you. I can offer you a salary that you can live on that's comfortable,'" DePree says. "I'd love to get the company to that kind of place." But until that happens, it's going to be hard for DePree and Jackson to take off any of their hats. [Disclosure: I wore a couple of those hats for two years as their PR intern and box office attendant.]

Jackson manages to laugh about it, at least. "It's sort of like, hey, we'd really love to give up our day jobs so we can be artists. On the other hand it's amazing that we've been able to do the amount of work we've done, the amount of shows we've done, and still drag along this other work we've done too."

Even when they were younger actors, they had to do their administrative work. Taxes, booking shows — everything DePree calls "adult stuff."

"There's never really a world where you're free to just be an artist," she says. "Oh, but it is a great dream."

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