It's the Andy Hardy cliché — the plucky kids who put on a show in the nearest barn and wow their audience. Those Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movies seem quaint 70 years later, but that can-do spirit survives in Colorado Springs theater.
In 2008, two of local theater's premier couples brainstormed about putting on their own shows. Chad and Lisa Siebert, and Steve Emily and Jodi Papproth wanted to offer productions that would be innovative for this region. They called their company the Springs Ensemble Theatre and began recruiting members in 2009.
"We sought people like us who had moved from some other market, so we could bring ideas that were different from the Colorado Springs market," says Chad Siebert, who moved here from Los Angeles in 2005.
SET found a space with the intimate feeling they wanted and launched their first season, quickly winning accolades for productions including Talk Radio, Eric Bogosian's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play about a vitriolic shock-jock.
But before they could build on their burgeoning momentum, they lost their home. After much searching, they landed on Cache la Poudre Street, east of Union Boulevard. Their black-box theater can seat 45 to 50 people, none more than 16 feet away from the stage.
"Being so close, you're going to see if an actor's eyes are bloodshot," says Emily, SET president. "You don't get that at other places in town. I think that what we do is very approachable. Even though we spell 'theatre' with an 're,' I don't think we act like 'theatre' with an 're.'"
As board member Sarah Shaver says, a cast and an audience sharing the same air creates a unique relationship.
"It's this beautiful, ephemeral thing and then passes away," she says. "There's something really special about live theater, especially the intimate live theater we can do here, that you won't get to experience by going to the movies. This is our church — this is our communal experience."
The company also includes Keri Pollakoff, Emory John Collinson, Max Ferguson, Michael Miller, Jillmarie Peterson, David Plambeck, Christine Vitale, Emily Christensen, June Scott Barfield and Jeremy Joynt. Each member can suggest plays for the upcoming season, knowing they're guaranteed a major role in the cast or behind the scenes. Sometimes they'll get their first shot at directing or set designing.
"The carrot that we dangle in front of members is that 'If you clean bathrooms and mop floors, if you've ever had a play that you'd like to play fill-in-the-blank role, or you'd like to direct, here's your opportunity,'" says Chad Siebert, SET vice president.
After the selection committee considers scripts, the next season is set by the end of July.
"We're doing plays that pretty much nobody else in town is touching," Emily says. "For the past three seasons, we've had at least one regional premiere every year, sometimes more. There's nothing wrong with The Importance of Being Earnest, but I don't ever want to see another production of it."
SET's 2012 productions ranged from The Underpants, Steve Martin's adaptation of a century-old farce, to The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh's child-murder drama that earned much local acclaim before wrapping in late October.
"People come in and they don't know what to expect," Chad Siebert says. "Like with Pillowman, you talk to them during intermission and they say, 'Good God, I'm frightened.' Then afterwards, people almost without exception will say, 'That's phenomenal.'"
SET likes to shake up audiences, but the selection committee also has to be pragmatic enough to sprinkle in some familiar plays, such as The Odd Couple and The Lion in Winter for 2013.
"If we have a cushion in our bank account, it enables us to take chances on shows that may not appeal to everyone," Chad Siebert says. "Pillowman sold very well, beyond our expectations, but we want to be able to do a show like this knowing that it may or may not make budget."
That's where Give! comes in. It's expensive to buy rights to plays and to maintain a theater, especially when someone steals your ventilation unit and you have to improvise to keep audiences comfortable. Plus, SET members want to keep ticket prices low so everyone can experience this art form they love.
This too, may sound cliché, but these people don't act, sew costumes or build sets for the money. They do it because, once in a while, they love to gather their friends, put on a show and invite everyone along for the adventure.