Manitou Art Theatre: No frills, just thrills 

The 2010 Give! Campaign

Drive down an all-business street in a light-industrial area of southwest Colorado Springs, then open the shiny new door of a converted garage and enter a magical world. This is the Manitou Art Theatre, where resident geniuses Jim Jackson and Birgitta De Pree create a haven for fun and creativity in a neighborhood that can most charitably be described as "unpromising."

"For an old garage, it's been a great space. There's not a bad seat in the house," says Jackson, who moved the theater troupe from Manitou Springs to Pecan Street two years ago.

Though they loved that location, at the Business of Art Center's Venue 515, the new venue brings advantages. First, now they can run productions and hold classes for weeks at a time without jostling for space and time between concerts and other events. Second, the more intimate area magnifies the audience feedback and boosts the energy level.

"When you get 60 people in here, the place just explodes when there's a laugh," Jackson says. "It's so much fun."

The MAT can actually accommodate 87, or a few more if they're friendly, on snazzy seats salvaged from a science center in San Diego. Jackson found an online ad for theater seats, free to any nonprofit that could pick them up on removal day. With a flight to California and a trip home in a rental truck stuffed with $10,000 worth of seating, Jackson and De Pree took a big step closer to the theater of their dreams.

Nonprofits do things like that, finding discarded treasures and giving them new life. Tight budgets can be stretched with ingenuity and determination — and a pinch of luck.

Jackson, 55, has been performing since grade school and traveled the world as a juggler, acrobat and clown before returning to Colorado. De Pree, 47, confesses she was a shy child who emerged from her shell while playing dress-up.

They embarked on marriage in 2001, the same year they started the MAT. Their offerings have grown to include the "Kids First" series, premieres of original productions from playwrights near and far; "RiP On Demand" evenings with a local improvisation troupe; and workshops for aspiring theater types of all ages.

Ultimately, their mission is to furnish a venue for open and respectful dialogue.

"That's what makes this such a delightful pursuit," Jackson says. "We're not broadcasting to millions, but in a small way, we are bringing people into other worlds. You're giving them different points of view, you're creating characters they remember, stories they remember, a way to identify with what's going on onstage. And whether it's a comedy, a tragedy or a documentary, it's giving people something they can take away with them."

One of their proudest accomplishments has been hosting the Women's Playwriting Festival, which presents six original 10-minute plays, drawn from a nationwide competition.

"It's just been so rewarding to contribute to our community, to create this place where you engage people in dialogue," says De Pree, who immediately recalls a scene that punctuated one previous festival.

"What was so wonderful was going into the lobby and seeing these incredible volunteers, girls of 15 or 16 who've been with us for years, talking with their mothers about how [their mothers] felt after the birth of their first child."

De Pree and Jackson pay themselves and a few part-timers. As in most nonprofits, they rely on dedicated volunteers to keep the doors open and the seats filled. She estimates they have about 15 steady volunteers and a total of about 40, some of whom they picked up thanks to last year's Give! campaign.

"They keep us going with the day-to-day stuff," Jackson says, "and then we have some great people who can come in and build a set, or can do costuming, things like that, specialized stuff."

When asked what they'll do with the proceeds from this year's campaign, De Pree shouts, "Survive!" then laughs.

More specifically, they'll fund the children's series and school outreach, which includes workshops, residencies, after-school programs and in-school performances. The funds will ensure that young people continue to fall under the spell of the theater. And while they have fun, they'll learn life lessons about respecting divergent points of view and actively engaging with other people. Says De Pree: "You can give to your community a place where they can shine and play."



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