It is the first day of the summer camps for children at the Millibo Art Theatre, and Executive Clown and Director Jim Jackson asks the instructor, “How’s it going?”
“Great!” said Jackson with his ever-present smile.
In their course titled Messy Fun Camp, children aged 7 to 9 file outside behind the instructor, with their own smiles to match Jackson’s, because they’re on a mission: To make a mess.
For Jackson, 59, and his wife, Artistic Director Birgitta De Pree, it appears as if their mission is to create smiles and produce good times at the Millibo Art Theatre, MAT for short.
“It’s so much fun working for a professional clown,” said Alyssa Smith, who works the box office and public relations for the MAT. “They are the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet and work for.”
Jackson and De Pree just ended their second season at the MAT’s location at 1626 S. Tejon St., across the street from Ivywild School. It is an intimate setting with 109 seats, and all are close to the stage. This is the theater’s third location.
The Millibo Art Theatre produces original, professional theater and workshops for adults and children. Many of the productions are comedy. This year, they produced Incredible Circus Millibo, Six Women New Play Festival, Book Dawg, RIP Improv, Little Red Riding Hood, Country Rat City Mouse, Tossed and Found, Dancing with Devils and more.
They also produced K2, a serious play written by Patrick Meyers that involves two friends climbing Earth’s second-highest mountain.
A Cañon City native, Jackson grew up enjoying the comedy of Red Skelton and other TV clowns. In high school, he started theater arts as a hobby. Jackson majored in psychology in college while taking the same mime class all eight semesters, honing his craft of communicating with humor without making a sound.
Also during college, he made his first nickel in theater after partnering with two others to form a classic mime troupe.
After graduating, Jackson traveled to Europe and discovered the circus, which was different from traditional American circus. There, the single-ring circus offered “beautiful and real artistry.”
Later, he joined the Royal Lichtenstein Quarter-Ring Sidewalk Circus, headquartered in San Francisco. With the circus for 18 months, Jackson toured the United States being a clown, honing his humor talents.
“It was a great introduction to street performing,” he said. “That later became a huge influence on the theater and the comedy clown work we do.” He then obtained an agent and toured the U.S. and internationally as a clown, performing at New York’s Lincoln Center, Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, London’s Royal Festival Hall, the Edinburgh Fringe and others.
While touring, Jackson met De Pree in Denver when she was earning her master of fine arts degree at the National Theater Conservancy. They both had performed successfully in domestic and international venues, and while touring, they noted the varied theater business models.
From Manitou to Millibo
Together they formed the Manitou Art Theatre in 2001, the same year they married, in Manitou Springs. Their performances took place at what then was known as the Business of Art Center (now Manitou Art Center). After outgrowing the space there five years later, the Manitou Art Theatre moved to 1367 Pecan St., transforming two garages into theater space.
In 2011, Jackson and De Pree renamed their endeavor the Millibo Art Theatre after two people who had worked there, Millie Harrison, 19, and Bo Frese, 37. Both died within four months of each other. On Dec. 10, 2010, Frese died after performing a gymnastics stunt during which he broke his neck. On April 2, 2011, Harrison died of a viral infection while she was attending college in Minnesota.
Renaming the theater “has been a great way to honor them,” Jackson said.
Two years ago, MAT moved to its current location in the Ivywild neighborhood, the former Ivywild Community Church.
“It was the most churchy space you can imagine, from the smells … of little old ladies cleaning the pews …” Jackson said. A cadre of theater volunteers and others transformed the space to a theater with stage and raised seating.
The MAT is $300,000 short in a $500,000 fund drive, money to keep original and creative shows playing there.
As a nonprofit theater, the status “is a huge help for us. It allows for us to fundraise in a much easier way,” Jackson said.
When he toured as a for-profit clown, Jackson met with friends in the nonprofit sector, whose work “totally depended on grants and donations,” he said.
Now, he understands that world.
“Even though we have good audience support, we still depend on grants, corporate sponsors and donations,” Jackson said. “That’s the way the arts world works. It’s the reality of it.”
Nationwide, 50 percent of a nonprofit arts organization’s budget comes from ticket sales and class registrations. At the MAT, 60 percent of the budget comes from ticket sales and course enrollment, while 40 percent is made up of grants and donations.
The MAT is one of three theaters in town that pays its performers, so it can afford to be picky when choosing the art it produces. If approached by a group wanting to perform there, and the MAT chooses to accept the piece, the theater co-produces it.
Jackson said his favorite act is the one he started with — performing as a clown.
“I’m still primarily a clown. That’s still my first love,” said Jackson, who stopped touring when he and De Pree formed the MAT in 2001. “I was surprised by how much I loved the producing angle.”
As a theater, “I think we have found our niche,” Jackson said. “We are dedicated to producing new work and we have a real dedication to children.”
De Pree teaches a two-week Shakespeare theater workshop for high-schoolers, another Shakespeare workshop for middle-schoolers and one for younger children.
One of De Pree’s favorite performances is Gods, Guns and Pancakes, a solo piece written and performed by Jackson.
“It explored fate, chance and how he became a clown,” she said. “It is a reflection of how we all end up where we are.”
“It was fun for me,” Jackson said, “because I was playing the storyteller, myself and a clown.”