Millibo Art Theater is in an odd place for a theater — next door to Mike’s Garage and across the street from an auto parts dealer on Pecan Street on the west side of Colorado Springs
And it’s a difficult business to be involved with. It’s riskier than operating a restaurant.
Despite those challenges, the theater is marking its 10th year of operation, which includes a move into a larger space four years ago to accommodate growing audiences.
There’s room for 90 audience members who are attracted to the theater’s intimate setting and its 180 performances each year.
It adds up to a busy and successful work environment for soft-spoken owner and director Jim Jackson, a former circus performer.
Jackson oversees the plays, directs some of them and teaches kids acrobatics and how to ride a unicycle. His wife also acts and directs. And the MAT has a mascot, Alfie, a standard poodle who greets visitors to the shows.
“It’s a great space,” Jackson says. “We love it here — we think it gives the audience a real experience, something different than a show at the Pikes Peak Center or Fine Arts Center.”
That’s because the stage is so close to the audience, it makes them feel as if they are in their own living rooms watching the performances. There isn’t any distance between the artists and the theater-goers.
“We want to grow,” Jackson said. “And we’re taking a good look at what’s been successful and how to grow — but we don’t want to grow so much we lose that feeling, that intimacy with the audience.”
The theater survives on ticket sales, grants, fundraisers and a variety of children’s theater workshops. It couldn’t make it on ticket sales alone.
“We just can’t. We don’t have the audience here, and we’d have to double the ticket prices just to break even,” Jackson said. “So we do grants and workshops, and it works out.”
Tickets to the adult shows — like the Six Women Playwrights event going on now — run $20 each. A $40 theater ticket might sell in New York, but not Colorado Springs. Tickets to the monthly comic improv performance are $10.50.
“You might pay that for a larger performance, for a well-known play,” he said, “but that’s not what we do here.”
What they do at MAT is perform first-time productions, new plays that haven’t seen many audiences. Since the plays are unknown, they draw a very specific audience, he said.
“Our subscribers and our return audience like the experience of a brand new play,” he said. “They like watching it grow and evolve into something different. Many of the plays that start here go on to be very successful.”
Because of the smaller stage, the productions are sometimes smaller too — duo and solo performances from places like New York or Chicago. It isn’t always easy to fill the slots, he said.
“It can be a tough sale,” he said. Convincing people to come all the way out here from New York for a 90-seat theater, but people do come and they appreciate the experience.”
Jackson should know. He spent 30 years after college, performing in circuses and solo acts in the United States, Canada and Europe. A native of Canon City, he moved back to Colorado and settled down. Once the touring stopped, he decided to open the theater.
It’s a decision he hasn’t regretted. The MAT has a wide variety of family plays, suitable for toddlers to high schoolers. But it’s the adult offerings he hopes to grow. The theater is home to an improv troupe that performs the first weekend in the month, and he hopes to increase attendance to that and to the other eight adult performance during every season.
“That’s one area we can grow,” he said. “And we need to grow it. The children’s shows are packed, we always sell out. But there’s room in the adult program.”
Currently, the theater is working on a local production that closes every theater season: a circus performance. Jackson said a number of actors, from children to professional adults, will perform the circus at the end of May.
But just because the regular season is over, doesn’t mean work stops at the MAT. Jackson and some of the adults put on a number of workshops for kids of all ages — introducing them to both stilts and Shakespeare.
And the MAT has Sundaes with the MAT. After performances in the summer, the audience has ice cream sundaes on the patio.
“It’s important to offer a little more,” he said. “We have cocktail parties and meet the playwrights after some shows. These days, the audience wants more than a performance for the price of their ticket — they want an experience. And we give that to them.”