Birgitta DePree believes the world is hungry for stories, especially right now.
As one of the artistic directors and co-founders of Millibo Art Theatre, DePree is committed to helping create original art for the community to enjoy and she’s encouraging fellow artists to do the same.
“The pandemic may have stopped things, but we have also had the opportunity to look at how we can be more engaged with the community and how we can be more equitable and inclusive,” DePree said. “To my fellow artists I would say, don’t give up, stay connected and reach out. The world is hungry for your stories.”
DePree co-founded Millibo Art Theatre (formerly Manitou Art Theatre) with her husband Jim Jackson almost 20 years ago with the theater performing its first show in January 2002.
DePree is a performer, director and writer. She also teaches theater at UCCS. A graduate of Oberlin College, she received her Master of Fine Arts in performance from the National Theater Conservatory.
At the Millibo, DePree’s goal is to create and produce original theater for the Pikes Peak region. They offer a Kids First series that features circus arts, puppetry, storytelling and theatre, and a premiere series of performances. Millibo brings in artists from across the country to perform in the children’s series. For the premiere series, the theater tries to bring in new shows or re-envision classics for its audience.
The theater focuses on original work and telling stories that are new to the audience, DePree said.
“We may work with young artists to help them create a piece or we’ll bring in young artists from across the country who are creating original work,” she said. “We always want to bring something new to our audience in Colorado Springs.”
DePree spoke with the Business Journal about Millibo Art Theatre, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their work and the importance of art to communities.
How were you drawn into the performing arts?
I have always loved stories and I grew up where people valued stories. My grandmother always told stories. I remember going on these very long car trips, and she’d tell the history of Sweden (where my family is from) and I would be completely engaged. On another level, I am also the middle child of a very large family of mostly visual artists. I found my place in acting and telling stories. I grew up all over the world. My father was a diplomat; my mother is Swedish. With that, you had to be really resourceful in how you communicated with people. It pushed me to be more aware of communication. I also think we are all born with certain proclivities, but in my life, those things definitely pushed me in that direction. The model when I was in grad school was if you’re super beautiful you go to L.A. and you do television; otherwise, you go to New York or Chicago and you do theater. But I am here in Colorado Springs. To me, it has been really exciting to see that if you are willing to step out of the one map that you’re given, you can accomplish so much.
As a performing artist, where do you find inspiration?
I draw inspiration from other people. I find the stories of people and how they navigate this world to be so fascinating. Theater artists always do that. We always think if I were that person, what choices would I make. I am also inspired by nature and I love working with children.
What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on Millibo Art Theatre and on the artistic community in general?
Once we went into shutdown, we had to close all of our shows. Our live performances are done in an intimate setting, so doing those was not possible anymore. We also used to do outreach at schools, libraries and theaters across the state. That also was not possible anymore. On the one hand, it’s been devastating. But on the other hand, it’s pushed us to dig deeper and ask what’s the kernel of what we do. It’s telling people’s stories. So, we are still creating a platform to share stories and tell stories. We’re just doing that in a very different way right now. Everything evolves and changes. For example, there is a character, named Babette, who I’ve played for many years. When the pandemic first hit, we began a series called Babette’s Kitchen. They are these short little comedic inspirational videos in which we are letting people know that we are going to get through this. But we used a character that people had a relationship with. We are taking some of what we do and putting it on social media.
We have also pivoted our educational programming quite a bit. We have a circus camp that we used to offer after school, but now we are offering a full range of fall workshops for children and workshops for adults. That is programming that we didn’t necessarily have time to do before but now we do. We’re having some small classes, where people wear masks and can be physically distanced from each other. This is allowing for an opportunity that I think people, but especially the children, are so hungry for. We’re all craving that social connection. We’re able to provide that in a platform that is safe.
The theater is a service to our community. I can tell you that running a theater is not easy, even in the best of times. But it is absolutely rewarding. I feel like I can be supportive of my community and offer a space for conversation and connection. I feel that push to reimagine how we offer theater, but I am committed to figuring that out and doing it. For example, theater is all about connection and typically that means a kinesthetic connection. In our summer camps, we couldn’t do that. So instead of playing games where there was close contact, we offered hands-on art activities where we were next to each other but we were physically distanced and there was no touching.
It’s been hard but it’s also very rewarding. This time has also been very challenging to us financially. We are very fortunate to have received support from the community. We have had to get creative in how we ask for money and in the grants that we apply for. At the same time, this time has really affirmed how important theater is to our community.
What are some of your favorite roles that you have performed?
In February, I did a show that I had written 12 years ago and performed, and I knew at the time that it wasn’t done. So, in February I brought it back. I had to rewrite the show and get to the core of it. I played 15 different characters, and it was exciting to play all of those characters. It was so exciting because it was a solo show and I really got to engage with the audience.
There’s also this one character that I have, Babette, she’s this very feisty Bulgarian who grew up in Brazil. She’s awfully fun to play and I have really enjoyed her. I never know what I’m going to say when I’m playing Babette. I think she sort of plays me really.
What are your goals for the future and for Millibo Art Theatre?
I want to use this difficult, challenging time to really dig deep and really examine the core of what we do, and I also want us to stay flexible about how we can do what we do in this community. Our goal is always to improve the quality of art and to engage more of the community to become artmakers. We want to empower them not just to perform someone else’s work but to create their own. We want to build the Millibo so we can support the community even more. We are almost at our 20th year, which is very exciting.
In addition to co-founding The Millibo, you are also a professor at UCCS in visual arts. Talk a little about that.
I teach acting and I teach intro to theater at UCCS. I love it and I am so excited to be a catalyst for my students to discover the language of theater. During COVID, we’re all wearing masks and we are physically distant and yet my students are doing some of the best work I’ve ever seen. They have a real desire to be there and to study.
How do you believe the arts can impact communities?
I think it invites conversation. It invites empathy. It creates a space for a shared experience and there are fewer and fewer of those really authentic shared experiences where you being there really makes all the difference. There is a joke that this one character does where the character says, “Thank you for being here because if you weren’t, what I’m doing would just be stupid.” For the artistic community, you being there makes a difference. At the same time, art transports you and really wakes you up to who you are. Really great theater is an awakening experience.