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THE LITTLE THEATRE THAT COULD: A History of Bas Bleu Theatre Company

The Bas Bleu Theatre Company a 501(c) (3) non-profit corporation, founded by Eva Wright and Wendy Ishii, opened in July, 1992 at the Fort Collins Lincoln Center with a production of “Duet for One” by Tom Kempinski. Our vision was to create an artistic and cultural center wherein bold, innovative and adventurous works of theatre and related arts could be explored and presented in Northern Colorado. The Theatre is modeled after the great 18th century European literary salons known as the “Bluestockings” (or Bas Bleu) whose members fostered animated conversation about politics, art, theatre, music and works of literature.

It was important to us that Bas Bleu secure its own home. Theatre is a collaborative art form and we wanted a nurturing space where artists and students could practice, hone and improve their craft as well as develop creative new works. Our mission is to present outstanding theater that inspires both audience and artist alike in an intimate “salon” setting. Bas Bleu’s goal is to enrich the cultural life of the region and, in so doing, add to the common cultural experience that bonds us all to our community and the world around us.

In March, 1993 we rented an empty store-front at 216 Pine Street in Old Town, Fort Collins, CO, and over the next seven months renovated it into a 49-seat theatre. We opened in October, 1994 with the first ever Fort Collins productions of Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” and “Happy Days”. Our small size allowed us to take huge risks and tackle challenging works that would simply not have been possible in a larger, more commercial or profit driven theatre. Although tiny, together with very positive media response, we managed to build a devoted and passionate audience who helped establish us through enthusiastic word of mouth.

Over the next ten years, as we built our reputation and resources, our improbable dream took hold. In 2003, having outgrown our small theatre, we began a $1.5M Phase 1 Capital Campaign to purchase and renovate the historic Giddings Building at the corner of Pine and Willow Streets into a 106-seat theatre and lobby art gallery. There was significant risk as it was located “across the tracks” in the so-called undesirable part of town. However, it also sits in the historic heart of our community very close to the site of the original Fort Collins and nearby the beautiful Cache La Poudre River.

Built in 1910 by Frank Giddings, the building was designed to accommodate the Giddings’ Western Steel Headgate Company, which made large control gates for irrigation systems important to the early agricultural growth, particularly the sugar beet industry, of the region. The original architectural challenge in 1910 was to provide an open indoor space of 6,600 square feet without using any vertical support posts in the interior. To do so, the designers used trusses that extend the entire 60-foot width of the building, which today provide interior space ideal for Bas Bleu Theatre.

Bas Bleu marched across those formidable railroad tracks and became the pioneer and pacesetter in the revitalization of this historic area, the arts and culture district today known as “Beet Street”, and the Giddings Building went from producing augers to actors in 102 days. We partially renovated the interior of the venue and opened with “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner in a community-wide collaborative project with OpenStage Theatre, Colorado State University Theatre Program and the Museum of Contemporary Art among others.

In 2009, Bas Bleu entered into a unique ten-year private/public partnership with the Downtown Development Authority whereby the theatre received $220,000 to provide rent-free space to the public for ten years. This is a very exciting first-of-its-kind model which we hope may be of use to cities nationwide to help sustain the arts.

In 2010, we established the Bas Bleu Theatre Company Agency Endowment Fund at the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado. As this fund grows over time it will help to sustain Bas Bleu for many years to come.

In 2011, the Colorado Economic Development Commission approved Bas Bleu’s proposal for the Enterprise Zone Project, encouraging job creation and providing additional tax incentives for our donors.

In 2012, we successfully completed Phase 1 of our Capital Campaign, a feat showing broad donor and public support. We celebrated by hosting a wonderful ”Burn the Mortgage” party for all the generous friends and patrons who helped us achieve this goal. We are now in the early planning stages of Phase 2 of the Capital Campaign which will enable us to complete the interior and exterior renovations. By the end this campaign we will have one of the most beautiful small theatre and art gallery venues in the country.

Using the intimate format of a small theatre, where the audience becomes enveloped in the center of the action, Bas Bleu has presented a substantial number of thought-provoking plays, readers’ theatre productions, poetry and prose readings, concerts,
improvisational comedy shows, children’s programs, master classes, workshops, seminars and gallery exhibits.

Over the past twenty three years, Bas Bleu won over 100 local, national and international awards for its work and produced, performed, exhibited or hosted over 625 events and 1,700 performances seen by more than 100,000 viewers. It has called on the expertise and nourished the creative growth of more than 3025 artists, performers, directors, writers, poets, musicians, designers, technicians and teachers. Over 5,000 volunteers and 800 individual, foundation, business and corporate donors have helped us keep quality high and ticket prices low.

Bas Bleu has been a community leader in initiating and fostering collaborative projects with local, regional, national and even international arts, civic and educational organizations, thus broadening our audience, strengthening our product and growing the economy. As an NPO we are able to create a dynamic relationship and actively engage the members of our community. Bas Bleu’s patrons and practitioners truly feel a sense of ownership, participation and pride in the theatre, and that has led to a strong emotional, artistic and financial investment in its sustainability.