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Movies With The Freemasons? Pop-Up Trend Offers Economic, Creative Spaces For Colorado Artists

Courtesy of The Lyric
Audiences wait for a screening of the film 'Kedi' to begin at The Lyric's temporary home in the Masonic Temple.

While its new venue is under construction, Fort Collins movie theater The Lyric is taking up temporary residence at an unlikely place: The Masonic Temple.

“I’ve never done anything normal in my life,” joked owner Ben Moser about the theater’s unusual home for the next six months. “So this is just another thing. I think people are pretty used to it by now.”

As the price of retail space in Colorado continues to climb, more artists are popping up in non-traditional spaces to perform and sell their work -- including storefronts, bars and even the home of the Freemasons.

For Moser, setting up a temporary space was a conundrum of necessity. The lease was up on the theater’s previous location on Mountain Avenue, but construction on the new venue won’t be completed until fall 2017.

“Yeah, they kind of saved my butt -- the Masons,” he said.

With real estate getting more expensive and in greater demand, Moser said he can understand why arts groups are looking to pop-up locations. The Lyric’s new permanent home on North College Avenue is projected to cost $3.6 million and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. That kind of financial endeavor isn’t for everybody.

Credit Courtesy of The Lyric
The Lyric will open in its new permanent location at 1209 N. College Avenue in fall 2017

“It’s what people do out of necessity,” he said of pop-up events. “I’m just crazy enough to dive into the deep end.”

Not everyone is choosing the nomadic lifestyle because they have to, though.

“What’s very on trend is this idea that theater shows up in found spaces,” said Christopher Huelshorst, founder and artistic executive director of Pop Up Theatre. Since it began two years ago, the Fort Collins theater company has puts on performances in a variety of locations, including storefronts and art galleries. Its upcoming show, ‘Bright Half Life,’ will be performed at R Bar and Lounge.

“It becomes more about an experience and less about a dark theater where the lights go up and you anonymously look at the picture put up before you,” Huelshorst said.

Sometimes they pay for the space and sometimes it’s donated or part of a trade deal. Being mobile also means they can travel beyond their hometown. Pop Up Theatre is working with the Steamboat Arts Council to bring shows there beginning this summer.

There are downfalls to pop-up art, though.

Huelshorst said finding rehearsal space can be tough, as is “casting” the right venue for the show.

“Your space, on some level, almost becomes another character,” he said.

Deciding to present ‘Bright Half Life,’ which is about a lesbian couple, in a gay bar however, was as much about the show as it was the opportunity, Huelshorst said.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Pop Up Theatre presents 'Bright Half Life' at the R Bar & Lounge in Fort Collins.

“We always like to bring our audiences into a new experience, so we thought for some, maybe going to a gay bar for the first time could be an interesting experience for them,” he said. “I want people to walk into a space that might be uncomfortable for them, to discover that everybody breathes the same and bleeds the same.”

Not having a mortgage or a monthly rent also gives Pop Up Theatre the ability to do something not all small theater troupes can: Pay their actors. Huelshorst said they typically pay cast members two to four times what they would make at other area theater companies.

“That was something that was very important to us,” he said. “Because it’s not free to make art. It’s not always cheap to make art -- especially theater. What allows us to do that is we have cut out that idea of property, or brick-and-mortar, or location. That’s typically the largest item on your budget.”

In 2008, the economic downturn left many artists struggling and even traditional spaces like galleries and theaters were closing throughout the country.

“Eight years ago -- believe it or not -- Old Town Fort Collins had 13 empty storefronts,” said Dawn Putney. When she saw artists setting up temporary shop in storefronts during a trip to Brooklyn, she decided to bring the idea back with her to Northern Colorado.

In 2009, Putney created Art Lab. The portable arts space sets up in empty storefronts. The building owner avoids the look of blight that comes with an empty space, and local artists get a free place to showcase their work.

Credit Courtesy of Art Lab
Art Lab currently is set up in an empty storefront at 239 Linden Street in Fort Collins.

So far, Art Lab has been the site of theater performances, concerts, art exhibitions, rehearsals and at least one CD has been recorded there.

“We really try to keep it open to any good, fair use of the space for people who need a place to be creative,” Putney said. 

When the storefront gets rented out, Art Lab moves on to the next location. Empty storefronts aren’t as common as they were when the project began, but the Lab lucked out in its current Linden Street location. The building’s owner, Bohemian Company, is known for its support of the arts and has told the program it can stay as long as there is a need.

“And there is a need,” Putney said. “We’re booked almost through 2017.”

According to Putney, the secret to Art Lab’s success is its simplicity. Sometimes all an artist really needs is a blank canvas, and that’s what Art Lab is. There are a few basic amenities -- chairs, tables and a small sound system -- but other than that users are on their own.

“If you get there and there isn’t any toilet paper -- you get to go to the store and buy toilet paper,” Putney said. “We are really a no-profit nonprofit.”

The idea has also caught on in other communities. Over the years, similar programs have popped up in Loveland, Longmont and Denver. It’s gotten even more mobile with the start of Pop Up Art Carts.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Pop Up Art Carts will be out in Old Town Square in Fort Collins on first Fridays of the month, third Thursdays of the month and most Sundays April through October.

Artists sell their work directly to the public at mobile carts during events. Art Lab helps with basics, like helping artists navigate the application for a sales tax license.

The carts also are a way to allow artists to continue to do what they love even if/when Art Lab goes away, Putney said.

“Which it will,” she said. “We still warn everybody that this is a very temporary space. But I also didn’t think we’d still be doing this eight years later.”

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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