After a career producing and directing thousands of commercials to “sell things to people they don’t need,” Manuel José Álvarez stepped away from the advertising world to fill an emotional void. Even though he was considered among the film industry’s best, this “cultural warrior” — as he refers to himself — embraced a new vocation. He found his calling with Colombia’s performing artists, eventually making it to the highest stage in the land. In 2013, Manuel José was named to one of the country’s most prestigious positions, director of the “Theatre of all Colombians,” the Teatro Colón.

Born and raised in a conservative Medellín household at the heart of Antioquia, Manuel José, at the age of 16, “was thrown out of his home.” Without experience in the “seventh art” nor an obligatory military service card for formal employment, the young movie buff needed to survive. He landed a foot in the door hauling cables for the pioneer of Colombian film, Diego Léon Giraldo.

But the lights of Broadway and cult-movie culture of Greenwich Village held a bigger attraction for the aspiring filmmaker. He packed his bags and headed to the Big Apple. His experience in New York was also all about survival and “falling in love with that world,” recalls Manuel José. “It was a magical time for me because youth had a voice.” He then set out to explore Europe, and with Darío Vallejo, brother of the irreverent novelist Fernando Vallejo, they headed to Paris and Rome. From street protests to a new style of photog- raphy, paparazzi, Rome was at the heart of social change in Italy. The romanticism of the piazza and rise of experimental Italian cinema conquered the starry-eyed Colombian.

And what was there not to love about the Rome of the La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s fleeting tribute to elegance and a timeless city? “It was there that I consolidated my love of film,” said Manuel José. While in Rome, he befriended many of the bright talents of the time: actors, directors, fashion models, and designers. But the dream was cut short. He returned to Colombia, a decision he seems to regret to this day.

Manuel José talks about his life with candor, recalling everything from his difficult upbringing in Medelliín to the attraction of the neon along Eighth Avenue to the silver-tinted glow of a Rome immortalized by Fellini and Pa- solini. “I feel content to have achieved something. Not much. But what I have wanted to do.”

At the helm of Colombia’s most prestigious theatre, the Teatro Colón, Manuel José has invited some of the worlds’ great artistic talents to perform in the capital. Constructed in the 19th century by Florentine architect Pietro Cantini to honor Genovese explorer Christopher Columbus, the venue was long considered an elitist space for the performing arts. But when the Colón re-opened its doors in July 2014 after a six-year renovation, the recently appointed director began enacting changes to the program to make the space more “inclusive” — open to all.

With the support of Colombia’s Minister of Culture Mariana Garcés Córdoba, the Colón shed its aristocratic cloak to return to its original vision as a place for home-grown productions of all types. “I wanted to mark a vision for where this theatre was heading,” said Manuel José. “We wanted to involve all the genres and offer very accessible prices.”

Every fortnight, the theatre recognizes up-and-coming talent with free concerts in the main foyer. The Colón also launched an outreach program with the Cali-based circus troupe Circo para Todos to train vulnerable youth as acrobats and dancers.

Another mission of today’s Colón is to bring back talented Colombians who are making their names overseas. The Royal Ballet’s Fernando Montaño and leading soprano Betty Garcés — two admired Colombians who excelling in their professions abroad — now return regularly to the capital to perform at this esteemed venue at the heart of the capital’s historic district. Through the director’s efforts, many of Colombia’s best are being introduced to a local audience for the first time.

Manuel José was introduced to the theatre through a long friendship with the great dame of the Colombian theatre scene, Argentine actress and cultural entrepreneur Fanny Mikey. “I am not sure if I should thank her, or blame her,” he said. “I was a machine at making commercials…and spiritually bankrupt.” Fanny was an artistic beacon, illuminating audiences with her charm and brassy effusiveness.

Convinced that Bogotá, like her native Buenos Aires, should host large outdoor concerts and theatre spectacles, Fanny Mikey was conjuring up an idea that would go on to revolutionize cul- ture in the capital, the IberoAmerican Theatre Festival of Bogotá (FITB). Its first edition took place in 1988, and the event has been captivating the nation ever since. “Without Fanny, it wouldn’t have been possible to have concerts by the Rolling Stones nor Madonna in Bogotá,” he said.

Under the spell of the red-haired diva and her “beautiful craziness,” Manuel José had chosen to live in Madrid in self-imposed exile rather than sell out to the demands of the advertising world. As years passed, the friendship between the theatre guru and disgruntled “machine” evolved into a partnership of creative ideas.

In 2008, Mikey summoned Manuel José to New York to convince him, once and for all, to abandon the old continent for the challenges of producing future versions of the FITB. She sent the plane ticket, and all was planned for Manuel José’s homecoming on August 27. Tragically, however, his mentor died of kidney failure 10 days before his arrival. “Fanny wanted me here for a reason,” he said.

His work since then has done her memory proud. Manuel José Álvarez has focused on spreading a philosophy they both shared. From the early days of the IberoAmerican festival, to his official appointment at the Ministry of Culture where he documented some 700 circuses in Colombia, to his current role as director of the Colón, Manuel José continues to crusade for greater accessibility to the performing arts. This is no minor accomplishment in a country beset by budget cutbacks and economic inequalities. But he stresses: “I am just one of many who have worked for the love of art.”

If a nation’s identity can be defined by how it treats its artists, Manuel José is very much on the frontlines of protecting Colombia’s rich artistic heritage, and has paved the way for future generations to have their moment in the limelight. So next time you enjoy a night at the theatre, remember our cultural foot soldiers, or in the case of the Colón, a caballero de la cultura – our Knight of culture.