Raising the Barn

by Emily Potts

The Village of Goodfield welcomes the Conklin Players back to the Barn.

If you had told Mary Simon two years ago that the Barn would be rebuilt and booking future performances, she wouldn’t have believed you. The director of the Conklin Players was sure that her turn in local theater was up. The Barn II in Goodfield, the theater troupe’s longtime home, had closed in the summer of 2015 after irreparable wind damage rendered the building unsafe. Undeterred, Simon moved her operations to Five Points Washington, where the troupe performed until the end of 2017.

“I was giving everything we made at Five Points to the troupe to try to keep them solvent,” she recalls. “And then I couldn't afford to do it anymore. I had cashed out my insurance policies. I borrowed against things. My credit card debt was huge... I was tapped out.” But just two weeks after Simon gave up, Abby Reel walked into her life and proposed a plan that turned everything around. 

A Storied History
A native of nearby Congerville, Abby Reel essentially grew up with The Barn’s cast of colorful characters as a backdrop. Her parents, Les and Carolyn Reel, were huge supporters of the theater—attending performances regularly, becoming friends with Simon and founder Chaunce Conklin, and encouraging their daughter to join—which she did as a teenager, working there before heading off to college.

Fast forward nearly 20 years, and Reel is now owner of the Barn III, still under construction. The new venue is set to open in February with support from its community, a massive fundraising effort, and a sizable loan from Morton Community Bank. You know what they say about it taking a village. Well, it took that and more.

Although Abby Reel and Mary Simon act as partners, Simon is quick to point out that Reel is the boss—“It’s her nickel,” she explains. No doubt there’s a mutual affection and respect between the two. Several times during our conversation, Simon leaned close to Reel, patted her hand and mentioned how grateful she is to her for saving the Barn—not only for herself but for her beloved troupe, who were displaced when the last incarnation went out of business.

“We make decisions together, collaborate [and] compromise,” Reel notes. “And I think it's really interesting how similar we are… in terms of how we think about taking care of people.” In fact, before embarking on their partnership, Reel, a licensed therapist, asked Simon to take a personality test. She had an inkling that they shared a lot of common traits and wanted to know how they would work together.

Abby Reel, left, and Mary Simon discovered their personal traits complement each other. Simon brings context—her working history of the theater—to their partnership, while Reel is an activator—she gets things done.

As it turns out, the women are two peas in a pod—their top five personality traits are complementary, making for a powerful team when combined. In addition, Simon learned her strongest trait is context, as it applies to her working history of the Conklin theater group and knowing what will and won’t work. Reel, on the other hand, is an activator—she gets things done. And no one has witnessed this quality in action more than Simon, who often doubted her suggestions at the beginning of their relationship.

“Abby has all these ideas, and when we first started working together, I was weary about some of them,” Simon explains. “Now I just go along with it and say,What are we doing today?’ My whole attitude has changed. I’m all in.”

While Simon was finally awarded an insurance settlement on the previous Barn property, it was a drop in the bucket compared to what was needed to rebuild. “I used [it] to get out of debt from the old Barn, which is something I never thought would happen in my lifetime,” she concedes. “It's been a huge blessing. I've also been able to help my company a little bit.”

The Business Of Rebuilding
Reel purchased the Goodfield property in 2017, including the foundation of the old Barn II as well as an old brick farmhouse and several outbuildings. She and Simon then embarked on a fundraising campaign to rebuild the Barn, netting $85,000 from more than 500 sponsors—just under their projected $100,000 goal. With those funds secured, Reel embarked on getting a small business loan, which wasn’t easy.

She was turned down by several banks before meeting with Shelly Hunt at Morton Community Bank, who recognized the benefits of her proposal, which extended beyond the theater. Reel envisioned the space as a banquet hall for weddings and proms and a meeting space for community groups—she also had the know-how to back it up. Besides her full-time job at the time as associate director of career development at Illinois Wesleyan University, she ran her own chair cover business on the side, catering to weddings and special events. “I was able to come to the table and say, ‘In addition to more than 40 years of data for the dinner theater and how it performed and what it's capable of doing, I know the wedding business will work here,’” she explains.

As Reel recalls, Hunt understood its potential after walking the property. “Her son had just gotten married at a destination wedding out west, where they had rented a home and beautiful facility, and she said, ‘I see it 100 percent.’” Reel also engaged Marcia Schlicht from the Small Business Growth Corporation to help with the process, eventually securing a $1.5 million Small Business Administration loan. “There were a lot of interesting women involved in the project who understood the wedding/special events side of it in a different way—having been there themselves,” she acknowledges. In fact, Hunt and Schlicht even joined Reel, Simon and other supporters for the barn-raising celebration held last June.

Today, Reel’s vision is coming to fruition, with weddings already booked nearly every weekend next summer. The theater will operate six months of the year, with special events booked around its productions throughout the year. And the best part? All of the original troupe members will be employed year-round at the facility—something Simon is especially happy about. “They were devastated when the Barn went down, and they all had to go out and find other jobs,” she says. “So I’m thrilled they are all returning.”

With the Barn III still under construction, Reel began renting out another building on the property late in 2017. Inside Studio @ the Shed, Tamra Challacombe, one of the Conklin Players, teaches a variety of dance classes, while other instructors use the space for fitness classes and sports clinics. The brick house, built in 1857, will provide another revenue stream, operating as an Airbnb. Besides wedding parties, Reel is hopeful that locals will utilize the space when they have guests visiting from out of town.

The residents of Goodfield have been a significant factor in the success of the rebuild as well. Reel went to high school with some of the contractors working on the project, and they’ve had great support from the community, who came out in large numbers in November, voting to repeal the village’s century-old ban on liquor sales. That will enable them to sell drinks to patrons on-site rather than operating as a BYOB.

Conklin Players
All of the original Conklin Players will return to The Barn III with a performance in February 2019.

In Good Hands
Among the personality traits Mary Simon and Abby Reel have in common is the need to take care of people. That will surely go a long way toward ensuring their success, Simon notes. “Every show is a gamble, but I’ve learned over the years, if you treat people right and they feel at home with you, they’ll come back.”

They’re also betting that people will see this as an affordable night out. “For around $47 per person you get a full buffet meal and a show,” Reel says. “The thing that I enjoy most about dinner theater is you're not [just] sitting straight ahead staring at the stage—you're interacting with the people you came with. It’s a great way to spend a night out with a group of friends, versus going to a bar and shouting over the music.”

The Conklin Players are in the midst of rehearsals for their first production at the Barn III. Death by Golf opens on February 7, 2019, and Simon is excitedly leading the charge. “When most people my age are retiring, I've just signed on for at least five years,” she explains. “And I'm so grateful because if I can bring my dedicated audience, the patrons, the donors and my Barn family together and give them to Abby, I will have done what I think I'm supposed to do.” It’s clear the Conklin Players are in good hands, and so is their audience. a&s

For more information, visit thebarniii.com or call (309) 965-2545. 

Source URL: http://ww2.peoriamagazines.com/as/2019/jan-feb/raising-barn