If you’re from the Peoria area, you’ve probably heard of “The Barn Theatre” just outside of Goodfield, Illinois. It’s been nourishing the bodies and spirits of Central Illinoisans since 1975. And if you ever attended a play there, you would have seen Mary Simon. Whether she’s planning the shows for the season, producing and directing the plays, greeting guests as they arrive for a performance or performing on stage, Mary is the energy that drives the theatre.
Mary Simon has been performing at “The Barn” since its opening, but her acting roots go back to high school in Geneseo, Illinois and a drama coach who inspired her. Her enthusiasm for acting led her to enroll in the drama program at Illinois State University, but she soon became disillusioned due to changes to the program. A friend suggested that she should check out the plays being produced by Chaunce Conklin (1926-1999) in the Bloomington area. She auditioned for Conklin, and that set the direction for the rest of her life.
Mary soon began performing with Conklin in venues around Central Illinois. She helped open the dinner theatre near Goodfield in 1975 and became a regular performer from then on. Twenty years later, she assumed sole ownership of the theatre and renamed it “Conklin’s Barn II Dinner Theatre” in honor of its founder.
According to Mary, her most important job is to select the plays for the season. Her goal is to entertain the audience, so that usually means comedies. Her number one goal is for the audience to feel safe and protected. Though some plays have adult themes, they never have offensive language. Mary always makes sure that the performance is suitable for her Central Illinois audience. And, when a play does have an adult theme, it’s clearly identified on the website listing.
Mary clearly has a talent for producing and directing plays that people enjoy, but her first love is acting. She loves the connection with the audience as well as the other actors. Any actor is happy to receive a compliment on their acting skill, but that’s not Mary’s goal. When people tell her “You’re such a good actor” then she feels she has failed to completely draw them into the experience. She’d rather hear, “It’s always so much fun when I see you come on stage.” Then she knows that, at least for a short time, the audience has “suspended their disbelief and are just enjoying the show.”
Some of Mary’s favorite actors include Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Helen Hunt and Alan Rickman “because they are so good at making the people they work with look good!” And perhaps that’s the most important lesson she learned from Conklin. If you focus on making the other actors look good, then they learn to trust you, and make you look good in return. Rather than competing, they collaborate, and the performers as well as the audience benefit. When the actors are having fun, it’s only natural for the audience to have fun as well. Mary is proud to have had a career “making others look good.”