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New archive, display offers look at The Barn Theatre’s colorful history

Thomas Rosengren, production manager at The Barn Theatre in Willmar, designed the History Centre and Archives as a place for theater fans to reflect. He spent more than two months painting the space and pulling props and playbills from storage boxes to display them in the second-floor space. (DAN BURDETT | TRIBUNE)

The Barn is in phase two of a nearly $1 million renovation to increase its viability for future generations. But on the second floor of the downtown Willmar theater, a much smaller project pays homage to its colorful past.

Dubbed the History Centre and Archives, the colorful presentation swaddles what was once a temporary office space and offers a glimpse at the productions that have helped make the playhouse a community staple for more than half a century.

The new space was the brainchild of Thomas Rosengren, who began work in January as the theater’s production manager and is a veteran of a dozen Barn productions held over the past decade-plus.

“History has always been important to me, so it felt right to create a space where we could celebrate that theme,” Rosengren said. “The theater has such a unique history: from the original productions to where we are now. I wanted to give people a place they could come and remember.”

Rosengren spent two months preparing the space, painting its antiquated walls, and rummaging through boxes of memorabilia, costumes and set props.

The contents of the area are designed chronologically and the space features playbills from nearly all of The Barn’s more than 270 theatrical productions: from the inaugural play 51 years ago — the “Twelve Pound Look,” based on the 1920 silent British drama film of the same name — to “Mary Poppins,” which will kickoff the summer production season next month.

“It’s amazing what I was able to find,” Rosengren said.

While already open to the public, the History Centre and Archives is far from complete.

Rosengren says innumerable photos are being put into scrapbooks and he is creating a digital archive available for public viewing.

“It’s impressive,” Raeanna Gislason remarked on Monday, as she toured the History Centre and Archives with her husband, Walt, and the Barn’s executive director, Zack Liebl. The Gislasons are longtime supporters of the theater. Walt Gislason said he felt the space captured a sense of community.

The Barn opened its doors in 1965 at a former livestock outbuilding. Three to five summer productions were then held annually, according to its website.

In 1984, extensive renovations and improvements were required to the theater, prompting its board to explore other options. During the next four years, space was rented from Willmar Community College, now known as Ridgewater College.

In January 1987, the downtown JCPenney building was renovated and became the Barn’s new home. The theater opened June 9, 1988, and has operated from that site since.

Renovations began earlier this year to modernize the theater. To complete the work, a three-year capital campaign was launched in 2015.

There is no cost to tour the History Centre and Archives. The space is open to the public during regular box office hours.

The “Mary Poppins” production will be held at 7:30 p.m. June 9-15 and June 22-26, with matinees at 2 p.m. June 12 and 26. Tickets are $10 for students and $20 for adults.

For more information, call 320-235-9500 or email

Dan Burdett

Dan Burdett is the community content coordinator at the West Central Tribune. He has 13 years experience in print media, to include four years enlisted service in the United States Air Force. He has been an employee of Forum Communications since 2005, joining the company after spending two years as the managing editor of the Redwood Gazette and Livewire in Redwood Falls. Prior to his current position, Dan was the presentation editor at the Tribune.

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