In a time when darkness somehow feels even darker, and positive news feels more important than ever, the YPC will be turning on all of the lights it can to help brighten your day. Our Spotlight is one of those lights, and it is a pleasure to cast its direction towards a long-time friend and founding member, Jennifer Conley Darling.
Whether it is through shining light on the youth of our community and helping them find their voice and new confidence through theater, or literally turning the lights on in a historic ballroom for the first time since 1910, her energy is undeniable. But let’s not steal the stage from her. Jennifer, without further adieu, the orange chair is yours.
YPC: Jen! It’s great to see you sitting safely in the orange chair from what appears to be your backyard!
Jen:Thanks for having me, YPC! And it’s great to see you sitting safely on the other side of this screen too!
YPC: Before we dive into your story, we’d like to let you know that we may be bouncing around a bit, because at times we have found ourselves bouncing off the walls in this new, COVID-19 world we live. It has turned so many things and so many lives upside down, and we hope this conversation helps you, us, and Marshall feel a little more right-side up.
Jen: Calls like this have definitely helped to keep me grounded. My mom, my family and my friends – we’re all trying to keep each other sane. I am reaching my arms through this screen and out to everyone who is reading this to hug you all.
YPC: Thank you for that, and great hug! Let’s start from the very beginning…what city and state did you take your first steps in?
Jen: Welp, I was born in St Petersburg, Florida and lived there until I was five years old. Then mom and I packed up and moved north to Marshall to join the family hardware business.
YPC: We love the visual of 5 year old Jennifer running through the old hardware store downtown! Is Marshall where you feel you first hit your stride?
Jen: It certainly gave me the foundation I needed, at least one that would help me even be in the ballpark of hitting a ‘stride,’ haha! But it’s more family related. My first clue as to what I could do in life came when I saw my mother on stage for the very first time. I was seven years old and she was playing Vera in a production of Mame. I saw her embody another person on stage and it was a revelation – for a seven year old anyway. From there, I knew theater was what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be for the rest of my life.
YPC: What an awesome thing to be able to share with your child! When we think about taking the stage like that, it takes an awesome level of strength and confidence to step into some else’s shoes and portray them in front of an audience.
Jen: I really never thought of it like that. Being on stage always felt like home – it was natural for me. Yes, I liked the applause, but it was more about it feeling like I was truly expressing myself. To this day, when I’m on stage, I feel more honest and more connected to my own emotions than I do in my everyday life.
YPC: What do you feel is your greatest strength and what is it rooted in?
Jen: Geez – hard question! I guess if I had to articulate my greatest strength, it would be my ability to make things happen. Growing up in a family of entrepreneurs and small business owners gave me direct insight into what it takes to get things done. I’ve never been afraid of hard work, following up, asking hard questions, nor of failing. I had an acting teacher who told me ‘you can never fail if you’ve put 110% into everything you do. There is always success in that.’
YPC: That’s a solid perspective for any chapter in life. That mindset paired with your ability to get things done must have been a game changer when you were living in NYC.
Jen: It really was. After moving to New York City at the age of 18 and graduating from an acting conservatory in Manhattan, I found myself on soap operas and doing independent films. But after a couple of years, those opportunities started becoming less and less. For most, life in New York City requires you to work more hours and more jobs just to make ends meet. I was no exception. So, I got a temp job at American Express which paid the bills and became part of the founding group of terraNOVA Collective, an arts organization that focused on creating new plays and cultivating new artists. With those two full-time jobs, I found myself excelling at both because of that ability to make things happen and not being afraid to ask questions. And I found myself incredibly fulfilled.
YPC: Two full-time jobs! What a grind.
Jen: It was, but I was loving it! In 2011, I finally took a step back and realized I had been working that grind for over a decade and said, “Well, this has to change”. In prior years, I had also been getting short-term gigs doing stage management and event planning. An opportunity to work as part-time staff at an NYC university came up and, well, I got the job. I left American Express after 14 years and started Darling & Company Theatrical and Event Management. Now, keep in mind, I was also still running terraNOVA too, so I just swapped one full time job for another, but hey, at least I was my own boss.
YPC: Ha! We love how subtly you inserted another short-term job and the creation of Darling & Company in the midst of all of that. Well done. What was working on event planning in NYC like? It must have been wild!
Jen: It was thrilling. I got to work with Fortune 500 companies, the extremely wealthy, and, even sometimes, celebrities. I was show-calling big concerts with Tony Bennett, John Mellancamp and Katy Perry, to name a few; managing all things production for large scale festivals; and putting together galas for global non-profits.
YPC: Those are some huge names and some massive events. We have to believe that carried a little bit of stress with it.
Jen: It certainly did, but I, for whatever reason, I thrive in those environments, and the fact I am calm and cool in the most stressful of situations seemed to set me apart in the industry. Next thing I knew, word of mouth had spread and I found myself working across the country doing all sorts of events!
YPC: We’re still caught up on the scale of this work! How did you manage all of this?
Jen: I hired a small, but mighty staff. It’s fun to look back on now. We all worked out of my apartment in Chelsea. Some worked specifically for terraNOVA, some for Darling & Company, some worked for both. Depending on the projects, I had anywhere from 2-10 people working with me every day. Both companies were thriving.
YPC: Wild. Here comes one of those off-the-wall bounces. When did you decide to leave NYC, and where did you land?
Jen: I finally made the decision to leave in late 2015, and it was such a strange feeling. After living in the city I loved so much for over 20 years, I started getting restless. That was never the case before. I just felt like I needed a change. Life had to be simpler somewhere else, right? I had an offer to get a two year Masters degree in California and said, “I’ll come home to Marshall for awhile”. I got home and moved into the apartment in Faye Berry’s house on the hill. After being around for a few months, it became clear that Marshall was the place I was meant to be.
YPC: What do you think was the root of that feeling? That hill at Faye’s house is arguably the most unique in Marshall, but we have to believe there was something more…right?
Jen: Ha, you’re right! That is a great hill! And you’re also right that it was more than that, much more. Marshall was growing and changing in a way I never thought possible. The public schools had annexed with Albion, the businesses were thriving, many of my childhood friends had moved home with their families, and my mom was here and oh, how I missed her.
YPC: This may seem like a strange one, but do you remember where you were when you realized Marshall was meant to be your home again?
Jen: Oh, I can have some fun with this one, and it only takes one word: Oklahoma. Haha! Right when I got home, I got roped into (yes, I said it!) producing the Franke Center Children’s Theater production of Oklahoma by Miss Candi Putnam and Miss Janice Darling. Well, I fell in love. I saw these young people working their butts off on stage and having so much fun. I realized the experience I’d gained in NYC was something that could benefit these students – – and turns out, I love working with kids! Shortly after, Candi Putnam announced her retirement and I knew what a beautiful program she’d built, so I partnered with Allison Ebner, who had been working with Candi for several years already. Allison and I built a bigger vision for the Children’s Theater and the Board of Directors said yes! I had my first client locally and I knew this is where I needed to be.
YPC: Both you and Allison have done a phenomenal job with taking the reins from Candi, and continuing to grow the program to provide our youth and community new cultural opportunities. That feels like a keyword for Jennifer Conley Darling: culture.
Jen: It most certainly is, and it’s wild how it has all worked out. Between The Franke and Eastend, I feel like my neverending passion for the cultural and performing arts has mixed perfectly with my experience and work ethic. I’ve never felt more fulfilled with my work.
YPC: Having partnered with Eastend for past YPC events, we know the amount of work you and your team have put into that building – a building you have some serious childhood ties to (Jennifer’s mother’s store, V&S Variety, was located there). What was that feeling like when you first walked through the building?
Jen: When Jay Larson invited me to take a tour of the building renovations, the beauty of the work being done took my breath away. Tears came to my eyes as I remembered all the time I’d spent on the upper levels pricing inventory, playing with the costumes that were stored there by Marshall Civic Players, walking through dust, dead pigeon carcesses (gross but true) and ignoring signs that said there were weight limits and not to walk on the 3rd floor. When you look at the chandeliers hanging from those magnificent ceilings and the beautiful artwork Michael Peck and his team are adorning on the walls…it’s surreal.
YPC: What a beautiful legacy to continue and to leave this community. How close is the ballroom to being completed?
Jen: Well, we’ve actually been able to make some progress during the stay at home period. We held a virtual walk through for potential contractors and received bids for the south wall extension just over a week ago. We are closer than ever to being able to break ground, build that elevator and a whole new back end of the building! We have a bit more money to raise, but the end is in sight! We’ll be making more announcements in the coming weeks, but I’m absolutely thrilled with where the project stands today!
YPC: We are rooting for you and the Eastend team, because this is going to be yet another incredible treasure that draws people to Marshall.
Jen: It really will be! While the future remains uncertain with COVID-19, we see a future where the ballroom is being used for events every weekend, pulling new visitors into town for events and celebrations, and helping to ensure our downtown remains vibrant.
YPC: Picturing a post COVID-19 celebration in such a beautiful, historic space feels real good right now.
Jen: That it does.
YPC: Alright, let’s shake things up a little bit. Are you ready? Good. Freddie Mercury or Elton John?
Jen: Oh, Freddie Mercury all the way!
YPC: Favorite movie?
Jen: Silence of the Lambs – terrifying.
YPC: Greatest mentor?
Jen: My mom. Not only because she has taught me the power of unconditional love, but also because I watched her start and run Darling & Daughter Variety. I saw her take the risk to be a business owner, and all that goes into it. Whenever a stressful situation arose, she was always calm and cool. I knew these traits were special, even as a child, and I still emulate them to this day.
YPC: Whoa, perfect.
Jen: That’s Janice for you.
YPC: Aside from cranking some Freddie Mercury, what is one thing that has brought you comfort and hope during these crazy, uncertain times?
Jen: The youth of our community. With our 9th-12th graders no longer able to take to the stage for our spring production of Clue at The Franke, we’ve now pivoted and gotten permission from the publishers to do this as a live stream event! We’ll be rehearsing through Zoom, recording and editing it, then presenting three performances as a live feed on June 4, and 5 and 6. Fingers crossed the students enjoy it and the audiences tune in to find out WhoDunnit!
YPC: Fun! And thank you and everyone associated with pulling this off. Our kids need it, our community needs it. The show must go on!
YPC: Jen, once again, it has been a pleasure to share this time with you and some more of your story with our audience. You are wonderful, and thank you for sharing your light with us. If you don’t mind, we’d like to play a song and slowly fade it out into the night. Does that sound good?
Jen: YPC, thank you for spotlighting me. I love this community and I love being part of the YPC crew.
YPC: Alright! Take it away, Freddie!
Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” begins to play,
an awkward Zoom hug is exchanged,
and a good laugh is had by all.
Jennifer Conley Darling is the President of Darling & Company, whose clients include The Franke Center (Director of Children’s Theater & Arts Education), Eastend Studio & Gallery (Executive Director), and Youngish Professionals Committee (Vice President and founding member). She is also the Executive Director of terraNOVA Collective.
We’ll be back soon with another edition of our Spotlight Series, but until then..
Stay safe. Stay socially distanced. Check on loved ones and neighbors. Howl at the moon often. Find new ways to support your local businesses and nonprofits. Exercise and eat healthy. Try new hobbies. Share your positive energy with as many people as possible. #BeYoungish. #Choose Marshall.