Enter stage right.
The year is 1933. It is in the midst of the Great Depression and one man had a vision. That man was Robert Porterfield and he created a theatre that would become known as the state theatre of Virginia.
Barter Theatre, located in Abingdon, Virginia, started in a time where money was tight and morale was low; however, Robert wanted everyone to be able to see a good show. So, he used the concept of bartering instead of requiring money as a form of payment. He would barter produce with the people of Southwest Virginia. The cost of admission was 40 cents or the equivalent amount of produce. Most theatregoers chose the latter.
According to the theatre’s website, “At the end of the first season, the Barter Company cleared $4.35 in cash, two barrels of jelly, and a collective weight gain of over 300 pounds.” The form of payment was not the only thing that made Barter unique, but also the fact that it sat on top of a jail. Eventually, the jail cells were converted into dressing rooms for the performers.
The history of the Barter buildings is almost as rich as the theatre’s history. The first theatrical occurrence known dates back to 1876. Then, in 1890, it was sold and became a city hall and a fire hall. Until 1994, there was a fire alarm on the roof of the theatre. Each time the alarm would sound, the performers would freeze and could not continue the performance until the alarm finished.
Before opening the theatre, Porterfield was notified that the Empire Theatre of New York City was going to be demolished. He was given a weekend to take anything out of the building before destruction. Most of Barter’s interior was salvaged from the Empire Theatre. Robert was able to get around $75,000 worth of items for his own theatre–this included a lighting system that was designed and installed by Thomas Edison.
Even though Barter Theatre is quite profitable today, it still holds onto its heritage. On select days throughout the year, the theatre holds Barter Days–where patrons can bring non-perishable food items in exchange for show tickets. All of the food collected is given to the local food bank.
Additionally, the first showing of each play is a ‘pay what you can’ performance. Starting at one dollar, the audience can pay any amount to gain admission to the first showing. The theatre holds this special deal to make live entertainment as accessible as possible to all.
Barter has multiple buildings, including two theatres, two administration buildings, a building for the costume shop, sound studios, and rehearsal halls, a prop shop, a scene shop, a residential building and a production building. It is truly a staple in Virginia. The Barter stage II, now called Barter’s Smith Theatre after Steve and Debbie Smith, is a more intimate setting that is preferred by performers and audience members. This theatre was originally a Methodist church that burned down and later used by Martha Washington College as a gym and storage area.
Barter is known for giving actors their start. Some popular performers who got their big break at Barter are: Gregory Peck, Knoxville’s own Academy Award-winning Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, Ned Beatty, Gary Collins, Wayne Knight, and Larry Linville. Along with the famous alumni that have come from Barter, it has housed various popular performances as well, such as: Mama Mia, Footloose, Elf, and A Christmas Story.
After Robert Porterfield’s death in 1971, one of the theatre’s alumni, Rex Parington, became the chief administrator until 1992. Currently, the Producing Artistic Director is Richard Rose.
“One of the joys of being a repertory company is that people can come for a weekend and see 5 different plays if they want to, so I think a powerful draw that we have is variety,” Associate Artistic Director of Barter Theatre Katy Brown said. “We do everything from Shakespeare and classics, to farce and musicals and everything in between, including a large number of world premiers. This is a theatre where you can see Hamlet and Anything Goes in the same day and marvel over the flexibility and skills of the same actors doing both.”
Some of the upcoming fall shows are: The Producers (musical); Wait Until Dark (thriller); a world premier of The Loophole; an intimate two hander called Maytag Virgin; and a wonderful adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by the youth theatre.
Exit stage left.