Paul Clark photo
Center of attention
The Barter Theatre holds a prominent place on Abingdon’s Main Street.
During the Depression, actor Robert Porterfield compared the lack of work in New York City theaters with the abundance of produce in his southwestern Virginia home and thus made history. Porterfield gathered up 22 other unemployed New York actors, returned to Abingdon, and opened a theater of his own. Admission was 35 cents or its comparable value in vegetables—or meat, or milk, or whatever farmers had more of than they had opportunity to sell. “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh,” was the saying.
Actors often had to recite lines over bellowing livestock tied in the back of the theater. “A pig was worth ten tickets, while two quarts of milk bought one ticket,” the online Encyclopedia of Virginia states. For years, the town jail was beneath the stage—another distraction, no doubt. But Barter Theatre’s ability to adapt to the economic times made it unique. “…bartering was more than just a gimmick; it was essential to the theater’s initial success,” the Virginia encyclopedia states. “During the depression years, regional and local theater groups around the country struggled to survive and many failed. Outside funding and grants were largely nonexistent, and the rights to many popular plays were prohibitively expensive for small companies. The Barter was able to survive and eventually even thrive by making its productions accessible to audiences.”
At the end of its first season, its “ham for Hamlet” campaign netted the theatre $4.25 and two barrels of jelly. Actors had gained a collective 300 pounds. Richard Rose, Barter’s longtime artistic director, is a repository of Barter history. “There were a few seasons at the beginning of the theater’s history when they weighed its success—and I mean this literally—by one actor,” he said. This actor weighed about 110 pounds at the beginning of each season, but depending on the season’s success, he’d weigh about 180 pounds by the end.
The theater’s success has earned it the title of Virginia’s State Theater, and over the years the theater has provided work for actors including Hume Cronyn, Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Kevin Spacey, Ned Beatty, Larry Linville and Wayne Knight. Playwrights Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, and Thornton Wilder accepted Virginia hams as payment for their work (playwright George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, held out for spinach).
The Barter, is to American theater what AAA baseball is to the major leagues—one step away from the big time. Among theater professionals and aficionados like Jimmie and Roy Harris, Barter is as heavy a hitter as the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
The Harrises live in Hendersonville, N.C., but think nothing of driving the two hours to catch a play at Barter Theatre. They make a point of supporting local theater productions and live near North Carolina’s own state theater, the Flat Rock Playhouse. The couple holds Barter’s productions as among the best they’ve seen. “I would stack it up against anything we saw at The Old Globe (theater) in San Diego or the Utah Shakespeare Festival,” Jimmie said.
Or particular appeal is the Barter’s integration into the Abingdon community. One morning, Jimmie spotted actor Rick McVey in Zazzy’z, a coffee house downtown. McVey, a Barter resident actor since 2004, played the character Javert in the company’s production of “Les Miserables” that the Harrises had seen the night before. Mrs. Harris walked over to his table.
“I said ‘we thought you were wonderful,’ and he stopped what he was doing and engaged in conversation with us,” she said. “It was very exciting.”
“All you have to do is express a little interest in the actors, and they love to talk about what they do,” her husband, Roy, said.
The theater building itself was erected in 1830 and is one of many that line Abingdon’s Main Street alongside antebellum-era houses in shades of brick red, orange, and gold. Much of Abingdon’s downtown was built before the Civil War, and the town wears its history proudly. Built in 1770, The Tavern, a bar and restaurant crowned with a heavy thatch of emerald green moss, welcomed Kentucky’s acclaimed politician and lawyer Henry Clay, the United States’ seventh president Andrew Jackson, and Louis-Philippe, Duke d’Orléans, king of the French, among others.
Among the most notable buildings in Abingdon’s 20-block historic district is The Martha, the local name for The Martha Washington Inn and Spa. Gen. Francis Preston, a hero of the War of 1812, built the inn as a home for his family in 1832. The home’s great size led to its repurposing, including as a women’s college and a residence hall for Barter actors.
Before the Civil War, the Sons of Temperance, an exclusive men’s club, owned the Barter building. During the war, The Martha was pressed into service as a hospital for wounded soldiers; a tunnel beneath the street connected it to the Sons of Temperance building. The tunnel was used for many things in its day—a soldier caught smuggling ammunition out of the inn’s basement was executed inside the tunnel. It’s been said that an eerie presence troubled theater employees who later used the tunnel to walk from the inn to the theater. Big, burly tech guys who wrestled theater lights and other heavy equipment refused to go down there. As a result, the door in the basement of The Barter that leads to the tunnel has remained closed since the 1940s—not just shut but boarded up.
The story is one of many in The Barter’s repertoire. “Throughout the theater industry over the last four or five years, there’s been lots of conversation about storytelling—theater is really about telling stories,” said Rose, the theater’s artistic director. “We discovered that 15 years ago, because that’s what our region is into. The culture of this region is that, if you sit on anyone’s porch, they’ll tell you stories for hours. We must engage our audience in the story.” The Barter has indeed proven its ability to engage the audience—it is one of Abingdon’s largest employers and a key player in the town’s $160-million, tourist economy.
The Barter is as much a part of Abingdon as the town is a part of the theater. Abingdon wouldn’t be the same without Barter, said Lindsey Holderfield, education director for the William King Museum located about a mile from the theater. “People come for a show and spend the weekend,” she said. The draw benefits other attractions like the museum, Virginia’s only accredited museum west of Roanoke, which attracts world-class shows with works by Degas, Monet, and Delacroix among others, as well as regional artists.
Barter visitors also go to places like the Arts Depot, a gallery inside the town’s old train station and support restaurants like Zazzy’z, 128 Pecan, Babycakes Cupcakery, and Wild Flower Bakery and Gourmet Restaurant. There’s the Tastes of the Town Tour, a progressive food tour, and the Virginia Creeper Trail, an old railroad line turned into a 34-mile path between Abingdon and Damascus, Va. Every Thursday night, the Abingdon Music Experience brings bands to Abingdon Market Pavilion, which holds the acclaimed Abingdon Farmers Market on Saturdays and Tuesdays.
Barter patrons comprise half of the people who visit Hidden Memories Antiques on Main Street, owner Daniel Shew said. He makes frames for the headshots of actors in the theater’s lobby and sees many of the plays there with his wife. He proposed to her by the fountain across from the theater. “When I’m out of town and people ask me where I’m from, all I have to say is The Barter, and they know exactly where I’m from,” he said. “Because of The Barter, people associate Abingdon with creatively and class.”
Theater founder Robert Porterfield, who died in 1971, kept extensive records of the theater. In his memoirs, he wrote, “The impossible came and went. Barter Theatre took root, survived the first season, the second season, the Depression, the tornado, the Board of Education. It survived the people who have given the southern Mountains the name of the Bible Belt. … I’m hanging on to ... the hope that Barter Theatre will prove to be more than bricks and mortar, and that what it is will outlast me and my generation, perhaps even the next generation and the one after that. I don’t know what new directions the theatre will take.”
The Barter’s mission has evolved to include community outreach and working to undo the notion of Appalachia as just a bunch of hillbillies and moonshiners. The theater has developed shows around the work of musicians Ralph Stanley, Jimmy Rogers and the Carter family. Its Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights, a series of free readings of new plays, gives voice to the stories and playwrights of the Appalachia region, and the annual Young Playwrights Festival attracts more than 120 plays high school students in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and West Virginia have written.
The Barter Players, a group of young theater professionals that tours the East Coast, travel to some of the poorest parts of the country, such as inner-city Washington, D.C., to perform for free or at reduced rates. During student matinees, there is no admission charge for children on schools’ free lunch programs, an economic decision that underscores The Barter’s historic commitment to making theater accessible to everyone.
The Barter has its own residential group of actors, theater professionals who are eager to stay in a city for more than the run of a single play or season. “We call ourselves the farm team for the big leagues; although these days, the resident company members come here and want to stay here forever,” Rose said. “I literally had a New York agent tell me they’re not sending anyone to my auditions any more because when they get down here, they don’t want to leave.” Some actors have been at Barter for more than 20 years.
As a result, loyal Barter patrons get to see actors grow as professionals. The Harrises mentioned one actress, Mary Lucy Bivins, who they’d seen in “The Gin Game.” “She played this very mousy character, a frumpy old lady,” Jimmie Harris said, and then, marveling at Bivins’ versatility, Harris lit up as she described the brash self-importance that Bivins brought to her role as the busybody family friend in the hilarious Southern send-up “Southern Fried Funeral.”
“A good actor can make acting look easy, but when you see an actor over and over in different plays, as you can at Barter, you realize what a skill it is,” Jimmie said. “I look at acting very differently now than before I got involved with the actors themselves.”
“I hate to say it this way, because it’s a terrible way to describe it, but it does describe it. (We represent) the best of community theater in terms of the audience watching actors grow and caring about that,” Rose said. “We’ve really branded that for us—(the audience’s) being surprised by an actor that’s been here for 20 years doing something that they think, ‘I never even knew she could do that or even thought he could do that’.”
While a resident actor stays with a theater and takes on various parts, a journeyman actor travels the country, moves wherever the part moves. As a journeyman, Paris Bradstreet, an ensemble player in The Bartner’s summer production of “Les Miserables,” constantly is on the move with her trusty Toyota Matrix that she can pack “like a Tetris puzzle,” she said. To be at Barter, in one place, doing what she loved, for several months running, was fabulous—and had made Bradstreet hope to sign on with Barter. “It’s a beautiful place to live and work. They treat you well,” she said. She looked off into the trees that surrounded the former nurses quarters that The Barter had turned into actors’ quarters. “It’s an amazing idea to think that there’s a place interested in cultivating a resident company,” she said. “Audiences have a relationship with the actors, having seen them in a multitude of shows. Whether they know them or not, they feel like they know them. And there’s something very proprietarily family about audience members returning to see actors they know.”
Living up to its name and origins, The Barter still trades. On “Barter Nights,” done at least three times a year, a ticket’s worth of canned goods for the local food bank is as good as money to get in. Every year someone or some group brings something other than cash.
Rose remembers the season three or four years ago when each member of a church group from a poor region of West Virginia brought honey from their hives. Another group brought cakes. The theater’s complete leather-bound collection of Shakespeare works came to it through trade.
“You’re talking about a region of the country that, overall, is a way poorer than lots of regions of the country,” Rose said of southwest Virginia. “Our goal is to never lock anyone out of the theater for any reason.”