In 1933, when the country was in the middle of the Great Depression, many people could not afford to pay for theater tickets, and many actors had trouble finding employment. A review by Paul Dellinger in the December 17, 2006, issue of The Roanoke Times summarized the situation as follows:
But Broadway was not doing so much swinging during the Depression, when theaters went dark and actors found themselves out of work. Back in Porterfield's part of Virginia, farmers were stuck with crops they couldn't sell. That was when Porterfield came up with his genius of an idea, bringing actors to Abingdon to barter their performances for farm goods.
Beginning with "some twenty of his fellow actors", Robert Porterfield, founder of the theatre, offered admission by letting the local people pay with food goods, hence the name "Barter". He said, "With vegetables that you cannot sell you can buy a good laugh."
The original ticket price for a play was 30 cents, or the equivalent in goods. Referring to the barter concept, an article in Life magazine's July 31, 1939, issue reported, "What sounded like the craziest idea in the history of the U.S. theater is now a booming success."
Actors were kept very busy, even when they did not have parts in current plays. They contributed to the theatre's overall success by working on scenery, collecting props, directing and working in the cafeteria at the Barter Inn, where members of the troupe boarded.
Barter Theatre's first production was After Tomorrow by John Golden. An Associated Press news story reported that the production "was played to a capacity audience that came laden with cakes, fruit, vegetables, poultry" and a live pig.
While remaining based in Abingdon, Barter Theatre has presented plays over a broad geographical area. In 1949, one of its companies produced Hamlet in Elsinore, Denmark. That same year it had a touring company that did one-night stands in localities in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.
In 2014 the Barter Theatre and the William King Art Center collaborated to produce an art exhibition by Abingdon artists affiliated with the two institutions.
Initially, the theatre's plays were performed in the Abingdon Opera House, and actors stayed at the Martha Washington Inn. In 1935, it moved to the campus of the defunct Stonewall Jackson College for Women. The 1939 article in Life reported that the actors received no pay but were fed well and were housed in the former college's dormitories. The troupe produced plays in the auditorium on the campus. Productions branched out into the surrounding area after three nights on campus, going "on a ten-day tour of mountain towns and resorts in an ancient bus widey known as 'Bessie.'"
The facility in which actors stayed became known as the Barter Inn. Besides housing members of the theatre, the inn offered a limited number of reservations for the public, which provided an opportunity for people to eat with the actors in the inn's cafeteria. In 1950, novelist James Hilton purchased "several acres of land adjoining the Barter Theater [sic] ... to protect the view from the Barter Inn" after the property had been advertised as being available for building sites.
In 1996, a $1.7 million renovation of the building was completed. The depth of the stage was increased from 28 feet to 60 feet. New lighting and sound systems were installed, and the heating and air-conditioning systems were upgraded. The balcony was extended to provide more seats and a better view from that level.
Today, Barter is one of the last year-round professional resident repertory theaters remaining in the United States.
The current building, originally Sinking Springs Presbyterian Church built in 1833, is the second-oldest theatrical building in the United States. In 1951, its interior was renovated with fittings from the Empire Theatre in New York. The seats from that renovation were later replaced with seats from the Jefferson Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia, after it closed.
Each year, Barter Theatre celebrates its heritage with Barter Days. For these performances, patrons are invited to barter for admission by bringing the equivalent amount of canned food. All food is donated to a local charity.
Porterfield served as director until his death in 1971. Rex Partington was selected as the next artistic director, serving from 1972 to 1992. Since 1992, Richard Rose has served as the Barter Theatre's third artistic director. The Barter's continued success under their leadership made it the first regional theater "to survive the passing of its founder."
Many well-known stars of stage, screen and television have performed early in their careers at Barter, including Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, Patricia Neal, Ned Beatty, Hume Cronyn, Gary Collins, Frances Fisher, Kevin Spacey, Larry Linville, John Glover, Jim Varney, and Wayne Knight. Will Bigham, the 2007 winner of On The Lot, acted at Barter Theatre for several years.
The theatre is located within the Abingdon Historic District. The main theatre (Named Gilliam Stage) has 505 seats with 216 of those in the balcony, and Barter Stage II (Named Smith Theatre) has 167.
2019 Season Schedule
Camelot February 21 - March 30 at Gilliam Stage
Morning After Grace February 7 - March 31 at Stage II
Madame Buttermilk April 5 - May 11 at Gilliam Stage
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night April 11 - May 4 at Stage II
Shrek: The Musical May 18 - August 25 at Gilliam Stage
Exit Laughing May 30 - August 24 at Gilliam Stage
Church Basement Ladies May 12 - August 25 at Stage II
La Cage Aux Folles June 14 - August 24 at Stage II
Maytag Virgin Aug 27 - Nov 10 at Stage II
Wait Until Dark Sep 6 - Nov 8 at Gilliam Stage
The Producers Sept 19 - Nov 9 at Gilliam Stage
The Loophole Sept 13 - Nov 8 at Stage II
White Christmas Nov 15 - Dec 29 at Gilliam Stage
Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol Nov 21 - Dec 22 at Stage II
The Santaland Diaries Nov 26 - Dec 29 at Stage II
The Barter Players Schedule
Classic theatre for kids of all ages
The Princess and the Pea April 23-May25 at Stage II
Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat April 24 - May 26 at Gilliam Stage
James and the Giant Peach May 28 - June 22 at Stage II
The Little Mermaid June 25 - July 20 at Stage II
Tarzan July 23 - Aug 10 at Stage II
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Oct 1 - Nov 13 at Stage II
'Twas the Night Before Christmas Nov 19 - Dec 21 at Gilliam Stage
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- "Barter Theatre Trades Drama for Ham and Eggs". Life. Time Inc. July 31, 1939. Retrieved 7 December 2016.
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