“Thats crazy,” said W.B. Gillesbie, executive secretary of the Abingdon Chamber of Commerce, when Bob Porterfield made his proposal. It was 1932, the height of the Depression, and Porterfield suggested that he and other out-of-work actors present plays in exchange for food.
But space was available in the old Sinking Springs Presbyterian Church, built in 1831 and later ceded to Abingdon to be used for the benefit of the citizenry.
“Give it a try,” shrugged Gillesbie.
The first ticket was purchased with a small pig; others were traded for pickles, preserves, and pies. One man brought his cow to the theatre, milked out the ticket value before walking it home, and went in to enjoy the show. Though their pockets were empty, the actors stomachs were full. During the first season in 1933, the 22 actors had a collective weight gain of more than 300 pounds. The Barter Theatre was a go.
Soon, playwrights wanted in on the action. Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Clare Booth Luce, and Noel Coward bartered ham for Hamlet, while George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, preferred to trade plays for produce.
Six years after the theatre opened, the front page of the New York Times entertainment section featured a cartoon about the unique economic system of Abingdon’s Barter Theatre. Today, the small town in southwest Virginia (pop. 10,000) is known throughout the country for its outstanding regional theatre.
In 1961 the original Barter Theatre, which seats 508, was joined by a smaller performance hall, Barter II, seating 141 and located across the street.
The two theatres have served as a training ground for a host of well-known actors, including Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, Patricia Neal, Gregory Peck, and Kevin Spacey.
“Abingdon wouldn’t be Abingdon without the Barter,” says longtime resident Vera Remsburg, who tries to see every play, 17 or more, during an 11-month season. Often, four different plays are performed on a single day. The schedule might include Shakespeare to avant-garde, and everything in-between.
This, of course, draws tourists—more than 150,000 a year.
“It’s a tremendous financial boon for the town,” says Cornell Angleman, who has served on the Barter Board of Trustees since 1975. Today, the town has 10 bed-and-breakfasts, seven motels, and nearly a dozen fine eateries. In addition, the Barter, which now requires payment in dollars ($16-26 a show, depending on day and production) employs 85 people.
Bob Porterfield died in 1971, and the theatre is now run by Rick Rose, the man generally acknowledged as the force behind its late ’90s renovation.
“When I arrived in 1993, people were so used to the Barter that they didn’t see how tattered it had become,” Rose says. “The carpets were ripped, the paint peeling and, more importantly, safety standards weren’t being met.”
Rose began talking and listening. He assured people that the integrity of the building would be maintained, and the town that had once supported the theatre with pigs and produce now supported it with checks.
The $1.7 million renovation, which included gutting the entire building except for the stage, was completed in April 1996. Bob Porterfield’s widow, Mary Dudley, was delighted. “Bob would have loved this,” she says.
“I believe that if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” Rose says. And the Barter is definitely growing, starting with its education program. “Before, the focus was on educating professional actors,” says education director Jeremy Baker. “Now were going out into the community, having more classes and workshops for children.”
Abingdon also is considering a new park, which would include one, or even two, additional theatres. The park would also feature a Barter Theatre Museum, which seems fitting since the Barter is the second-oldest performing arts theatre in the country (the oldest is in Philadelphia) and has served as the State Theatre of Virginia since 1946.
In the meantime, the theatre company is working with the Library of Virginia in Richmond to preserve old scripts, magazine and newspaper articles, and theatre programs.
“The Barter is important to the history of modern theatre, to the history of southwestern Virginia, to the entire state,” says Conley Edwards, state archivist.
It seems Bob Porterfield’s idea wasn’t so crazy after all.