Will Work For Food: Barter Theatre - The First 75 Years - If you live near Abingdon VA, go see a show here!
First let me state, YES, this is a history of the Theatre produced and printed by the theatre so there is a bit of salesmanship here. However, they do hold the archives that are needed to tell the story and this is a great, short introductory history into this truly interesting theatre that many probably never heard of.
Barter Theatre is located in Abingdon, Virginia and people come from all over the world to see a show here. It's history is as unique as its alumni are illustrious.
Robert Porterfield, finding work difficult to find for an actor in Depression-Era New York City, discovers that rural areas of the country have food but no money or access to entertainment and culture. He decides to bring to life a crazy dream: actors bringing plays to the people of rural Virginia in exchange for food. He calls the new theatre Barter Theatre, as tickets will not be purchased but bartered for goods. By the end of the first season their 'profit' was only $4.35 but the troupe had gained a combined weight of 303 pounds! They also begin after future seasons the Barter Awards where the prize is a Virginia ham and the chance to chose a male and female actor to send to work at Barter. This leads to greats like Gregory Peck to tread their boards. After WWII, Porterfield gave up a Hollywood career to continue his vision, giving other future well known actors a chance to gain experience: Patricia Neal (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Ernest Borgnine (Marty and Mermaid Man on Spongebob Squarepants), and Larry Linville (Major Frank Burns from MASH).
Today, Barter Theatre puts on tons of plays on two stages and a traveling children's show troupe. They put on everything from Broadway Musicals to classic plays, avaunt-guard cutting edge plays to plays by local writers. Some of their best known plays include ones telling the stories of The Carter Family (Folk and Country music greats) and the Stanley Brothers (originally sang The Man of Constant Sorrow). If you are in the neighborhood of Abingdon, I'd suggest going.
The history is written concisely yet compellingly. The book is stuffed full of pictures from their archives showing everything from scenery work, tables full of produce, and even the pig they got in their first season that supplied them with piglets and food for years after. While clearly written for Barter Theatre, the writing is not overly commercial but rather matter of fact and to the point. They don't have to try to sell their history; it's interesting enough without building it up.
I simply wanted more. I wanted something that would go more in depth. I realize that this is more of an introductory history, but it's akin to showing someone a full feast but only letting them eat the appetizer.
If you are interested in theatre history and especially if you work in live theatre, this is something that you should read. It's an interesting subsection of the history of theatre in America and well worth the short time it takes to read this.
I'll leave with Robert Porterfield's well known words he ended every intermission talk he ever held at Barter: "If you like us, talk about us. And if you don't, just keep your mouth shut." :)
Trust me, you won't have to keep your mouth shut.