History of Barter Theatre
Barter Theatre began in 1933 with one man's idea to have patrons pay with produce and has grown today into a year-round theatre with more than 160,000 visitors each year.
Click below to read more about Barter's 77-year history.
A Unique Beginning
During the Depression, Robert Porterfield, an enterprising young actor, returned to his native Southwest Virginia with an extraordinary proposition: Bartering produce from the farms and gardens of the region to gain admission to see a play.
So on June 10, 1933, Barter Theatre opened its doors, proclaiming "With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh." The price of admission was 40 cents or equivalent amount of produce. Four out of five Depression-era theatregoers paid their way with vegetables, dairy products and livestock.
Imagine a live hog or a dead rattlesnake for the price of admission. We are a theatre of curiosity. And endurance.
The actors performing at the building were distracted not only by the occasional squealing pig or clucking hen, but noise from the town jail, which was located directly beneath the stage. The jail space was later used as a holding area for dogs suspected of rabies. It was eventually converted into dressing rooms for Barter actors.
To the surprise of many, all the seats for the first show were filled. The concept of trading "ham for Hamlet" caught on quickly. 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.
Today, at least one performance a year celebrates the Barter heritage by accepting donations for an area food bank as the price of admission.
History of Barter Theatre Buildings
The Barter Theatre building was constructed in 1831 as a new location for Sinking Springs Presbyterian Church.
The earliest theatrical event known to occur here was a production of the Virginian on January 14, 1876, the proceeds of which were used for building repairs. In 1890, the Sons of Temperance transferred the building's title to the Town of Abingdon , to be used as a town hall for the benefit of the citizenry.
In addition to offices, the town used the building as a fire hall – hence the fire alarm on the roof that sounded as needed at any time, day or night. When the fire siren sounded during a Barter performance, the actors were instructed to freeze their position on stage and to resume the action when the alarm concluded. The alarm remained on the building until 1994 when the fire department went to a system of electronic communications to alert fire fighters.
Many of the interior furnishings in the theatre are from the Empire Theatre of New York City. Robert Porterfield learned that this New York City theatre, constructed in 1875, was slated for destruction. Porterfield had one weekend in which to carry away furnishings and equipment for use at Barter. He came away with $75,000 worth of seats, lighting fixtures, carpeting, paintings, and tapestries. The lighting system at the Empire, designed and installed by Thomas Edison, was used at Barter Theatre through the mid 1970's.
Barter Stage II
Barter Theatre Stage II was constructed in 1829 as a Methodist church. Only the main building of the church was not destroyed by fire in 1914; it was later used by the Martha Washington College as a gymnasium and a storage area.
In 1961, the building was renovated by Barter Theatre as a small theatre, with major improvements made in 1973 and again in 1985, when additions included a lobby and the Jessie Ball DuPont Memorial Theatre Garden. The unique performance space features 167 seats around a thrust stage, with patrons only a few feet away from the performers. Barter Stage II is favored by actors and audiences for its intimate setting.
People of Barter Theatre
In 1963, President Kennedy praised Robert Porterfield, the founder of Barter Theatre.
We are a theatre of character. And distinction. Rex Partington succeeded Porterfield after his death in 1971. A Barter actor in the 1950's, Partington returned as chief administrator from 1972 to 1992. Richard Rose was named Producing Artistic Director in 1992.
Today, Barter has a reputation as a theatre where many famous actors first performed before they went on to achieve fame and fortune. Barter's best known alumni include: Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, Ned Beatty, Gary Collins, David Birney, and Larry Linville. Read more about the famous alums here.
As Barter Theatre grows in both size and success, so does its involvement in community services and educational programs. We are a theatre that gives.
Active in many local and regional organizations such as Boy Scouts of America, the American Cancer Society and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Barter is continuing to strengthen its partnership with its home community. Barter offers a mentor program, workshops and classes in all aspects of theatre and at all levels, a student matinee program, storytelling and practical training for theatre professionals.