GB Shaw wanted spinach: the Barter Theatre

The Barter Theatre, Abingdon Virginia, in springtime (courtesy Barter Theatre)(This is a guest post by Joanne Scarborough about a unique theater that originally paid its actors in food and allowed patrons to barter food for a ticket during distressed economic times; hence its tag line, “ham for Hamlet.” Since playwright George Bernard Shaw was a vegetarian, however, his payment arrangement with the Barter was in local spinach.)

For someone who lives at the edge of the somewhat arid Texas plains, the really inspiring show is the outside profusion of springtime dogwood, redbud and tulips, but Virginia’s Barter Theatre onstage productions are pretty special too.

Located in Abingdon, Virginia, in the state’s southern Appalachian foothills, the theatre is celebrating its 75th anniversary during 2008. Founded in 1933 during the U.S. Great Depression by a young actor named Robert Porterfield, the Barter offered a unique way to match up out-of-work New York performers with Southwest Virginia farmers needing entertainment — trading food from local farms and gardens for admission to a play.

“At the end of the first season, the Barter Company cleared $4.35 in cash, two barrels of jelly and enjoyed a collective weight gain of over 300 pounds.”

In 1946, Barter was named the State Theatre of Virginia and now boasts a professional repertory company performing on two different stages from February through December.

Traditional productions alternate with new works, and an ensemble called the Barter Players also offer plays for young audiences. Photos around the main stage lobby recognize distinguished “alumni” actors, including Gregory Peck, Hume Cronyn, Patricia Neal and Kevin Spacey.

When my husband and I visited recently, we caught a sold-out matinee performance of a musical developed locally: “Keep on the Sunny Side — the Songs and Story of the Original Carter Family”. Every performance is a live show of Carter music by the actors, a testament to their talent.

The Carter Family are enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame for their groundbreaking harmonies and guitar licks; they were performers and songwriters in the 1920s-1940s. Their work was rediscovered during the folk music revival of the 1960s, including their hits like “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” Johnny Cash’s wife June Carter Cash (portrayed most recently in the movie “Walk the Line”) was a Carter, although the Barter production features her mother, Maybelle.

The Barter Theatre 2008 program guide (courtesy Joanne Scarborough)

As is the Barter tradition, Artistic Director Richard Rose cheerily welcomed visitors (especially first timers), recognized a couple of groups attending and then pinpointed the audience member who had traveled the farthest. That day, the winner was from Brazil and merited enthusiastic applause.

The audience also joined in for a couple of the Carter family songs, and produced both smiles and tears as the saga ended — a friendly audience getting into the spirit of the show.

Later offerings this year include comedies, the rock opera “The Who’s Tommy”, “Sweeney Todd” and the thriller “The Desperate Hours”.

Barter Theatre’s home, Abingdon, offers lots of other artistic and historical attractions, ample lodging and numerous places to eat both before and after a show. The latter include the casual Barter Cafe across the street (decorated with theater memorabilia and with sandwich orders given actor’s names) and the elegant Martha Washington Inn.

To dig deeper into roots music, visit Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail.

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