During the Depression, enterprising young actor Robert Porterfield and his colleagues were starving in New York, while back home in Porterfield’s native Southwest Virginia, farmers had such an abundance of food that much of it was spoiling.
So Porterfield returned to Abingdon with an extraordinary proposition: Patrons could barter produce from their farms and gardens in exchange for admission to a play.
Barter Theatre opened its doors on June 10, 1933, proclaiming “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh.” The price of admission was 40 cents or an equivalent amount of produce. To the surprise of many, all the seats for that first show were filled.
The concept of trading “ham for Hamlet” caught on quickly, and by 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.
Playwrights including Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder accepted Virginia ham as payment for royalties. An exception was George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, who bartered the rights to his plays for spinach.
In 1946, Barter was designated The State Theatre of Virginia, the first theatre to receive a form of recognition that is now in practice nationwide. In 1949, when Barter took a production of “Hamlet” to Denmark, it was funded in part by the federal government through the Department of the Interior, now the National Endowment for the Arts — another “first” in the theatre’s illustrious history. After celebrating its 73rd birthday in 2006, Barter is now the longest running professional Equity theatre in the nation.
Barter Theatre will celebrate its 80th birthday — and the community that has helped nurture it all these years — with a free block party-style celebration on June 10. The 80th Anniversary Birthday Bash, to be held from 6 to 8 p.m., will extend from Barter’s main stage to Porterfield Square and Barter Stage II.
“Barter is unique among major regional theatres because it is so deeply rooted in its community,” said Amanda Leslie, Barter’s director of marketing. “We know we owe a debt to this region for supporting us through thick and thin over the past 80 years, and we are always aware that we are here to serve our audience with the best possible theatre we can create.”
Attendees can enjoy free cupcakes (while they last) provided by BabyCakes Cupcakery, a petting zoo on Porterfield Square, face painting for kids, free backstage tours of the main stage and a grand prize giveaway for a week’s stay at 4 Seasons at Beech in Beech Mountain, N.C.
To compete for the grand prize, guests will be given a questionnaire with Barter trivia to fill out as part of the Barter Trivia Contest. Need a little help? A free guide containing “80 things you didn’t know about Barter Theatre” can be found on the Barter Birthday Bash page at www.bartertheatre.com. Winners will be placed in a drawing to win the Beech Mountain getaway.
“This free party is a way to acknowledge how far we’ve come, and thank our friends and neighbors for helping us thrive,” Leslie said.
For more information, visit www.BarterTheatre.com or call Barter’s box office at (276) 628-3991.