In 1933, when the country was in the middle of the Great Depression, many people could not afford to pay for theater tickets, and many actors had trouble finding employment. A review by Paul Dellinger in the December 17, 2006, issue of The Roanoke Times summarized the situation as follows:
But Broadway was not doing so much swinging during the Depression, when theaters went dark and actors found themselves out of work. Back in Porterfield's part of Virginia, farmers were stuck with crops they couldn't sell. That was when Porterfield came up with his genius of an idea, bringing actors to Abingdon to barter their performances for farm goods.
Beginning with "some twenty of his fellow actors", Robert Porterfield, founder of the theatre, offered admission by letting the local people pay with food goods, hence the name "Barter". He said, "With vegetables that you cannot sell you can buy a good laugh."
The original ticket price for a play was 30 cents, or the equivalent in goods. Referring to the barter concept, an article in Life magazine's July 31, 1939, issue reported, "What sounded like the craziest idea in the history of the U.S. theater is now a booming success."
Actors were kept very busy, even when they did not have parts in current plays. They contributed to the theatre's overall success by working on scenery, collecting props, directing and working in the cafeteria at the Barter Inn, where members of the troupe boarded.
Barter Theatre's first production was After Tomorrow by John Golden. An Associated Press news story reported that the production "was played to a capacity audience that came laden with cakes, fruit, vegetables, poultry" and a live pig.
While remaining based in Abingdon, Barter Theatre has presented plays over a broad geographical area. In 1949, one of its companies produced Hamlet in Elsinore, Denmark. That same year it had a touring company that did one-night stands in localities in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.
Initially, the theatre's plays were performed in the Abingdon Opera House, and actors stayed at the Martha Washington Inn. In 1935, it moved to the campus of the defunct Stonewall Jackson College for Women. The 1939 article in Life reported that the actors received no pay but were fed well and were housed in the former college's dormitories. The troupe produced plays in the auditorium on the campus. Productions branched out into the surrounding area after three nights on campus, going "on a ten-day tour of mountain towns and resorts in an ancient bus widey known as 'Bessie.'"
The facility in which actors stayed became known as the Barter Inn. Besides housing members of the theatre, the inn offered a limited number of reservations for the public, which provided an opportunity for people to eat with the actors in the inn's cafeteria. In 1950, novelist James Hilton purchased "several acres of land adjoining the Barter Theater [sic] ... to protect the view from the Barter Inn" after the property had been advertised as being available for building sites.
In 1996, a $1.7 million renovation of the building was completed. The depth of the stage was increased from 28 feet to 60 feet. New lighting and sound systems were installed, and the heating and air-conditioning systems were upgraded. The balcony was extended to provide more seats and a better view from that level.
Today, Barter is one of the last year-round professional resident repertory theaters remaining in the United States.
The current building, originally Sinking Springs Presbyterian Church built in 1833, is the second-oldest theatrical building in the United States. In 1951, its interior was renovated with fittings from the Empire Theatre in New York. The seats from that renovation were later replaced with seats from the Jefferson Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia, after it closed.
Porterfield served as director until his death in 1971. Rex Partington was selected as the next artistic director, serving from 1972-1992. Since 1992, Richard Rose has served as the Barter Theatre's third artistic director. The Barter's continued success under their leadership made it the first regional theater "to survive the passing of its founder."
Many well-known stars of stage, screen and television have performed early in their careers at Barter, including Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, Patricia Neal, Ned Beatty, Hume Cronyn, Gary Collins, Frances Fisher, Kevin Spacey, Larry Linville, John Glover, Jim Varney, and Wayne Knight. Will Bigham, the 2007 winner of On The Lot, acted at Barter Theatre for several years.
- 1946 — Designated as the State Theatre of Virginia
- 1948 — Tony Award for Contribution To Development Of Regional Theatre
- 2006 — Business of the Year Award for the Tri-Cities, Virginia/Tennessee region
- 2008 — Overall State Winner for Small Companies for The Torchbearer Award by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce
2018 Season Schedule
Bright Star February 22 - March 31 at Gilliam Stage
A Facility for Living February 8 - March 31 at Stage II
In the Heat of the Night April 7 - May 12 at Gilliam Stage
Shakespeare's Richard III April 12 - May 5 at Stage II
Sister Act May 18 - August 11 at Gilliam Stage
Steel Magnolias May 31 - August 11 at Gilliam Stage
Lemonade Stand May 13 - August 11 at Stage II
Madame Buttermilk June 7 - August 19 at Stage II
Ain't Misbehavin August 17 - September 8 at Gilliam Stage
The Bridges of Madison County Sep 6 - Nov 11 at Stage II
Great Expectations Sep 14 - Nov 9 at Gilliam Stage
Singin' in the Rain Sept 27 - Nov 10 at Gilliam Stage
Sally McCoy Oct 4 - Nov 10 at Stage II
Elf: The Musical Nov 16 - Dec 30 at Gilliam Stage
Wooden Snowflakes Nov 20 - Dec 23 at Stage II
The Santaland Diaries Nov 28 - Dec 30 at Stage II
The Barter Players Schedule
Classic theatre for kids of all ages
Aesop's Fables April 10 - 21 at Gilliam Stage
Alice in Wonderland April 24 - May 26 at Gilliam Stage
Billy, Goat, Gruff: The Musical May 29 - June 16 at Stage II
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs June 19 - July 14 at Stage II
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe July 17 - Aug 4 at Stage II
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Oct 9 - Nov 14 at Stage II
Santa Claus is Coming to Town Nov 27 - Dec 20 at Gilliam Stage
- "Barter Theatre".
- Dellinger, Paul (December 17, 2006). "History of the Barter Theatre". Roanoke Tiesm. Virginia, Roanoke. p. Arts and Entertainment: p. 6. Retrieved 9 December 2016. – via Infotrac Newsstand (subscription required)
- Zeigler, Joseph Wesley (1973). Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage. U of Minnesota Press. p. 12. ISBN 9781452911427. Retrieved 9 December 2016.
- "Actors May Swap Play For Victuals in Virginia". Ironwood Daily Globe. Michigan, Ironwood. Associated Press. May 29, 1933. p. 6. Retrieved December 8, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- "Barter Theatre Opens in South". Ogden Standard-Examiner. Utah, Ogden. Associated Press. June 13, 1933. p. 9. Retrieved December 8, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- "Barter Theatre Trades Drama for Ham and Eggs". Life. Time Inc. July 31, 1939. Retrieved 7 December 2016.
- Maples, Bill (July 24, 1949). "Tallulah Bankhead Says New Stars Good; Barter Theater [sic] Offers Place To Prove It". Kingsport Times-News. Tennessee, Kingsport. p. 9. Retrieved December 8, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- Law, Jonathan (2013). The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre. A&C Black. p. 47. ISBN 9781408131480. Retrieved 7 December 2016.
- Shearer, Stephen (2006). Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 15–17. ISBN 0813171369. Retrieved 7 December 2016.
- "Barter Theater [sic] Announces New Season". Kingsport Times-News. Tennessee, Kingsport. May 24, 1953. p. 11. Retrieved December 8, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- "James Hilton Buys Land Site At Abingdon". Kingsport Times-News. Tennessee, Kingsport. August 11, 1950. p. 12. Retrieved December 8, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- Dellinger, Paul (April 19, 1996). "A New Act\Barter Theatre Reopens Tonight after a $1.7 Million Face Lift". The Roanoke Times. Retrieved 10 December 2016. – via Infotrac Newsstand (subscription required)
- Taylor, L. B. (2010). The Big Book of Virginia Ghost Stories. Stackpole Books. p. 260. ISBN 9780811705837. Retrieved 9 December 2016.
- Colbert, Judy (2008). Off the Beaten Path Virginia. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 212. ISBN 9780762752317. Retrieved 9 December 2016.
- "Main Stage Seating Chart". bartertheatre.com. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
- O'Brien, Carolyn. "Barter Theatre". Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
- Volz, Jim (2011). Working in American Theatre: A brief history, career guide and resource book for over 1000 theatres. A&C Black. p. 210. ISBN 9781408152317. Retrieved 6 December 2016.
- "Barter Theatre search results". Tony Awards. Retrieved 6 December 2016.
- "Barter Theatre named Top Outstanding Virginia Company". A! Magazine for the Arts. November 9, 2008. Retrieved 7 December 2016.
- "Calendar". bartertheatre.com. Retrieved February 9, 2018.
- "The Barter Players". bartertheatre.com. Retrieved February 9, 2018.