Barter Theatre



  • The first state-subsidized theater and oldest professionalrepertory venue in America. It is located at Abingdon, Virginia, atown of some 4500 residents; audiences usually contain a large proportionof tourists. Built as a Presbyterian church in 1833, the buildingis America's second oldest theatrical structure (the oldest is Philadelphia'sWalnut Street Theatre). The interior was redecorated in 1951with fittings from the Empire Theatre in New York, which closed thatyear. Actors whose early careers were boosted by stints at the Barterinclude Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, and Ernest Borgnine.

    The Barter Theatre was established during the Depression.It was the inspiration of Robert Porterfield, an unemployed actorfrom Virginia, who decided that he would not starve if theater-goerscould "trade ham for Hamlet", bartering food for theirentertainment. With 22 colleagues and scenery begged from a touringcompany, Porterfield arrived in Abingdon to open the theater in 1933.The price of admission was 40 cents or the equivalent in produce.Porterfield told the local population, "With vegetables youcannot sell, you can buy a good laugh." At the end of the firstseason the company had a profit of $4.35 and two barrels of jelly(and the actors recorded a collective weight gain of over 300 pounds).

    The Barter's first production was John Golden's After Tomorrowin 1933. Later successes have included Shakespeare's Twelfth Nightin 1947, Talley's Folley in 1981, Steel Magnoliasin 1988, and the revue Doctor! Doctor! in 1997.

    In 1946 the state legislature approved an annual appropriationand the designation of the Barter as 'The State Theatre of Virginia'.Porterfield died in 1971 and was succeeded by Rex Partington, whobegan his acting career at the Barter in 1950. The current artisticdirector is Richard Rose. Bartering for the price of a ticket, stilltechnically permitted, has passed into history.