ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) – For nearly 90 years, Barter Theatre has called the heart of Abingdon, Virginia ‘home.’
The Barter is a staple in the local arts community, but its reach stretches far beyond Appalachia. What’s known now as an iconic place to catch a show, has served a number of roles throughout the decades. A church, Town Hall, an Opera House, a dentist’s office and even a jail are a few of the parts the Barter has held aside from a theater.
While it has quite a history, the real history lies in how the theater came to be what it is today.
In 1933, Southwest Virginia native, Robert Porterfield, took a chance on Broadway. However, it just so happened to be in the midst of the Great Depression. With no money to be made in New York, he had a grand idea that would take the talent back to Southwest Virginia where he grew up.
“He and a lot of his actor friends were in bread lines. They were not getting any kind of work and he said I know where there is an empty opera house in Abingdon, Virginia. He said let’s go down there. They don’t have any money either but they have some produce that they can’t sell so they set up Bartering Theatre, literally the trading theater where you could see a show for either 35 cents or the equivalent in produce,” said Producing Artistic Director, Katy Brown.
What started as trading goods for shows was actually history in the making. In a time of uncertainty and financial struggles, he did what he could to make the theatre stand out among the rest and used literal scraps to create a grander vision.
“There was a theater closing on Broadway in the 1950s and they were going to tear it down and turn it into a parking lot. So they told Robert Porterfield if they could get it out before the wrecking ball hits it, he could have it. So many of the beautiful details we have are from the golden age of Broadway that came from that building. A lot of our open light fixtures and that maroon and gold that we still use today all come from the Empire Theatre,” said Brown.
Not only is the Theatre a now iconic venue to catch a show, but also a huge economic driver for the town of Abingdon.
“We have over a $34 million impact on the local economy every year. We are bringing between 100,000 and 145,000 people a year to a town of 8200. The impact that it has on the restaurants, bed, and breakfasts, hotels, we know that it’s our job to make sure that those people are coming and that they are happy to be coming here,” Brown said.
Brown started as an acting intern and has grown through the ranks of the theater over the past 25 years. She told News Channel 11 the Barter has something most theaters do not, and that’s the heart and love of the community that surrounds it.
“Not only do we tell stories from all over the world along with famous Broadway shows, but we also develop the work of Appalachia so we are telling the real authentic stories of here and not just the idea of Appalachia, but the real thing,” she said.
With two stages, the Gilliam and the Smith theatres, there are plenty of opportunities to catch a show throughout the season. The Gilliam Stage seats 507 people while the Smith seats roughly 167.
The Barter Theatre is celebrating 90 years of operation this Summer. The celebration will coincide with the annual ‘Barter Days’ set for June 10th.