By Daniel Skora
One of the pleasures of going to a new place is discovering that not only does the place have a theatre, but that the theatre has been alive and flourishing for many years. Abingdon Virginia is a town of some 8,000 people nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the state’s Tennessee border. It was a rural community in the early 1900’s when lumber and iron ore were commodities that passed through. To facilitate the hauling of goods in the area, a railroad line was built by The Virginia Carolina Railroad. The train that serviced the route began to be called “The Virginia Creeper” by the locals because a plant of that same name grew along the side of the tracks and because the slow-going of the train over the mountains made it a true “creeper”.
The train doesn’t run there anymore and the railroad’s route has been converted to a 33 mile trail for hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians. That trail is now called, appropriately, “The Virginia Creeper”. It begins in downtown Abingdon, and along with museums and artsy shops has become a vital part of the town’s reemergence as a place that caters to a leisurely lifestyle. A significant part of that reemergence is the Barter Theatre.
The Barter Theatre opened its doors in 1933 and has been going strong for 82 years. It is one of the longest-running professional theaters in the United States. Times were tough in America in the early 1930’s, and Abingdon was not spared the fangs of the great depression. Robert Porterfield who founded the theatre believed that everyone should be able to enjoy a live performance even if they couldn’t afford the 35 cents to get in. He initiated a barter system where the locals could offer an equivalent in meat, produce, or live animals to cover the price of admission. Hence the name Barter Theatre. Imagine going up to the box office of a theatre today with only a couple of chickens and a smile. The ledger for The Barter’s first season listed “a profit of $4.35 in cash, two barrels of jelly, and a weight gain of 300 pounds for all involved”. The Barter Theatre continues that tradition today, offering “free” admission during three dates in the summer to those bringing in the equivalent of a ticket price in canned goods, no chickens or other live animals accepted. Food collected is donated to Feeding America Southwest Virginia.
42,000 patrons went through the turnstiles in 1992. Today, more than 163,000 attend the three Barter venues annually. The Barter Main Stage seats 506, Stage 2 seats 167, and The Tent on Barter Square is an open air venue used for productions appropriate for the outdoors. The Barter is a Resident Acting Company performing a repertory schedule. It has a full eleven-month schedule, February through December, taking January off to catch its breath. The 2015 season featured nineteen cast members, almost evenly split between ten actors and nine actresses. Twenty-three full-scale productions graced the various stages, some running for as little as two weeks, others in production for over two-and-a-half months.
A Barter season has something for everyone. In 2015 there were musicals (“Mary Poppins” and “Cole Porter’s Anything Goes”), comedies (“Southern Fried Nuptials” and “Love, Sex and the IRS”) drama (“The Miracle Worker” and “The Road to Appomattox”), and musical reviews (“Keep on the Sunny Side” about the Carter Family and “Shake Rattle and Roll”, a tribute to Elvis).
Friends whom I was visiting put me on to The Barter. The day that I was able to take in a show, they were performing “The Doyle & Debbie Show”, a spoof of country music singing duos. The show stars Rick McVey as Doyle Mayfield and Carrie Smith Lewis as Debbie. To give you an example of the demands of a true repertory theatre, there would be days when both performed as Doyle & Debbie at the 2 p.m. show, then switched to playing a different show in the evening. The very next day would find them doing one of the two shows again at an 8:00 p.m. performance. McVey is in his 11th year as a member of Barter’s acting company, having appeared in more than 70 shows and directing several others. This is Lewis’ first year with the Resident Acting Company, being a former member of Barter’s adjunct group, The Barter Players, a group of professional theatre artists who perform for young audiences.
“The Doyle & Debbie Show” is hilarious and irreverent. Doyle has been performing in a country duo act throughout the South for many years. He’s currently trying to make a comeback while breaking in Debbie number three. He’s trying to do it without the support of his customary alcohol crutch, but there’s plenty of temptations around and he’s begun having occasional “thoughts” about his attractive new partner. This latest Debbie has been rescued from a nine-and-a-half year stint singing at a VFW Hall. She’s excited to be getting the break she needs for her career and to be working with a country legend like Doyle.
The two work their way through over a dozen Doyle-penned hits. The songs portray a Southern way of living that would have made interesting covers for the Saturday Evening Post had Norman Rockwell been raised by Doyle and Debbie. They include “Barefoot and Pregnant”, “Fat Women in Trailers”, “Blue Stretch Pants”, and the song every southern boy loves to imagine his woman back home singing: “When You’re Screwing Other Women (Think of Me)”. “The Doyle & Debbie Show” is the creation of Bruce Arntson.
Richard Rose is the current Producing Artistic Director at The Barter and only the third in its long history. If you’re ever on the western side of Virginia and need a fix of theatre, you couldn’t do any better than The Barter. The playhouse’s address is 127 W. Main Street, Abingdon VA 24210. They can be reached at 276.628.3991 or online at www.bartertheatre.com.