An enterprising young actor named Robert Porterfield founded Barter Theatre during the Great Depression. While working in New York City, Porterfield and some of his fellow actors found themselves out of work and hungry. At the same time, there was an abundance of food in Porterfield’s home region of southwest Virginia, but a lack of live theatre. Porterfield returned to Washington County with an extraordinary proposition: audiences could barter produce from their gardens and farms to see a live play.
With this idea, 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 35 cents or the equivalent in produce, meat, or live animals.The concept of trading “ham for Hamlet” caught on quickly. At the end of the first season, the Barter Company cleared $4.35 in cash, plus two barrels of jelly, and enjoyed a collective weight gain of more than 300 pounds.
Barter soon became a world-famous theatre, attracting exceptional actors and playwrights. Famous alumni include Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, Ned Beatty, Barry Corbin, Larry Linville, Wayne Knight, and Frances Fisher. Playwrights such as Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, and Thornton Wilder accepted Virginia hams as payment for royalties. George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, requested spinach for the rights to his plays.Throughout the years, Barter has been a theatre of firsts. In 1946, Barter was designated The State Theatre of Virginia, the first theatre to receive this form of recognition. In 1949, the Barter Company was the first to perform Hamlet at Elsinore Castle in Denmark. Barter was also a founding member of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), which is now the largest professional theatre association of its kind in the United States. Celebrating its 87th season this year, Barter is one of the longest running professional theatres in the nation.
Since the founding of the theatre, only four people have been at the helm. Robert Porterfield led Barter Theatre until his death in 1971. His successor, Rex Partington, served as chief administrator from 1972 until his retirement in 1992. In October 1992, Richard Rose was named Producing Artistic Director and served until his retirement in 2019. Current Producing Artistic Director Katy Brown was then appointed as the fourth person – and first woman – to hold the position.
Since 1992, attendance has grown from 42,000 annual patrons to more than 145,000. Significant capital improvements have been made, such as renovations to the lobby and theatre spaces of both Gilliam Stage and Barter’s Smith Theatre (formerly Mainstage and Stage II, respectively), not to mention the addition of a lounge area/restaurant and dramatic improvements to the Barter Green.
Barter’s Equity Resident Acting Company produces 10 to 14 full-length plays annually. The Company also participates in Barter’s Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights, which presents staged readings of new works representing the region. Barter’s non-Equity Theatre for Young Audiences company, The Barter Players, produces in-house TYA shows and also tours regionally, bringing theatre to young people who otherwise might not have a chance to experience it. The Players also host the Young Playwrights Festival, featuring staged readings of 10-minute plays written by regional high school students.
Each year, Barter Theatre celebrates its heritage with Barter Days. For certain performances, patrons are invited to barter an equivalent amount of canned food for admission to the show. All food is donated to a local charity -- no live animals now, please!