How livestock and produce started a theatre

I love a story with an interesting beginning. This one begins with a pig. Well a pig, some other farm animals and other things you would find on a typical farm. And it includes some famou actresses and actors and some you may not have heard and some who probably should be famous. Oh, and this magical story began in a building built in the 19th century as a church. 

The Barter Theatre in downtown Abingdon, Virginia.

I knew bits and pieces of this story about 15 years ago when I put Abingdon, Virginia and the Barter Theatre on a list of places I had to visit. In June of 2021, I got to stand on the stage of that historical theatre. Maybe at some point in my life, I would have liked to have been there as an actor. But it was more than enough to stand there as a journalist and hear the fascinating story of where the Barter Theatre started and how far it has come. 

Yes, that’s me on stage at the Barter Theatre. I resisted the urge to break out a showtune. Our wonderful tour guide, Amber, would have probably appreciated that!

I will get to the pigs and other livestock in a minute. First I need to tell you about the historic building now known as the Barter Theatre. It was the home of the Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church in the 1830s. Then it was renovated into a theater. The first production was in 1876. But it wasn’t until America sunk into the Great Depression that the building found its true purpose. 

A quick history of the theatre is on a plaque outside.

The Barter Theatre began with a man named Robert Porterfield, who in 1933 wanted to make sure actors kept working during the Great Depression. He knew most of the people in Southwest Virginia wouldn’t have a lot of money to pay for a show. Hence, “Ham for Hamlet” was born. Farmers could trade anything worth about 35 cents. A pig, produce or even a good jar of honey could get you in to see a performance. From this, the “Barter” Theatre was born. The concept was a success. And the 22 actors Portfield brought to Abingdon? They were well-fed. 

Robert Porterfield, founder of the Barter Theatre.

Needless to say, the theater doesn’t accept livestock or corn for payment today. It has grown over the years. The Barter was named the State Theatre of Virginia in 1946. Talented actors, set designers, producers and others come from all over the country to work in this small Virginia hamlet. 

Some of the names you may know. Gregory Peck once visited the theater and drove the actors around in a truck. This tailgate commemorates that time.

There’s a long list of famous actors who have performed at the Barter Theatre. Gregory Peck just happens to be one of my favorites.

Ernest Borgnine, Claud Akins and Patricia Neal are other well-known actors that performed at the Barter Theatre. Wayne Eliot Knight, the infamous “Newman” from Seinfeld’ drew out attention because he is from Bartow County, Georgia, my husband’s home county. 

This guy is from Bartow County, Ga., where we now live. Do you recognize him?

Unfortunately, COVID-19 was still raging when we visited Abingdon and no performances were being held in the theatre. But the show was still going on at the nearby Moonlite Drive-In. We were able to catch the performance of “Always, Patsy Cline.” Kim Morgan Dean played Patsy Cline and she can sing! And Tricia Matthews was wonderful. I would have never thought about seeing live theater at a drive-in movie but the work put into every little detail of the production was astonishing. It was live theater at its very best and we watched it from our car.

The Moonlite Drive-In was a perfect place to watch a live show. I even won a bag of popcorn playing trivia!

Live performances have returned to the Barter Theatre stage for the first time since 2019. Frankenstein runs through Oct. 31. The theatre is following strict health and safety protocols. For those who prefer an outdoor experience, “Rocking at the Moonlight” is taking place at the Moonlite Drive-in. 

My advice–GO! Experience a Broadway-quality production in a beautiful small-town setting. Make a weekend or longer out of it. We had a wonderful stay at the Country Inn and Suites. You will sleep well and be treated like family. And if you can’t make it soon, plan a visit to the Barter Theatre and Abingdon. You can read more about all this gem of a town has to offer here. 

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