Saltville native Robert Porterfield was an out-of-work actor in New York City when he decided to return to southwestern Virginia in 1932. He brought with him twenty-two other unemployed actors, and together they founded Barter Theatre, advertising, “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh.” The theater’s first show, the three-act drama After Tomorrow, written by John Golden and Hugh S. Stange, opened on June 10, 1933, and played to a full house. Admission was forty cents, with most patrons paying the equivalent in vegetables, dairy products, or livestock. By the end of the season, the Barter Company had made $4.35 in cash proceeds, which Porterfield then donated to the Motion Picture Relief Fund. (The charity dated to the 1880s but was especially active during the depression, helping, for instance, to pay for the birth of Bela Lugosi’s son.)
The Barter Theatre’s system of payment was, on the one hand, a clever advertising gimmick. Porterfield and his partners accepted almost anything as payment, including toothpaste, snakes, and underwear. A pig was worth ten tickets, while two quarts of milk bought one ticket. On the other hand, bartering was more than just a gimmick; it was essential to the theater’s initial success. During the depression years, regional and local theater groups around the country struggled to survive and many failed. Outside funding and grants were largely nonexistent and the rights to many popular plays were prohibitively expensive for small companies. The Barter was able to survive and eventually even thrive by making its productions accessible to audiences and by attracting the support of, and providing work for, New York actors such as Hume Cronyn, Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, and Ernest Borgnine. Other famous Barter alumni include Ned Beatty, Larry Linville, James Burrows, and Wayne Knight.
The facilities for the Barter Theatre were originally constructed in Abingdon in 1831 by the congregation of Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church. Later the brick structure became home to theatrical productions staged by the Sons of Temperance, an exclusive all-men’s club with branches in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. In 1890 the Sons of Temperance donated the building to Abingdon to be used as a town hall. It later become home to the fire department, which placed a siren on the roof that was used until 1994. If the siren rang during a performance, actors were instructed to freeze during its duration and then resume the play.
In addition to competing with the fire siren, actors in the first years contended with livestock bartered for tickets. Chickens, pigs, or other animals often milled about the back of the theater. Also, the town jail was for a time located directly beneath the stage—and even after the jail space was no longer used for holding criminals, it was used as a holding area for dogs suspected of rabies. When, by the 1950s, the building was in need of improvements and updates, Porterfield was able to acquire the remains of the now-demolished Empire Theatre in New York City. With a volunteer crew, Porterfield salvaged $75,000 worth of property from the Empire before its destruction, including seats, carpeting, paintings, wall tapestries, and a lighting system designed by the American inventor Thomas Edison. Several portraits were also salvaged, including one of Maude Adams, the original Peter Pan.
In 1961, the Barter Theatre opened a second stage across the street. What has come to be known as the Barter Stage II building was constructed in 1829 as a Methodist church and later became part of the Stonewall Jackson Female Institute. The school, named for Confederate general, was established in 1868 by Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church and closed because of debt in 1930. A fire in 1914 destroyed everything except the main building, which was later used by Martha Washington College as a gymnasium and storage area. (The college opened in 1860, began to merge with Emory & Henry College in 1918, and ceased operation in 1931, completing the merger with Emory and Henry in 1932.) In 1961, the Barter Theatre renovated the building into a small theater with a thrust stage and 141 seats. In 1973 and 1985 further improvements were made, including the addition of a lobby and the Jessie Bell DuPont Memorial Theatre Garden. In 2003, the seating was renovated and a café added.
In 1946, Barter was designated the State Theater of Virginia. Virginia was the first state to offer such an honor, though now the distinction is used nationwide. In 1948, the Barter won an Antoinette Perry Award for Regional Theater. (The New York theater awards are better known as Tonys.) The theater received the first Virginia Governor’s Award for Excellence in Art in 1979. The theater is a founding member of the League of Resident Theatres, a charter member of the Theatre Communications Group, and a prominent force behind the American National Theatre Association. In addition, the theater has toured widely since its founding.
When Porterfield died in 1971, Rex Partington took over as the theater’s chief administrator. Partington was, like his predecessor, a former Broadway actor who had also worked at the Barter Theatre as an actor in the 1950s and a stage manager in the 1970s. When Partington retired in 1992, Richard Rose became the new producing artistic director. Under Rose’s direction, the theater’s annual attendance has grown from 42,000 to 140,000.