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Barter Theatre Rehearsal
Actors rehearse at Stonewall Hill, part of the former Stonewall Jackson Institute campus and another early dormitory for the Barter players.
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One Old Dress
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Feeding the Pigs
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Front Porch Rehearsal
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Martha Washington Inn
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Sitting with Weapons
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Slow, Actors Crossing
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Spring Love Practice
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The Hill Between
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Seventy-five years ago Abingdon, Va.’s Barter Theatre opened its doors for the first time. The Barter has just published “Will Work For Food,” a retrospective of its humble beginnings. The following is excerpted from its first chapter.
The year was 1931, and the worst economic depression of modern times hung dark and cold across the nation. With men begging for jobs and families begging for food, there was precious little money available for tickets to the theatre. Robert Porterfield, an actor from Southwest Virginia, had begun a promising career on Broadway, but roles became scarce as the Depression deepened.
To add to his misery, Porterfield came home to his small New York apartment after another day of discouraging auditions to find that everything he owned had been stolen…
With literally nothing to keep him in New York, the young actor snagged a small part in a cross-country tour of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” starring the legendary actor Walter Hampden. It was during this tour, on a train traveling across the Great Plains, that Porterfield’s idea of a “barter theatre” was born.
“Walter Hampden was the first to tell me my scheme wouldn’t work, but he wasn’t the last,” Porterfield wrote years later. “I even compounded the lunacy by saying we should not only sell our tickets for butter and eggs; we should perform our plays in hinterland towns that had never before known professional theatre.”
…Porterfield persuaded a company of 22 unemployed and hungry New York actors to follow him to Abingdon and exchange culture and entertainment for food. Town officials, intrigued by Porterfield’s audacious idea, agreed to let him stage plays in the old “Opry House,” located in the Town Hall. Porterfield got permission to house the actors across the street in the former Martha Washington College, which had been forced to close because of the Depression…
Opening night was set for June 10, 1933, and handmade posters were tacked up all around town proclaiming that “With Vegetables You Cannot Sell, You Can Buy a Good Laugh.”
Other related books and recordings, available through Amazon.com:
"The Barter Theatre Story: Love Made Visible," book by Mark Dawidziak
"Keep On the Sunny Side: the Songs and Story of the Original Carter Family" available as mp3 download
"Man of Constant Sorrow," CD recording