As you wind through the southwest Virginia mountains and pull into the small town of Abingdon (population 8,183), you wonder what has drawn so many notable actors – including Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, Kevin Spacey and Wayne Knight – to perform in its famed Barter Theatre.
But the fact that many well-known thespians started their careers at this remote theatre is no surprise to Producing Artistic Director Richard Rose. “We really work hard to help actors, designers, directors, technicians and management get into the theatre, learn their craft and go on to successful careers,” Richard says.
One key factor that has drawn actors to the Barter lies in its educational programs that have been offered since before a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) theatre program existed. And today, many MFA grads still join the theatre’s cast and crew to gain practical experience.
But its dedication to education is just a small part of the larger role the theatre plays – it’s also been a model for community development. From an economic standpoint, it’s one of Abingdon’s largest employers and one of its biggest attractions – and it has remained in business since 1933.
From a cultural point of view, the Barter performs shows that residents in the Blue Ridge Mountains might not be able to see otherwise. It hosts an annual Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights that focuses on preserving that mountain region’s culture.
Some of the theatre’s productions aim to influence social issues, too. Most recently, the Barter put on The Wind Farmer – a play that focuses on energy policy in the United States. Richard says it helped spur discussion of alternative energy options, and that the Barter even formed a green committee with the town of Abingdon to continue that dialogue.
Besides choosing works that have thought-provoking subject matters, the Barter is passionate about the art of storytelling and has its own take on how plays should look. A Barter’s production tends to be conceptually deeper and more interesting than others. “You have a ‘Barter experience’ from the moment you call to get your tickets to the moment you walk in the door – a really down-home, really personal experience. We’re about something entirely different that really is reliant on the rural, Appalachian and southern culture,” Richard says.
The Christmas season is one of the best times of the year to visit the Barter Theatre and take in one of their holiday-themed shows, which this December includes “A Christmas Story” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” While you’re in town, consider staying at The Martha Washington Inn for another taste of Abingdon’s history. Built in 1832, much of the building’s original architecture remains intact.