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Barter Theatre

by Susan O'Connor

Let’s go back in time to when a tomato paid your way to the hottest show in town (and not because the director feared you’d throw it at the cast). A time before ticketing apps or scalpers, QR scanners, or screens. When entertainers weren’t accessible at your fingertips but solely sought out in their communities in real-time at local venues.  

In the humble beginnings of the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, “trading a ham for Hamlet” wasn’t uncommon, meaning this renowned theatre does get its name from its bygone, unique admission “prices.”

Founder and Actor Robert Porterfield birthed his theatrical vision for the Barter out of a love for the arts and his Southwest Virginia community, which in the era of 1930s America and the Great Depression, was in the throes of economic hardship.

“Barter and Abingdon have grown with each other over the last 90 years… We believed then, and we believe now, that world-class theatre belongs to everyone and is built best when it is created in concert with its community,” says Producing Artistic Director Katy Brown.

Since its first show in 1933, the Barter theatre has been a pillar of the Appalachian community showcasing how perseverance, faith and resourcefulness can prevail against darkness and challenge, and its citizens and artists are living proof of that.

Brown continues, “You can feel the pride and ownership in the audience… So many of the people who learned their craft here at the theatre have stayed close to the theatre. I love the way that accessibility and service are built into the DNA of Barter. If it’s not truly about the audience and available to everyone, it’s not Barter.

With only around 8,000 residents, you’d think the small town of Abingdon would be a bit of a ghost town, but because of the theatre’s rich history, admirable mission and talented artists, the city hosts nearly 150,000 visitors annually

“Whether you are seeing shows at Barter (there are usually 3 or 4 different shows available at once), riding your bike on the Creeper Trail, eating at one of the excellent restaurants, visiting the art museum or the Abingdon winery, or experiencing nearby trails, waterfalls, music, and art– it’s a wonderful place to be,” says Brown.

Forty five minutes from the birthplace of the Barter Theatre is the birthplace of famous country music family The Carter Family in Maces Springs, now Hiltons, VA. Considered to be the first family of country music, the Carter Family rose to fame around the same time the Barter opened its doors. 

Years later, one of the musical group’s talented daughters, June, would touch the heart of one of the greatest country, blues, and rock singer-songwriters of all time, best known as The Man in Black: the formidable Johnny Cash

Although Cash grew up in Arkansas and began his career in Memphis, J.R had special ties to the state of Virginia, and even held his last performance at The Carter Family Fold, which you can still visit in rural Hiltons, Va. 

“Johnny Cash and June Carter are such an important part of the musical legacy of this region and are deeply loved by our audience,” touts Brown. 

Which is why it was a no-brainer for the theatre to choose Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash to add to their musical lineup this spring, debuting on the newly renovated main stage, the Gilliam from April 12th until May 11th, 2024. 

Created by Richard Maltby, Jr. and conceived by William Meade, the show focuses on Cash’s life through his music. From his early years in cotton fields to his rise to musical fame and his marriage to Southwest Virginia native and musician, June Carter Cash. 

Brown boasts, “We can’t wait to share his music and his life with them. The performers are incredible– there are so many instruments flying around the stage. The audience will have an incredible time.” 

So be “bound by wild desire” and make the worthwhile trip to Abingdon, Virginia to visit the State Theatre of Virginia: The Barter. Pay homage to artists, past and present, and return again in June to relive the early days of the theatre’s history by paying your way with food for their annual Barter Days. 

By Shea Winpigler

Images courtesy Barter Theatre

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