Posted on March 12th, 2007
A great evening of family entertainment awaits when the Barter Theater Players from Abingdon, Va., present “American Tall Tales” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Mar. 21, on the Lehman Auditorium stage at Eastern Mennonite University.
The ensemble will enact four lively legends, including a spooky Jack O’Lantern yarn and the fable of Purvis Wesley, the “King of Rock and Roll.”
The Barter Theater, the state theater of Virginia, describes itself as “a theater of curiousity and endurance.”
During the Depression, Robert Porterfield, an enterprising young actor, returned to his native Southwest Virginia with an extraordinary proposition: bartering produce from the farms and gardens of the region to gain admission to see a play.
On June 10, 1933, Barter Theater opened its doors, making it one of the oldest professional theaters in the nation. Proclaiming “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh.” The price of admission was 40 cents or the equivalent of produce. About 80 percent of the Depression-era audience paid their way with vegetables, dairy products and livestock.
The actors performing at the building were distracted not only by the occasional squealing pig or clucking hen, but noise from the town jail, which was located directly beneath the stage. The jail space was later used as a holding area for dogs suspected of rabies. It was eventually converted into dressing rooms for Barter actors. To the surprise of many, all the seats for the first show were filled.
The concept of trading “ham for Hamlet” caught on quickly. At the end of the first season, the Barter Company cleared $4.35 in cash, two barrels of jelly and a collective weight gain of over 300 pounds.
Today, at least one performance a year celebrates the Barter heritage by accepting donations for an area food bank.
The Players are making a return appearance to EMU by popular demand. Last year, they enlivened the stage with a performance of “Ferdinand and the Bull.”
The show is especially recommended for ages K-6. Admission is $4 at the door.
The project is made possible, in part, through a grant from the Arts Council of the Valley.