Posted August 21st 2020 – Click the link below for the full article and to listen!
The COVID-19 pandemic brought theater curtains down nationwide.
Some are now offering live performances online. Others simply closed, but in southwestern Virginia one historic playhouse found a novel way to assure the show would go on.
The Barter Theatre in Abingdon was founded in 1933 by actor Robert Porterfield.
“He had a family farm down in this area and was an actor on Broadway,” says Katy Brown, the artistic director today.
“It was during the Great Depression, and so he and his friends weren’t making any money, and he said, ‘Let’s go down to Abingdon, Virginia where there is an empty old opera house.’”
Their business model was based on barter.
“You could trade 35 cents or the equivalent in produce – lettuce, tomatoes, rattlesnakes, all sorts of things to see shows,” Brown explains. “The first summer they made less than five bucks, but there was a collective weight gain of over 300 pounds among the actors and they counted it a great success, and we’ve been running ever since.”
So when the pandemic hit, Brown was determined to uphold the theatre’s tradition of resilience. She began scouting local parking lots and farm fields where the public could gather for an outdoor performance.
“I kept coming back to an abandoned drive-in movie theater – the historic Moonlite Theater on the edge of town. It was in really tough shape, but I just kept thinking, ‘If we could breathe some life into this place, I think we could do theater here.’”
With the help of local businesses and volunteers, they leased the property and built a covered stage in front of the screen.
“We have a video team that videos the actors and then that’s simulcast onto the big screen at the Moonlite Theater behind the stage, so you can watch the stage, you can watch the screen for close-ups.”
Sound is conveyed through FM radios in each car, and the actors perform in a virus-free bubble – guided by a medical advisory board.
“They said to us, ‘Yes, you could socially distance them on stage, but what would beeven safer is if you built a bubble, and we have a dorm that only they are living in, and these incredible actors have agreed to some really stringent policies where they really only see each other, so they are allowed to get close to each other but to nobody else. They don’t even go to the grocery store, they don’t go anywhere, so they keep their bubble in tact.”
On July 17th, the first show – with a ten-person cast – opened to an audience inside 200 cars.
“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
The Wizard of Oz was a huge hit – entertaining 6,000 people over four weeks, producing a modest profit and introducing the Barter to a whole new crowd.
“Forty-six percent of the people who bought tickets were people who had never been to Barter or at least not in recent years.”
Next up – a production of Beauty and the Beast, followed next month by Mary Poppins. Katy Brown says the Barter won’t really be back in business until the pandemic ends, but for now she’s happy with how Robert Porterfield’s theatre has evolved.
“We’re proud to be walking in his footsteps by innovating during this time in a really unlikely way. I have a friend who said to me one day, ‘You know what? I think this is going to work, because this is Porterfield-level nuts!’”
Tickets are $20 for adults, ten for kids, and there’s no extra charge for fireflies, moonlight or the rainbow that once arced over the stage and screen.