“Trading Ham for Hamlet” – Historic Theater in the Heart of Appalachia is an American Cultural Treasure

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia, the town of Abingdon, Virginia, is home to the historic Barter Theatre, one of the nation’s longest-running professional theatres.

When Barter Theatre first opened its doors in 1933, the price of admission was 40 cents or an equivalent amount in produce. Four out of five theatregoers paid for their tickets with produce and livestock, hence the theatre’s name. Founded by Robert Porterfield, Barter’s promise of regular meals drew actors to the region at the height of The Great Depression. The concept of “trading ham for Hamlet” caught on quickly as Porterfield proclaimed, “With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh.”

Most years, Barter produces more than 20 musicals and plays, and hosts live band showcase performances year-round. In a typical year, visitors to Barter Theatre can experience up to five productions in one weekend. Watching Barter Theatre’s resident company of professional actors perform in a side-splitting musical comedy in the afternoon, and a heart wrenching drama in the evening, is part of the magic that this one-of-a-kind theatre creates. In addition to the company of professional actors that live and work in Abingdon, Barter Theatre is also home to The Barter Players, a group of professional artists who perform world-class theatre for young people.

During the pandemic, Barter Theatre hosted Moonlite Drive-Ins for the spring and summer seasons of 2021 to provide a safe space for audiences to enjoy performances. Barter began its phased reopening last fall and just started welcoming audiences back to their regular venues for its first in-person Spring and Summer seasons this March, with various COVID safety measures in place.

This June, the theatre will celebrate 89 years of resilience through two once-in-a-lifetime crises: the Great Depression and COVID-19. As it does every year on its anniversary, Barter will harken back to its roots and accept food bank donations for Feeding America / Feeding Southwest Virginia in exchange for tickets.

Designated as The State Theatre of Virginia in 1946, Barter Theatre is the first professional theatre to attain this status. It also received the Antoinette Perry “Tony” Award for Regional Theatre, a special Tony Award given to a regional theatre company in the United States for their “Contribution to Development Of Regional Theatre” in 1948.

Many iconic actors and actresses, including Oscar and Golden Globe winners and nominees like Ned Beatty, Ernest Borgnine, and Patricia Neal, began their careers in this small town theatre.

Barter Theatre is committed to fostering the development of new theatrical works that tell the story of our region through its Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights and participates in the Black in Appalachia initiative and College Playwrights Festival to encourage young writers.

The 2022 spring season kicked off this March with Barter’s production of the Shakespearean classic Romeo & Juliet, followed by the world premiere of the new musical Kentucky Spring, which celebrates what it means to be Appalachian (and runs through May 22nd), and The Barter Players’ production of the timeless fairy tale Jack & The Beanstalk (until May 14th).

Summer performances will include Every Brilliant Thing (May 20th – August 20th), 9 to 5 with music and lyrics by Dolly Parton (June 3rd – August 21), Sleeping Beauty (July 12th – August 6th), and much more. The full schedule can be found online.

“We are thrilled to be once again able to welcome vacationers to discover this gem of a destination that is Abingdon, VA! Abingdon offers an authentic Appalachian experience, and by that, I mean we defy expectations. Leave your preconceptions at home,” encourages Katy Brown, Producing Artistic Director of Barter Theatre. “A long weekend’s stay can allow for an experience of incredible theatre and fine art, top-notch dining, and immersion in nature. There is a reason Barter Theatre has thrived in this town for 89 years. We’ve got it all,” says Brown.

Side Dish

While in town, visitors to Abingdon can enjoy what USA Today named the country’s “Best Small Town Food Scene” for three years running –  including 128 Pecan’s “quirky” local fare, Anthony’s Desserts, and The Peppermill’s “innovative” cuisine –  plus Vineyards!

“Abingdon boasts more eateries per capita than New York City,” says Brown.Our audiences enjoy the pre- or post-theatre meal tradition as much as they enjoy our shows, and for some, that means hitting up our amazing, local craft brewery and vineyards, too!”

The area is also home to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, The Arts Depot galleries, a plethora of antiques and artisan shops, and the famed Virginia Creeper Trail.

Those planning a trip to the region can look forward to incredible nature and cultural experiences, but none so special as taking in a show at the historic Barter Theatre. For lodging information and itinerary suggestions, visit https://visitabingdonvirginia.com/.

By Sandra Tharas

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