The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII

32 Bremmer, Gregg, Piper, & Rose

Lucinda McDermott wrote a play called Feeding on Mulberry Leaves , a contemporary play set in Natural Bridge, Virginia. It is a contemporary story about a young man with artistic ability, and he wants to leave this place and go to school and develop that artistic ability and poetry as well; but he has a hard time leaving the family and the business of the gas station convenience store in Natural Bridge. Those are the kinds of things I think it’s exciting to think about for the future: explore that world that we’ve come to, not just one where we’ve been. Barbara Bates Smith is currently doing one-woman-show adaptations of Ron Rash’s short stories. She is wonderful. We’re looking to do maybe some more of that in the future as well. In a community where folks are traditionally southern Appalachian natives, we get a lot of tourists coming in, wanting to learn about our culture, wanting to learn about who we are. But when we did Shelton Laurel , there was a woman who came up to me and said, “I bet you don’t remember me.” I said, “Oh, no, I remember exactly who you are; you’re Martha Cook. You’re Steve’s sister I went to high school with.” She said, “Oh, Billy, I can’t believe that you remember me.” I said, “Absolutely. But I haven’t seen you very much since I’ve been back.” And she said, “Well, I tend to only come to see the plays that are about us.” So, we got half of our mission right: “For, by, and about the people of the region,” but I’m also trying to get them to experience other aspects of the theatre and places. RR: I am going to tell you about the history of Barter Theatre to give you a perspective on the Appalachia that Barter Theatre came from, as well as a little bit of where we’re going with Appalachia today. Barter has a rich history rooted in Appalachia in a very interesting way because it’s really an economic model. About four years ago, we received a political pamphlet from a patron who was on vacation in Bolivia; and this person sent us back a pamphlet about a political party that was running in Bolivia. The first side of the pamphlet was all about the political party and what they believed in and what they were trying to achieve in terms of helping the poor and helping the economy in Bolivia. The back side was entirely dedicated to Barter Theatre as an economic model. Barter started as an economic model in the region of Appalachia that had lots of farm produce at the time and couldn’t get the produce to market. It is probably the most unique beginning of any theatre in the world. And from 1932, 1933—it was founded in 1932, first performance was in 1933—from 1933 up through World War II,

basically that economic model was the model of Barter Theatre. Actors who were unemployed, probably underfed, came down to Barter, worked for Barter, and were paid basically in food, room, and board. At the end of the year, any money that Barter had left over was turned over to the Actors Equity Theatre Fund; and, for the most part, it was a good economic model for the region. The farmers had goods and weren’t able to sell them, so those goods could be used for entertainment. Bob Porterfield’s first motto was likely, “With food you could buy a good laugh,” and Barter became known as the “ham for Hamlet ” theatre. There are great stories that for those authors who were vegetarians, they would send them cases of spinach. But as there was a great smoked ham company in Abingdon, the Virginia Ham Company, which was probably one of the largest in Virginia at the time, Barter gave Virginia hams to playwrights for royalties. Across the board, it was an economic model to benefit both parties. At the time, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in New York was the base of the theatre world during the Great Depression. Porterfield applied to the WPA to get some assistance to start this up, to which all the people at the WPA said, “You are out of your mind,” but they all wished him luck. We’re here today, and the WPA is not. I think it’s a good testament to the vision that Bob Porterfield had. There’s a great reason that Barter worked in the Appalachian region. First of all, you all understand that many of the coal miners of the region come from Scots Irish heritage; and the Scots-Irish heritage, aside from their music which is now what is heavily emphasized in Scots Irish studies, had a massive background in theatre. The miners in Appalachia, particularly in southwest Virginia, used to carry around these little leather-bound Shakespeares. I’ve got a whole collection of these. They carried them into the mines, and they also would read them on their breaks. Everybody’s like, “Oh, they carried around Bibles.” If you look back in the history from about 1860 to about 1930, they mostly carried around Shakespeare collections. They would read them to each other at breaks in the mines, and these were their Bibles because this was their history and their culture. If you look in the history of any touring theatres from the Civil War on, particularly if their bent was touring Shakespeare, they all played in the coal mining regions for great periods of time. Shakespeare in particular and a lot of English drama were very popular in our region. The region had an affinity for theatre, so it was actually quite a

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