Barter main stage
Sarah Van Deusen and Hannah Ingram in "Always a Bridesmaid"
The Barter Theatre, Main St. Abingdon
If you haven’t yet visited Abingdon, there are many great reasons to make a mini-vacation or weekend getaway to this charming southwest Virginia town, less than a four-hour drive from Chattanooga. Full of history, arts and culture, Abingdon is best known for the Barter Theatre, the nation’s longest running professional theatre. Across Main Street is the elegant Martha Washington Inn and Spa, and Abingdon boasts excellent restaurants recognized by USA Today for best small town food scene.
Among other attractions showcasing the beautiful Appalachian countryside, the Virginia Creeper Trail is a scenic 35-mile rail-trail popular for cycling and walking.
Ham for Hamlet, Barter’s early history
From its opening during the Great Depression, Barter Theatre is an extraordinary story. Founder Robert Porterfield was an out-of-work, hungry actor in New York City who came home to southwest Virginia and established a theatre in 1933. As times were tough, he allowed patrons to pay the admission price with farm produce, dairy products or livestock, thus naming it Barter Theatre. Imagine the scenario at the ticket booth amid the noise and chaos of squawking pigs and chickens!
The trading concept further extended to famous playwrights including Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder, who were sometimes paid Virginia Country Hams for their works in lieu of standard royalties. Only George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, bartered the rights to his plays for spinach. The clever exchange of “ham for Hamlet” took hold.
Barter was named the State Theatre of Virginia in 1946, and its popularity continued to grow. Since the 1990s, Barter has seen tremendous growth in the number of patrons as well as new enhancements. The resident acting company of professional artists performs multiple shows each season in two distinct venues, the traditional Gilliam Stage and the more intimate Smith Stage. In addition, the resident troupe, Barter Players, performs for young audiences in-house in Abingdon and on tour in the Southeast.
While attending Barter’s performance of Always a Bridesmaid, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Sarah Van Deusen, a Chattanooga native, stars in the high-spirited comedy playing the role of Charlie, one of the bridesmaids. I caught up with her between performances – she had just finished an earlier show, playing an ensemble role in Sleeping Beauty.
Backstage with Sarah Van Deusen
Sarah first came to Barter Theatre in May 2015 as a summer intern and has since held numerous acting and directing roles. She is a graduate of Wittenberg University with a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre and English, but her passion for theatre started much earlier when she saw her first play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at age three.
“I became totally enamored and obsessed, and began acting in school plays and community theatre,” she says.
Sarah credits her parents for instilling a love for the arts. Her Dad, Schaack Van Deusen, directed the theatre program at Baylor School for 35 years, and her mom, Beth, also was involved in theatre arts. Sarah fondly remembers when her Dad would drive her to school, instead of listening to the radio, he would teach her lines from Shakespeare.
The Barter Players actually toured at Baylor School, where Sarah attended. She was always inspired by the plays, she said, and during her senior year her advanced acting class spent the day with the cast while they were setting up to perform Call of the Wild. The Baylor students were able to shadow, watch all the preparation for the production, and then have lunch and a workshop with the actors.
After college, Sarah auditioned to join the Barter Players, which she describes as intensive on-the-job training, an apprenticeship of sorts. “There’s a lot of great mentorship,” she says, “and with 12-15 productions per year, there are many opportunities to develop the tools and technique.”
It was a full circle experience when Barter returned to Baylor for another performance of Call of the Wild with Sarah in the cast. On the same stage where she first saw the play performed, she played the role of Buck, recalling, "one of the most surreal, special experiences of my life."
Sarah currently holds the position of Associate Director of Barter Players, wearing many hats that include acting, directing, mentoring, coordinating tours, administration and developing audience engagement. She also acts with Barter’s professional resident acting company, as in the current production, Always a Bridesmaid.
For the fall and holiday season she will be directing a national touring production of Frosty with Barter Players, who will travel the eastern seaboard, including to New York and Washington D.C.
Thus far, Sarah estimates she's been involved in nearly 50 productions at Barter. Some of her favorite roles include playing the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz, Nurse in Romeo & Juliet, and Viola in Twelfth Night. Sarah met her fiancé, Shaan Sharma, at Barter and they have performed together in about 30 plays.
She reflects on Barter's internal stage motto, “run to fear,” coined by Producing Artistic Director Katy Brown to help the young actors learn to take risk and engage with courage and heart. “Great art is made this way!” exclaims Sarah. “We work on this in every production as part of professional growth and the nurturing spirit of our close-knit Barter community.”
Barter Theatre has been a launching pad for the careers of many well-known actors, including Gregory Peck and Patricia Neal, and its story continues to unfold as one of the last year-round professional resident repertory theatres in the United States. Barter celebrates its history on each anniversary with at least one performance that accepts food donations for admission, benefitting Feeding America, Southwest Virginia.
Barter plays for the 2022 Summer Season include Always a Bridesmaid, 9 to 5 - The Musical, Airness, Every Brilliant Thing, and Sleeping Beauty.
"Our theme for the summer is common ground,” says Katy Brown. “In each show we present, audiences will see people who have deep differences discover their strength in one another. The wider the gap between them, the more they find they need each other."
For a full schedule of Barter Theatre shows visit: https://bartertheatre.com
For travel: https://visitabingdonvirginia.com/
Ann Yungmeyer is a travel writer and contributor to print and digital publications.