Barter Theatre on Track for Record-setting Attendance
By DEBRA McCOWN | BRISTOL HERALD COURIER | December 14, 2009*** This story was published Wed., Dec. 9 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***
ABINGDON, Va. – Barter Theatre, born during the Great Depression, is on track for record-setting attendance this year, producing artistic director Rick Rose said.
"We've always done well in down economies," Rose said of the theater that got its start in 1933 by allowing patrons to barter for admission with farm produce.
"In up economies people travel ... and the people in big cities will go to the more expensive places," he said. "In a down economy they'll come out to us because we're inexpensive and a high-quality experience, and then the people locally stay home."
He said Barter could bring as many as 165,000 people through its doors this year. He credited the numbers to "staycations" – or vacations at home – but also to careful planning by an organization that has known from the beginning how to function in tough times.
Speaking to the Kiwanis Club of Abingdon on Tuesday, Rose covered the usual topics: the theater's growing contribution to local tourism, the importance of performing arts to the U.S. economy, and the challenge of drawing baby boomers to performing arts venues.
He also talked about why he believes Barter has thrived in a poor economy – and his plans for going forward.
"Within the last three years, we have won three major awards," Rose said, pointing to a 2008 award from the Virginia Chamber of Commerce for the theater's statewide business impact, a 2009 award from the Blue Ridge Travel Association for its impact on tourism, and an upcoming award for its impact as a cultural and arts organization.
"We have proven ourselves by consistency," he said. "They don't consider it [Barter] a luxury; they consider it a necessity."
Next, he said, Barter is going national.
The theater has had one show tour nationally this year and will have two next year, Rose said.
The theater also has changed its model to adapt to a changing future: the family audience. Rose said educational programs also will be important to the theater's future.
Barter is doing well this year because of good planning, which included a 20 percent cut in staff, he said.
And as the economy comes out of the recession, he said, Barter, which has a long tradition of making theater accessible to all, will emerge much as it did from the Great Depression.
"When you get into a recessionary situation, you start evaluating what's really important to you, and you learn kind of what is really significant for your life and for the region," Rose said. "I think when we come out of this, they're going to say [Barter] was one of the major things that's important to the region, that's necessary for the region and really exemplifies the spirit of the region."