A! Magazine for the Arts

Barter Theatre Founder Robert Porterfield barters with a patron for a ticket to a performance.

Barter Theatre Founder Robert Porterfield barters with a patron for a ticket to a performance.

Barter Theatre offers pay what you can program

February 26, 2024

When the town of Abingdon, Virginia, allowed actor and director Robert Porterfield to use the Opera House for his theater in 1933, Porterfield knew he had the opportunity to change the way theater was seen and performed. But doing so during the Great Depression was a challenge unto itself – and one that didn’t deter Porterfield from making theateraccessible to all who wanted to watch.

To make seeing theateravailable to any seeking entertainment and culture, Porterfield put a barter system into place, which gave theatergoers the opportunity to see shows by trading goods for tickets. Patrons could pay the thirty-five-cent admission price with livestock, produce and dairy products. A pig ended up being worth 10 tickets while two quarts of milk would buy one ticket. Barter Theatre was born and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the legacy of Barter Theatre continues with the Pay What You Will program, giving patrons the chance to return to the theater’s roots and original mission.

The first show of each Barter production is a “pay what you will” performance. Theatr lovers can come to the box office before the show starts and will be traded a ticket for a price they are happy to pay.

The truth is, sometimes going to a play for an outing with your family can be costly, but Barter wants to ease that cost by making it more affordable. And this has helped several families over the years to see quality theater together with those they love the most.

“There are several families that we see for every single Pay What You Will, as it’s the only way that they can enjoy a performance with us,” said Associate Director of Sales and Services Nikki Goodman. “We all know that the region we’re in struggles financially, and it’s warmed my heart to see how many people we’ve been able to get into premium seats for a fraction of the cost.”

Goodman adds that it’s truly special that Barter still honors the idea of “bartering” what you can afford.

“I don’t ever want to see anyone miss out on a production due to cost constraints and giving them at least one opportunity to see a show for as little as a dollar a ticket is so impactful,” Goodman noted. “There’s a mom that will bring her four children, that she homeschools, to almost every single production. They live a very alternative lifestyle and have shared with me how much they would struggle putting the amount away that it would take for the five of them to attend a normal performance. I don’t know her full story, but seeing the joy in her eyes when she did this the first time has really stuck with me.

“There’s another couple that only comes to Pay What You Will. The husband will show up with a post it note that his wife has handed him, that has a list of seating preferences that she’s put in order after looking at availability on the website. He has been out there when it’s been snowing, with a smile on his face, and tells me every time that he loves spoiling her by taking care of the tickets. It’s precious, and he’s just the nicest guy. He’s often let other folks go ahead of him in line when they’ve looked like they’re in more of a hurry or been grumpy from waiting for us to open.”

For the last 91 years, Barter Theatre has stayed true to its mission and roots by allowing patrons to pay what they will for the shows they love. And Barter will continue to make theater and the arts accessible for all who want to escape into the stories and lives they see on stage for generations and beyond.