A! Magazine for the Arts

Rick Rose

Rick Rose

'Resiliency' Defines Barter Theatre

February 26, 2008

"The antagonist is economics forever and always...the monotonous, prosaic, endless crisis of never having enough money to fit your dreams and barely enough to open your next show." -- Robert Porterfield, Founder Barter Theatre

I was in the lobby of Barter Theatre talking to a group of patrons prior to the start of a show this past summer and one of them asked me how Barter was doing given the rather tough economy, higher gas prices, poor performance in the retail sector, and the increasing competition for the entertainment dollar. During the course of our conversation, I found myself talking about Barter Theatre's resiliency -something that, frankly, 15 years ago, would never have crossed my mind. "Barter is in the amazing position of being able to withstand some tough times," I said. "Not a lot. Not year after year. But we are in a position to be able to react, change, make decisions and move forward in order to withstand difficult, difficult times." In short, we are, at present, resilient.

There are those who know from their experience that "Barter Theatre" and "resilient" have not always been able to be used in the same sentence. We have all experienced Barter at times when we wondered if Barter would be able to fix the roof, meet payroll, put on the upcoming performance or even continue to exist. For years, the Board of Trustees and the staff of Barter Theatre have been discussing the notion of "fiscal stability." What does it mean? Can Barter achieve "fiscal stability"? Will there ever be a time when Barter is not totally at risk? Much of what you will hear from Barter in the years ahead will be about making Barter "fiscally stable." We must achieve fiscal stability, however one defines it, in order for Barter to move forward.

But in the process of worrying about Barter's future -about its stability -we have failed to celebrate a milestone of major proportion. And that milestone is Barter's resiliency; something, as I said moments ago, many thought Barter would never or could never achieve. We are no longer a theatre in crisis. That is not to say that we are impervious to financial downfall. But....we are, because of a certain resiliency, able to plan for the future in ways never previously dreamed of at Barter Theatre.

What does it mean to be resilient? Like everyone, now, if I want to know what a word really means, I Google it!

Resiliency: "The ability of a fabric to spring back to its original shape after being twisted, crushed, wrinkled, or distorted in any way."

Resiliency: "The ability to recover quickly from illness, change or misfortune."

Resiliency: 1) Able to recover quickly from setbacks;
2) Able to spring back quickly into shape after being bent, stretched, or deformed;
Other meanings: Elastic, hard-wearing, hardy
Synonyms: Flexible, pliant, supple
Antonym: Rigid

For the most part, this is a pretty good description of Barter Theatre. I would have to say, even Barter's Board of Trustees would have to admit, that Barter is pretty good at bouncing back from adversity whether it be public controversy, lawsuits, catastrophes - be they the fire that burned our scene shop or my selection of a play or season that just was not up to expectations - or just solving every day problems with or without the sufficient personnel to do the job.

And Barter is anything but rigid. We have been able to bend, to be elastic. We have proven that, at times, we are willing to bend maybe farther than we should in order to solve a problem or be a good and willing partner within our community.

Previously, in my thoughts about Barter, I would think of Barter as an oak tree. Oak trees are strong, relatively disease free -- they haven't died out like the Elm -- and they are lasting. But, in speaking with folks who went through tornados and hurricanes, it was the oak trees that came crashing through their homes and were toppled in gale force winds or were broken apart by lightning strikes. Oaks are resilient, but they have their limitations.

I thought about Pine Trees - majestic and evergreen - but same problem - a relatively shallow root system that easily can be toppled in a windstorm. Elms, well, there is the obvious problem with disease. And the Ash? Native to this region, known to last for thousands of year; strong wood; wide branches; not necessarily great beauty and sheds stuff throughout the year; but a majestic and powerful tree none-the-less. But even the ash trees are being felled by disease and insects.

And then I began thinking of bamboo. We really don't know a lot about bamboo in this country. It's not a native wood. But, increasingly, we are discovering its strength and beauty. Bamboo is much more able to withstand hurricane and gale force winds. It can bend and twist and then return to its original shape. Since it is a member of the grass family - even though it can grow into very large trees - it grows in clumps. This "clump" nature of bamboo particularly interests me; so, remember that "clump" quality of bamboo a little later in these musings. Bamboo can grow very fast and is very difficult to get rid of - another quality I admire. Bamboo can be drought resistant or grow in very watery soils. Bamboo serves many purposes; it can be eaten; it can be made into lasting shelter; it is a feature plant for its beauty in landscaping; And, in Chinese culture, it is a symbol of longevity. You get the idea. Bamboo is resilient. It is flexible. It is elastic. And yet it is a very hard, long lasting wood. And surprisingly strong.

One of the elements I like about bamboo as an image for Barter Theatre is that bamboo is from the grass family. Grass is, by its nature, grounded into the earth and a part of the earth in ways that big trees are not.; thus the term "grassroots" as opposed to "tree roots" as an image for the meaning of community movements. Part of the real resiliency of Barter is that Robert Porterfield instilled a real sense of pride and ownership of Barter Theatre into the entire region. That grassroots movement started with Bob taking the first group of actors to church and ingratiating them into the hearts and souls of the community and exists throughout the community today. Barter is, no matter how large it becomes, a grassroots organization. That is not to say that Barter hasn't been at odds with members of its community. Preachers used to rail at the pulpit about the hedonism of Barter Theatre to which Bob Porterfield responded, "Thank God for these preachers. They've done more to promote attendance at Barter Theatre than all of the advertising in the world." But the community is also deeply committed to Barter.

Let me share two stories with you as a case in point. Several years ago, an artistic director and his managing director were traveling from up north to see a new play we were premiering here at Barter. They stopped in Staunton, Virginia to visit the downtown area, check out the stores and do some shopping. While in one of the shops in downtown Staunton, the merchant asked the two men where they were from and where they were heading. When they said that they were heading to Barter Theatre, the merchant said, "Our Barter Theatre; it's one of the best theatres in the nation." These two men were not so much impressed with the fact that this merchant called Barter Theatre one of the best theatres in the nation. What they were impressed with is that a merchant with a store more than three hours away from Abingdon called it "Our Barter Theatre."

In relating the story to me, they said that their theatre had been in existence, at the time, over 30 years and they could not even get the local merchants to call their theatre "Our" theatre. And a second quick story; Amanda and I were in Lowe's at Exit 7 the other day. Standing in the checkout line, the woman in front of us turned around as she was checking out and recognized me. She went on and on about how much she loved Barter and how often she attended and how much her children love the Barter Players. That's not particularly unusual. But the woman behind the counter said, "I'm really mad." And I thought, "Oh, no. Here comes trouble." She went on, "I hate those people who write negative letters about Barter. They make me really angry. Barter Theatre is the best thing about this entire region. What do they think they are doing? They should know better. If I could write half-way decent, I'd write a letter myself telling them how stupid they are." I expressed my appreciation for her support and came to find out that she attends Barter every chance she can and really loves going to the theatre with her husband and family. We sometimes forget how much of a "grassroots" organization we are. We hear the complaints and forget to listen to the hundreds of thousands of patrons who attend each year. Grass is resilient. Bamboo is from the grass family.

One last thought on the "grassroots" nature of Barter. Some of my favorite moments in Barter Theatre over the last months have been events that we have done for our community. The Big Read, which Barter initiated in partnership with the Washington County Library, in which community leaders got up and described their favorite books and why they loved those books along with a wonderful panel discussion about public censorship is one such event. Bedtime for Barter at the Washington County Library in which Barter actors and staff read stories to over 50 kids dressed in their pajamas - yes, both kids and the readers were in pajamas - was another. Our two panel discussions on the topic of faith, religion, and inclusion that Barter put together in conjunction with Barter's production of DOUBTING THOMAS, APPALACHIAN FESTIVAL OF PLAYS AND PLAYWRIGHTS was certainly significant and moving. And, of course, the event that I cherish annually: THE YOUNG PLAYWRIGHT'S FESTIVAL always results in memorable moments. Combined with our , the work in the community by members of Barter's staff, and our deep commitment to educational programs and activities, Barter's resiliency is really "grassroots." We do not tower above the community, but live, work and play within it. We are bamboo.

I often describe Barter as entrepreneurial (and I don't mean that word in the capitalist, industrialist sense). Entrepreneurial is not a word, oddly enough, often associated with non-profit organization or with arts organizations. I have always found this surprisingthat non-profits, and particularly arts organizations, were not more entrepreneurial. For I associate the entrepreneurial spirit with one aside from wanting to make moneywho is willing to take risks, take chances, try creative and new ventures and is able and willing to shift course very quickly in order to direct their investment for the greatest advantage. I have naively assumed that because of the nature of non-profits and, particularly, arts organizations, they must of necessity be entrepreneurial in order to survive. They must think outside the box. They must look for revenue from out of the way places in order to support their missions. They must think creatively by balancing both their desired outcomes of their programs and the revenues that they have available to support those programs. They must look for revenue sources from outside of the main stream.

Non-profits - yes, including the nation's arts organizations - are, however, traditionally conservative. Now, I suppose, this makes sense as boards of directors largely control non-profits, and groups, by their nature, as decision-making bodies, tend to be more conservative than individuals. And boards have the ultimate fiscal and fiduciary responsibility to donors and to those receiving the services of the non-profit organization so that they naturally want to assure stability and a culture to the non-profit that carries with it no surprises and every assurance and due diligence possible for success. Stability, rather than creativity, is frequently the goal. Boards can be very uncomfortable with entrepreneurial thinking.

Yet Southwestern Virginia and Northeastern Tennessee is a region of entrepreneurs. In business, it was and is the entrepreneurs -those individuals who took chances and sought creative and unique solutions - who succeeded. Thus, this region has spawned a great deal of entrepreneurial non-profits unlike anywhere else in the country. I look at Rob Goldsmith, from People Incorporated, and I think, "He is an entrepreneur" providing unique and creative solutions to human service needs throughout the region. I look at Anthony Flaccavento at Appalachian Sustainable Development; "He is an entrepreneur." I look at Jimmy Neal Smith at The Storytelling Center and see an "entrepreneur." I learned everything I could about Robert Porterfield and know that Robert was, indeed, an "Entrepreneur" with a capital "E"! For who else, but an entrepreneur would start a theatre in the middle of rural Southwestern Virginia where folks exchange food and goods for a ticket to see a play and think that might be a viable idea? Only an entrepreneur!

Aside from its unique beginnings, Robert Porterfield created a culture of free flowing, entrepreneurial-based decision-making. From the very first season, Barter premiered new plays rather than relying on the traditional Broadway fare. Seasons were not announced always in advanced but chosen and produced show-by-show based on the acting company and available resources. This entrepreneurial spirit served Barter extremely well. Bob made decisions, changed shows in the middle of the season, and overall would use his best available resources to provide the best available theatre to Barter's patrons.

This entrepreneurial spirit gave Barter the ability to adapt and the ability to survive. It provided a resiliency elasticity ? that was and is necessary to allow Barter to keep going in tough times. And that is the key to resiliency, is it not? The ability to survive in tough times? Oak trees are strong. Pine trees are tall and majestic. But often, in storms and hurricanes, the oaks and the pines are the trees that fall. While bamboo bends and twists in the great hurricane winds, but stays standing when all is said in done and provides a wood that is of even greater strength than the pine or the oak.

Barter must be like bamboo. Barter must be resilient above all else. It must grow with many shoots, many leaves and many branches when times are good. It must gather strength and blossom when it can. It must be able to shed leaves and branches in order to survive. It must keep strong roots in its community while being able to also grow within that community and yet independent of it, for the climate and the environment of that community may not always be fertile for its growth. Barter must be able to withstand the hurricanes that it faces ? and it has. Barter has faced many hurricanes such as economic downturns, wars, attacks by those who would like to see it cut down; yes, and even the loss of its founder, which many theatres do not survive. Yet, while resilient, Barter is not impervious to destruction.

Barter has weathered the loss of funds, the loss of great talents who have come and gone throughout the years, and the loss of some of its buildings through fire, flood and tornadoes. Through it all, Barter has rebounded; sometimes damaged, sometimes it existence has been threatened; sometimes it has changed course in order to find new strength. Many times, Barter has been made stronger by these storms.

The real reason for Barter's resiliency is that Barter is not one thing, not one person; it is not me or you or Bob Porterfield or Rex Partington or The Board of Trustees or any single event. Barter is the collective strength of all of us. It is the scars and the broken branches, the patches and the splints, the stories and the people who have help it grow. We all play a part in the greater story of Barter Theatre. And we all have different ways of helping Barter to grow, stay strong and weather the storms now and in the future. We all provide substance to this thing that is Barter. We make it resilient either through our guidance, programming, funds, counsel, talent, ideas, creative input or simply through our good will. You remember that bamboo is a clump plant, a member of the grass family. We are that clump that makes up Barter.

For, in the end, it is the spirit of Barter that is resilient most of all. Regardless of what we, each of us, practically provide to Barter, it is by providing our spirit, our support, our energy, our advocacy, our encouragement, and our collective will that really makes Barter strong. As individuals, we can be leaves and branches that may or may not survive. Collectively, our spirit and our commitment to Barter can be indomitable. We feed the roots and sap that makes Barter strong. We give it nourishment. In the end it is the people ? the clump ? those who have come before us, ourselves, and those who will come after us who determine Barter's resiliency.

So let us give Barter all we can. Every day the artists who make up the Barter staff give 100% of themselves. We have a reputation as being a place to work only if you are willing to put 100% of yourself into your job. I have found that to be true of all of our donors and of our patrons as well. When someone enters Barter Theatre and experiences one of our programs, they have come to expect that their experience with Barter will be of the highest possible quality. And they are disappointed when we deliver anything less than our best. Barter has become synonymous with high quality. Despite the recent storms, our tree is stronger and bigger than it has ever been.

As we enter Barter's 75th Anniversary Season, Barter looks back in celebration of its first 75 years. But we look also ahead to the next 75 years and what we can do to assure that Barter can and will be strong for generation after generation after generation. Our collective commitment assures that future.

Thank you for being a part of that collective commitment ? for being "the clump" and for all you do, have done and will do to assure a strong, elastic, hardy, pliant, subtle and resilient Barter Theatre.

-- Back to the Main Story: Barter's "Don't Miss a Moment Season"