This year marks your 16th Season at Barter [1993 was his first season]. According to friends and colleagues, you work incredibly hard. How do you do all that you do at the high level of perfection that you demand of yourself?
I believe, and always have, that what separates success from failure is the attention to detail. What separates professionals from non-professionals is attention to detail and the execution of perfection. That's true in sports, in art and in business. I grew up with a family and in a region that emphasized a true work ethic. As one mentor said to me early on in my life, "If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right. If you do not do it right the first time, you will have to do it right all over again anyway." I believe in hard work. Most importantly, I really love my work. I love the people who do this work. I love the people who work for Barter Theatre on every level from the Board of Trustees to the immensely dedicated staff and extremely talented artists, as well as some of the best volunteers who serve as ushers that any theatre could ever hope to have.
If you talk to our staff, you also know that I hate surprises, that I am anal retentive almost to a fault, that I possess the capacity for multi-tasking and for retaining a lot of details all at once, and that I really care that we all try to do everything as well as we can possibly do them. And, of course, I'm a type-A personality, which, I am sure, at times the staff and Board wish I would tone down a bit. The good and bad thing is that I am a planner, but also like to flow with the tide; so I think more like an entrepreneur than is usually common in arts organizations, yet I do have a strong sense of business as well.
Of course, having adult ADD is really useful as well.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your job? directing? adapting plays? management of the entire theatre operation?
Every part of my life as Producing Artistic Director has its joys and its frustrations. As I said above, I really love the people who work here. I live in awe of their skills and their insights and their solutions to problems. Maybe the most rewarding aspect of my job is solving things. When we look at the issues that we face, whether it be a crisis, planning for growth, adapting a play, or designing a set or lights or sound, whatever, every part of this is really about finding the core of the problem to be solved and coming up with the best and most rewarding solution to the problem. In many ways, I see all of the elements of my job as solving a complex math puzzle. There may be many solutions to that puzzle. My job is to help solve that puzzle in the most efficient way possible with the best result that will have the best outcome. I love that challenge.
Of course, in the end, it is the theatre that I believe in and love. I am in the position that I am in so that I can produce, write, direct, design, and choreograph theatre, and so that I can support others in doing that as well. The theatre is my passion, and any time we execute exceptional theatre here at Barter, I am rewarded. And it doesn't matter if I am the one doing it. As an example, shows like Doubting Thomas this last year, I find infinitely rewarding. That Barter is able to execute so brilliantly on shows like Wooden Snowflakes and Driving Miss Daisy, I find very fulfilling. Whatever my role in each of our greatest moments might be ?- even if it is only to sit on the sideline and cheer -? is rewarding to me. In the end, producing the best possible theatre and reaching people, whether changing one life or entertaining thousands, with whatever resources that are available at the moment, is what is rewarding.
What do you consider your greatest achievements in your tenure as Barter's artistic director?
Oh, wow. You know, for me that's like asking what's your favorite play or your favorite color. I look at a box of Crayola crayons -? let's say the full 120 colors available -? and, I think, I like all of them for one reason or another. And the minute I say, well, I like the blue, or the Pine blue or the Shamrock or the Pacific Green best, then I see another color ?- even the tans and the flesh -- that I find useful. It's like that with all that has happened here at Barter in the last 15-plus years. The minute I think of one thing, there are a thousand that I should have said were just as important, for it all adds up together into what we are today. The whole is definitely the sum of its parts. And we are not finished by any means. We are a living, breathing organism that grows and contracts, expands, and gets older and younger at the same time. Things that immediately come to mind when you ask this question are things that have not even happened yet -? such as the Charles Vess/David Spence fountain sculpture that is slowly developing across the street from the theatre. That will forever change the landscape of downtown Abingdon and is probably one of the greatest works of public art outside of an urban area anywhere in the U.S. But we have not accomplished that yet.
On a practical scale, the obvious answers to your question would be the renovation of Barter Theatre, the expansion of The Barter Cafe and Barter Stage II, the improvements on Stonewall Square - which may be one of the loveliest properties in all of Abingdon now -- and the improvements on all of Barter's buildings which were nearly depleted 15 years ago. From an artistic end - wow -- we've produced more than 250 shows in the last 15 years. Where do you begin choosing from that list? I love all my children; even the ones that stink.
The first show that I directed at Barter Theatre - The Miracle Worker - back in the Spring of 1993 is still a landmark production because it set the tone for a new Barter Theatre. I can remember sitting in the theatre with audiences who were totally stunned by the production because it was stylistically unlike anything they had ever experienced at Barter previously. As an adaptor and director, Frankenstein was cited as one of the 10 best American plays in regional theatre in 1998. Camelot, which I directed in 1997 with the set by Dale Jordan, is still one of the best productions of that show ever to be done on any stage. The list goes on and on. Certainly, producing and directing The Liquid Moon was a turning point for this theatre -it catapulted Barter into a whole new league and made us one of the premiere theatres in the United States. Other highlights have to include Wooden Snowflakes, Patient A, Doubting Thomas, Death of a Salesman, and Katy Brown's production of A Thousand Cranes. My adaptation of It's A Wonderful Life was done in Thailand this year; that was exciting.
A list of achievements in no particular order, aside from those outlined above:
For me, I generally make it a point to only look back to learn and to always look forward for moving ahead.
Are you becoming more conservative or liberal in recent years in terms of programming? It seems that there were more experimental plays early in your tenure as well as experiments with gender-blind casting and race-blind casting.
I flow with the times. Times are definitely more conservative. That being said, The Liquid Moon, Doubting Thomas, Wooden Snowflakes, Tradin' Paint and The Other Side of the Mountain are all works from the last couple of years. These would have been branded as "experimental" at Barter as little as five years ago. But a couple of things have occurred.
ONE: The world, while maybe more conservative, has also expanded its definition of what is "experimental." Madonna, Janet Jackson, Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears have changed the definition of what it means to be "outrageous." Theatre has rarely been successfully outrageous. I can't think of much that would shock audiences anymore unless we did Take Me Out, which has a lot of male nudity. Virginia Shakespeare did an all-nude Macbeth last year, which no one found shocking as much as indulgent. The same was true of the Goodman Theatre's overindulgent King Lear, which simply used shock values -- nudity, simulated sex ?- in order to attract attention. You'd have to define for me what is "experimental" anymore. One could argue that Barter's post-modern and powerful production of Lear was experimental. Certainly, this year's Bat Boy, Comin' Up A Storm, and a host of other plays including last year's The Quiltmaker and Married Alive, would have raised a lot of eyebrows as little as four or five years ago. That leads me to my second point.
TWO: Audiences have come to expect the unexpected from Barter. If Barter's production of Death of a Salesman did not prove that, certainly The Liquid Moon set the tone now and forever. The following is a terrible analogy, and you probably cannot print this, but it serves very well to make my point. When I was in college, I was taking an experimental film making class. One day the professor was discussing the nature of "experimental" and he used this example. He said that what happens with artificial stimulation, such as film, and the same applies to theatre, drugs and other forms of artificial stimulation, is that once something excites you, the next time you need something even greater and more extreme to excite you. You can see this in slasher movies, which have become extreme and action films which now have to have beginning-to-end of-movie action sequences instead of just the car chase as in The French Connection.
In my first season here, Barter does Kuru, a comedy about cannibals, featuring one of the first major black roles on the Barter stage. That is followed by Other People's Money, which has more swear words uttered by a female character than any play ever written, and then we do Cat On A Hot Tin Roof with a totally multi-racial cast. What's left to shock anybody racially or language-wise? The barriers have been broken. People begin to ask, "What's next?" We do Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, which has male and female nudity. We do Wit in which there is full frontal female nudity. We do The Liquid Moon, in which male and female frontal nudity is integral to the story. What's next? There's little left for experimentation that's really worth doing.
As to subject matter, we commissioned The Angel's Share, which features a central lesbian relationship. We do Patient A, which deals with the issue of AIDS. We do Falsettos, which deals with a central homosexual relationship. We do Other Side of the Mountain, in which we now have a Barter audience that is rooting for the lesbian couple (who kiss on stage) to get together in the end. In Doubting Thomas, we deal with the question of faith and inclusion. What's left? Barter could do those shows which are merely indulgent of shock for shock's sake, but I don't see the value. Experiment for experiment sake is also of little value.
We've always chosen shows that we think speak to our audience. They are no longer "experimental" in the eyes of many because "experimental" is the norm. Maybe conservative is now "experimental"? Theatre-in-the-Square in Memphis just did Jerry Springer the Opera this year in order to attract attention; it was a failure, as was their production of Take Me Out last year, which they did for the same shock value reason.
You can't do what does not speak to the audience. Our obligation always is to communicate to our audience first and foremost. And, of course, Tradin' Paint, a play about NASCAR with one of the lead characters being a black, gay, Appalachian professor and the other lead character a woman who compares Dale Earnhardt to God is certainly "experimental." It's just not outrageous.
As to the issue of multi-cultural casting, again, like "experimental" it's the norm. We have a African-American male who has been a resident member of our company for many years now and is a favorite with our audience. He has played almost every kind of non-black role you can think of and even appeared as the "Conjure Woman" in Sugar Bean Sisters. We have an Asian-American male who is a resident member of our company who portrayed the new husband in the comedy Married Alive! to a white bride and who played the struggling gay fiance in Doubting Thomas. We had a young African-American male as the Prince in Cinderella last summer, and have had a host of multi-cultural actors in our company and in The Barter Players for several years. Our audience, generally, thinks nothing of it anymore. When Gill Braswell played the female villain in Thoroughly Modern Millie, nobody thought anything about it as Barter actors play male, female and non-traditional roles on such a regular basis that it simply goes unnoticed.
We are experimental and multi-cultural to the core. The beauty is that we have broken those barriers, and our audience has embraced all of that as part of their world here at Barter.
By the way, as a side note, on our 75th Anniversary company t-shirts, we are using the following from the Canadian TV Series Slings & Arrows (and if you have not seen this show, you should): "The theatre is an empty box; it is our task to fill it with fury, and ecstasy, and with revolution." That statement is really the answer to your question. Nothing I do is really ever conservative.
Barter has been "developing" more plays in recent years, by critical regard sometimes with great success and sometimes not. What are the benefits of developing your own plays?
The largest benefit is that we develop shows that speak to our audience. What plays in Chicago does not always play in New York. What speaks to an audience in Los Angeles frequently does not play in Iowa. You get it. Every audience now is unique. Our audience, like audiences everywhere, likes shows that speak to their experiences. That was true in Shakespeare's time and in Moliere's time, when the world of Western Culture was more homogenous. Most tourists traveling in our region want to experience Appalachia as well. No one is supporting Appalachian theatre on a broader scale than is Barter Theatre. Also, the large market for Southern plays is very limited as New York and Broadway generally have disdain for the South (certainly the critics do). So, we needed to be able to develop new product for our audience that essentially had no other launching pad in the U.S. theatre. Overall, this has been extremely successful. We have launched plays and careers as a result.
Also, many of our audience members can get the standard theatrical fare at their local regional theatres. What's popular around the country is likely to be performed by their regional or community theatres in their own backyard. Developing and producing new plays give audiences a reason to make the trip to Barter rather than staying at home. Premieres are also more exciting, compelling and vital, in many cases, than are the traditional theatre programming.
There's always a great risk of failure in the theatre, whether mounting new plays, the classics, the latest Broadway hit, or traditional theatre fare. We have found that our success is generally consistently greater with new plays than anything else. Most of our shows that have failed financially are the more traditional fare which have higher expenses and less attraction to current audiences.
To what do you attribute Barter's longevity in the world of professional theater -- after all, Abingdon is not a major metropolitan area?
Both of those are understatements. The answer: Robert Porterfield. He injected into Barter Theatre and into the surrounding community and region a sense of pride and ownership that simply does not exist for most theatres. Bob was a very special person; there is no doubt about that. And his "specialness" is the reason Barter continues to be so vital. Barter has also been able and willing to reinvent itself over the years. Many theatres make the mistake of thinking they must be one thing only. Barter has also been true to its core mission always ?- good theatre for its audience. It's never tried to be anything that it should not be -- like sending shows constantly to Broadway. Barter has always loved and connected with this region and been a voice to and for this region. Plus, the entrepreneurial spirit that I spoke of earlier has kept Barter alive and growing even in the most difficult of times. Very few theatres have the courage to be as entrepreneurial as Barter.
[Editor's Note: Follow this link to read more about this in Rick Rose's speech to the 2007 Porterfield Society.]
What is Barter's status in American professional theater?
Barter's status is as an extremely well respected theatre. We are among the top 10 employers of Actor's Equity (union actors) in the United States. Think about that! Here in Abingdon, Virginia, we employ more actors (number of AEA work weeks on a yearly basis) than most urban theatres. That, combined with Barter's growth in box office numbers and our reputation for developing new works, has given us great respect in the theatre world.
The Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights (AFPP) certainly has helped our reputation. We set out to create this Festival in order to give Appalachian plays the voice that they deserved in the same way that Appalachian literature has a voice. And we have succeeded in doing just that with many of our AFPP plays moving on to production and publication.
Perhaps what catapulted us into the forefront of the nation's theatres was our production of The Liquid Moon. This was for two reasons: 1) we stuck to it, we did what we said we were going to do, and we did not back down from public pressure; and 2) we did it for the right reasons, for artistic integrity of the work, and because the work spoke to our community; it was important and not indulgent. As a result of the production here at Barter, the play was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize that year -- that didn't hurt, either.
Do you see Barter's future as secure financially?
You might be surprised by this answer. I don't think, since the start of the Iraq war, that any arts institution, aside from those with large endowments (fewer institutions than you might think), are ever financially secure. We are so reliant upon the generosity of so very few that our financial security can disappear almost overnight. In the professional theatre business, the risk is so great and the financial investment is so big that we literally could go out of business by making just a few mistakes.
Everyone thinks that Barter is this wealthy organization. And by the standard of arts organizations within the Tri-Cities, we probably are in some ways; I certainly can see why people think that. But we do more with less money than any theatre our size in the U.S.; that's a fact. And the cost of maintaining the high quality of production here at Barter is astronomical. Our existence is and always has been a very fine line. Thanks to the overwhelming generosity of a few and the massive support of many, we stay afloat.
The major difficulty in theatre is that you really have no or very little upside ?- there are no huge windfall profits to be reaped in any season, but you have a huge downside -- there can easily be huge financial losses, as you are really gambling on every production you mount because there is no such thing as a sure bet. If there were, every Broadway production would be a hit (I think the statistic currently is that only one in 18 Broadway shows recoups its initial investment.)
Bob Porterfield wrote in his autobiography (never published): "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." I could not have said it better.
Is theater a dying art form? Is it increasingly difficult to program serious dramas? On Broadway, so many of the theater choices are simply spectacles -- is Barter having to move more and more in that direction?
NO and NO to the first two questions. More Americans attend theatre annually now than at any time in our nation's history; 75% of Americans attended a live performing arts event last year -- that's more Americans than attended spectator sports in the U.S. and that has been true every year for the last 10 or more years. Americans spend more money on admission to live performing arts events than they do spectator sports or movies.
Theatre is alive and well. Just look at this region. We have more theatre today, including book-in presentation houses than ever - the Wohlfahrt Haus Dinner Theatre in Wytheville, The Lincoln Theatre in Marion, Heritage Hall in Mountain City, Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Greeneville, the Neiderlander Broadway Series and the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville ...and most of these are under 20 years old, many very new.
Look at Broadway this season; plays and dramas thrive. Our research indicates that for the X and Y generations, theatre is an art form that they love. It's a great reality compared with the electronic world that they live in daily. Plus they love the tradition and the history of it. It's the Baby Boomers who are our problem. But they, too, will come round.
And look at Barter's successes this past season - Driving Miss Daisy, Doubting Thomas, Wooden Snowflakes -- the musicals were not our hits of the season; the plays with substance were.
Barter has never really had enough money or the type of audience where spectacle was the key to success. We have great production values, but we have never relied upon spectacle to sell our shows. Barter's audiences love a great story, well told, with some meaning. Our audiences have never really taken to light, fluffy entertainment; they never much like farce, for instance, because the story is secondary. Musicals that don't have strong storylines have never been successful for us. So the short answer to your question is that high quality production values, first-class acting, great stories, substance and a connection to the material is what works for Barter's audience. I don't see that changing anytime soon.
How are you attracting younger audiences -- that must be very difficult with all of the competitions, even in our region, for entertainment dollars?
We find X and Y generations to be excellent theater goers. They come to the theatre. They love live performances. They like the classics. They see theatre as a real experience compared to their electronic experiences. We have no real problem with attendance from the younger generation. They grew up on Barter with our school programs, The Barter Player performances, and were taken to the theatre with their families. As I said, our problem is Baby Boomers. I do a two-hour presentation on Boomers. They are a very difficult audience for the performing arts in general and theatre in specific. We understand them; capturing their attention and getting them to attend is another matter entirely.
Do you feel that Barter is in competition with the other entertainment venues in the region: community theatres, "road shows," musical events, movies, etc.? What is the value of live professional theatre?
Competition is always a bit of a problem on every level because, even if it drains a bit of audience, every percentage point lost comes out of your bottom line success. I think the largest competition within the region is the touring productions booked by the presentation houses. We see our attendance affected by the Broadway tour shows in Charlotte, Roanoke and Knoxville. They really hurt our attendance at our musicals. When patrons pay that kind of money to go and see a Broadway production on tour (because it's a Broadway tour does not mean the quality is always good), they are less likely to spend money on attending a Barter production as they have used a good chunk of their entertainment budget to see that Broadway tour. People go to community theatre, movies, concerts and other entertainment events for different reasons than they come to Barter Theatre. While doing these types of activities may impact their entertainment budget, we have not seen that these types of entertainments really impact their attendance to Barter. They save their budget money to attend Barter, or they use one of the many discounts that we offer to see what they want to see at Barter. Ultimately, we are a very viable and friendly professional theatre to attend compared with other professional performing arts events around the U.S.
Really our largest competition is three things:
(1) In the words of Jayne Duehring, Barter's Director of Advancement, "doing nothing" is Barter's greatest competitor. And she is absolutely right. People are stressed and time starved ?- or, at least, they perceive themselves to be. They get so little time to "do nothing" that they choose that option over any other form of entertainment, especially a form where you have to really apply yourself (as opposed to passive entertainment such as TV and film).
(2) The economy; tough economic times, or a war-time economy, have a great impact on us. We are, after all, discretionary.
(3) Gas prices; given where we are, everyone has to drive to get to us. Busses have it the worst as they have to fill every seat on the bus in order to show a profit. School busses are more expensive to run in an ever-diminishing school budget.
As to the value of live theatre, human society and social interaction ?- storytelling is one of the four necessities of human existence. Live theatre is like no other art form as it necessitates that the audience and the actor bond together in a unique experience for a few hours. That bond usually surrounds a look at the common experience of humanity shared and understood by both actor and audience. If film is a visceral experience and literature is an intellectual experience, theatre is the perfect blend of both. It is not passive, but active, if the experience is to be an effective one. There really is nothing like it. And for the psychological explanation of how that is important, you'd need several more pages for my answer.
Barter has a resident acting company. What are the benefits and the negatives of this employment/casting system? Don't you have to sometimes cast actors in perhaps not entirely appropriate roles?
There are few remaining resident acting companies in the U.S. and only a handful even exist on this continent. In part because American audiences often demand and/or expect that the perfectly cast actor will play the part that only he/she can play. Or, more importantly, audiences like type-casting and, thus, actors frequently play the same character over and over again ?- Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Nathan Lane, etc. Yet Americans have bored of this in films and are tiring of watching the same actor play the same role in the same film over and over again. Thus, you see the emergence of Johnny Depp from whom one only expects the unexpected; he can act.
The failure of the resident repertory acting system and its pitfall is having the same actor play the same type of part over and over again. Audiences get bored. Alabama Shakespeare Company and The Denver Center recently banned their resident acting companies for this very reason. Audiences were tired of seeing the same actors play similar roles all of the time.
When resident acting companies work best is when the actors can truly transform themselves into different roles time after time, leaving the audience in awe of their talents and/or allowing the audience to forget that they even have seen this particular actor in any other role before or after. We've seen this a lot with Barter's acting company, where audience members will remember a particular performance but not even realize that the same actor who did A also did B. I would argue, and it has been confirmed to me by other professionals attending Barter's performances, that we have assembled truly one of the best acting companies currently in existence in the U.S. and maybe even in North America. We can certainly compete with the best.
The benefits: a group of artists who know how to work together to create great theatre; who share a common working language and feel safe and comfortable to be able to take risks and feel supported and be able to allow themselves to be vulnerable in ways that no actor coming into our company for a one-time experience will ever be able to do. The stability of the work of these artists and their work ethic are a definite plus. Their reliability and their commitment to being part of the solution are immeasurable: their loyalty and commitment to delivering a good product; pride in their work; their dedication to growth in themselves and in their skills. It is really much the same as putting together a good professional sports team. There are some economic benefits, although this is not a real reason to keep a resident acting company.
From an audience perspective, we've seen the audience grow in appreciation of the talent of our acting company and love to go from one show to the next just to see the transformation of the actors. Audience members get to know actors. Would Driving Miss Daisy have been so wildly successful if our audience did not know and love actress Mary Lucy Bivins? In many ways, it is like having the best of community theatre and professional theatre. Now, whenever any actor departs from Barter, for whatever reason, I get lots and lots of inquiries, questions and comments from our patrons about that actor. Largely, our audiences have come to cherish our resident acting company.
The downside: We don't always have the right people in casting a show; sometimes we have to compromise more than is wise and not to the benefit of the production. We do get some amazing and wonderfully successful surprises in doing this, however. There are some shows that we'd like to produce that we cannot because the show does not fit with our resident acting company at all. There are some economic disadvantages as well; it can be expensive to maintain a company and is not always an efficient use of funds. Having to decide when an actor is no longer needed is extremely difficult. Not every actor, who may be immensely talented, is able to be an resident company member. It takes a specific work ethic and ability that is unique in the acting profession.
I think the benefits far outweigh the downsides. And I think our success at the box office is proof of this.
Do you have difficulty in attracting high caliber actors to "rural Appalachia"? Is employing couples a strategy to compensate for the isolation of this area from big city sophistication?
We really have no difficulty any longer attracting high caliber talent to Barter on any level because of our reputation. We have become known as a fantastic place to work despite our grueling schedule. Our biggest problem now is having to turn people away or having to let them go because there is no place for them to move up into our company. Being single in this region is extremely difficult. Being single and working the schedule and the hours that we work in the theatre is almost painful. Hiring couples who both understand the theatre profession and know how to work in this world certainly solves many problems. Talk to industry in the area; they are doing the same thing. Single employees, unless they have family in the area, don't stay for any length of time.
I don't see the "isolation" like there used to be. It's not difficult to get to anywhere from here, and this region has a tremendously high quality of life. What we may lack in this region is the bar scene; but that's not the audience we are trying to attract to Barter anyway. We really don't have time for that. We have great arts, an excellent film and lecture series, generally lots to do, good attractions in relatively easy striking distance, much better shopping, good restaurants, a relatively inexpensive cost of living compared with most areas of the country, and at Barter, a really vital collective of artists who genuinely care about each other and their work. You can't ask for much more. It's not for everybody, but it works for a lot of people.
What is Barter's primary demographic focus? Are you trying to program primarily for retirees? For tourists? For folks in the greater Tri-Cities region -- or beyond?
All of the above. We cannot exist on any one of the above. If we tried to, we'd be out of business. We are constantly trying to expand our market and our sphere of influence. We do a lot of market research. We are constantly evaluating trends and taking the temperature of where the wind blows so that we can respond appropriately. Like all business, we have cycles that are outside of our control. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we fail. The important thing is to continue to learn.
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