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VIRGINIA Small theater launches big talent, aims for the heart



Published: Tue, July 12, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



This out-of-the-way stage spawned the careers of some well-known actors.

ABINGDON, Va. (AP) -- "Do you DO or do you mildew?"

That line from a play in rehearsal at the Barter Theatre, "Feeding on Mulberry Leaves," applies not just to the Appalachian characters who inhabit the stage: a family tied to the comforting but stifling confines of the gas station and convenience store they run in Virginia.

It applies as well to the young actors who found their way to this well-regarded, out-of-the way playhouse. And to the set builder who finally said enough was enough one biting cold day when he was constructing houses with his grandfather in Ohio, and cut away to scene-design school.

It applies to the producing artistic director who came to Abingdon a dozen years ago from northeastern regional theaters and New York. And to the town itself, which decided to do, rather than mildew, when tobacco could no longer sustain it.

When it opened

The Barter Theatre opened in 1933 at the height of the Depression. True to its name, it accepted live hens, a dead rattlesnake and canned goods in return for tickets. A ham for Hamlet, as the saying goes here.

Today it is a big deal in this southwestern Virginia town of fewer than 8,000 people, drawing 150,000 through its doors in a season.

An economic anchor, the Barter is an eye-popping presence on occasion. For example, its staging of "Liquid Moon" in 2003 featured two naked actors for part of the performance, drawing protests from a state senator and the Cedar Bluff Baptist Church in nearby Atkins.

Theatrical talent is not enough at the Barter. Actors practically work farmers' hours and everyone has to be resourceful.

Between several productions going on two stages at once, rehearsals for coming plays and children's shows, workdays stretch over 12 hours.

Richard Rose, who runs the Barter and directs the productions, says a lot of theater these days is about spectacle. But he cannot afford it.

"We will skirt the spectacle and really go after the heart of a story," he said, pausing during the cast's first rehearsal of "Mulberry Leaves."

The wail of a passing freight train echoes through the tall, old windows.




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