This is the first of an 11-part, weekly series in which the students in my theatre history class at the University of North Carolina at Asheville respond to articles in Todd London’s anthology An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. You can read the series announcement here.
Today, Sid Banks discusses Robert Porterfield’s description of the founding of Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA, in 1933. Porterfield creatively solved the problem presented by the Great Depression: “People aren’t buying tickets because they haven’t got the money. Why don’t we let them pay for their tickets in farm produce, things we could eat — vegetables, eggs, corn, turkey, ham…” His goal was to “bring together the actor who was hungry in the stomach with the people…[who] were hungry for the spiritual nourishment the theater could bring them.” I hope that you will share your thoughts below in the comments section, so that Sid and the other students can benefit from your insights. — Scott Walters
“We are not ready to adopt the point of view that human nature being what it is, people must be made to pay for something to appreciate it. A theater will create its own respect on the stage…The only practical means of insuring the permanence of our theater is to tie it in with civic responsibility.”
— Joseph Papp
The image of fumbling through your lifeless wallet for 30 bucks could shake any broke college student from their half-conscious reality, suddenly remembering they can’t even afford tuition—not to mention non-ramen dinner. This feeling remains undeniably true for a scary amount of theatre lovers; prompting me to ask myself: Can and would theatre exist without capitalism? Is it possible to fund a show without relying on monetary admissions?
I was lying on the library floor when it caught my eye. The answer hid within the pages of Todd London’s An Ideal Theater, more specifically the section about Barter Theatre: a successful and very alive company established in the ’30s, during the Great Depression. I was eager to know how anything could blossom during a time when money was being burned in order to keep a house warm. Barter Theatre’s founder Robert Porterfield recalls “it started, I believe, when an old farmer plunked down two heads of cabbage on the mayor’s desk and asked for a ticket.” Accepting payment for tickets in professional services was a fundamental breakthrough: it allowed actors to make a living from what they loved, in the midst of widespread unemployment and a major economic meltdown. It was “the way [they] got [their] hair cut and [their] teeth filled.” The few payments made in cash were used for “gasoline, electricity and water. But ninety percent of the people who came to see [them] brought barter.”
The idea of a theatre approaching a commodity- and- service- based admission system, rather than monetary, was more than exciting. I tossed my book aside and called Barter Theatre’s box office. “We don’t do this anymore—except for a couple times a year where you can get tickets in exchange for a certain amount of non-perishable food cans, which is all donated.” I asked her how these shows are funded, and she replied, “from grants and donations.”
Considering the public’s insatiable appetite for something new, as well as issues concerning theatre’s accessibility, I found myself imagining what an artistic barter system would look like today. Given that times and governmental regulations have changed—and thankfully it isn’t the Great Depression anymore—it is evident that Barter Theatre’s old admission system cannot fund a show and it’s actors to the extent that it used to. The value of filling teeth, sadly, no longer equates to the value of a ticket (unless you’re talking Broadway). New conditions demand new approaches.
Enter Flux Theatre Ensemble, a not-for-profit group centered in New York, which has recently taken on both a similar and innovative approach they call “The Living Ticket.” One of their principal goals for pursuing this path is “to assert that the not-for-profit movement exists to create alternative models of communal value, and not merely mimic for-profit structures.” Along with providing a thoroughly explained budget plan, joined by suggested donations, they offer alternative methods to acquire a ticket. In a way, these methods mirror the professional services offered in Barter Theatre during the ’30s. The first service mentioned is spreading the word: whether or not you bring friends who assist financially, exposing Flux Theatre to a wider audience is significantly more important to them. Some of the alternatives to cash include: Volunteering in the box office or tech support: they don’t exclusively accept skilled hands, but also willing hands; Contributing artistically: collaborate with them on their plays; Contributing civically: work with community organizations, from supporting immigrant rights to donating non-perishable food (cough, Barter Theatre alert); and finally, connecting them to resources: let them know of any free or affordable places for rehearsals and productions, amongst other connections.
The primary advantage of this approach is to dissolve economic barriers, ultimately treating your community as people, as opposed to marketing targets. Transforming theatre’s accessibility would not only result in a growing audience, but it would also work towards dismantling cultural hegemony, and provide a supportive relationship between the theatre and the community.
This is not to say that non-financial admission exchanges, as distinguished as Barter Theatre’s in the ’30s, will never be used in the future. The economy is a delicate, dynamic system that is continually changing—bartering could very well be a strategy people will operate in order for theatre to thrive during the next financial crisis. In the meantime, we can strive to care about sharing theatre.