Now that we’ve “(temporarily) forgotten everything,” it’s time to start hearing from the theater ghosts who might be pointing the way to “building a new model.”
It’s 1932, and a young actor named Robert Porterfield is on the train back from a national tour of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Walter Hampden, one of the last of the great actor-managers as well as a kind and generous human being. Porterfield, who had been playing a bit part at Equity minimum, is staring glumly out the train window knowing that, when the tour was ended and he returned to New York City, things would be tough.
The US economy had crashed three years earlier, and the number of unemployed had climbed to over twelve million nationally. Porterfield remembers, “The American standard of living which had fattened on luxury dropped suddenly to the sharp edge of necessity. Banks were closing, savings were disappearing, and on every street corner in Manhattan people were selling apples for five cents apiece….Farmers watched land they had labored all their lives to own disappear on the auctioneer’s block as banks foreclosed their mortgages.” He himself was on the edge of ruin: the night before being cast in Cyrano, Porterfield had returned to his apartment to find that everything there, from bedding to knives and forks, had been taken in lieu of rent. Things were not looking good for him.
Porterfield had grown up on a farm in a small town in Virginia, and had gone off to New York City to be an actor. He had been cast in bit parts and as a extra, but like most actors he knew, he was struggling to make ends meet doing day jobs like running elevators. But even these sorts of jobs would be scarce when he returned from tour.
As the train made its way through tiny towns and farmland, Porterfield was struck by the “rich-looking fields and grazing cattle and crops piled outside of farm doors.” Unlike in New York, food here was abundant, but there was nobody to sell it to. “Prices on farm crops had never been lower. I think it was said that the price of wheat was lower than it had been since the days of Queen Elizabeth I. It was piling up and rotting away…because nobody had any money to buy it with.” It was then that he had an idea.
“To anyone who ever grew up on a farm, or to any boy who ever traded jackknives for marbles, the idea comes naturally to swap what you can’t buy. It occurred to me that we had something to swap, too–culture, entertainment, spiritual nourishment for bodily nourishment.”
He went to see Mr. Hampden and explained his idea: “Mr Hampden,” I said, “people aren’t buying tickets because they have’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–” Hampden heard him out, then politely told him that, while his idea was novel, it was impractical.
But he didn’t give up. When he got to New York, he continued to try to figure out how to make his vision happen, despite being told repeatedly that his idea was crazy. He went to the Stage Relief Committee, which was made up of a group of some of the wealthiest and famous people in the theater at that time, and described his idea. His plan was to take a company of actors back to his home town in Virginia–Abingdon, population 3,005–where he had gotten permission to perform in the old opry house that was now the Town Hall where Edwin Booth and Joseph Jefferson had once performed. Abingdon also had a school, the Mary Washington Female Seminary for Women, which had had to close down because of the Depression. He had gotten permission to use the school building to house the actors. His plan was to acquire the rights to a handful of plays royalty free, perform them, and let the farmers pay in produce, which would then be divided among the actors. What he needed from the Committee was the money to transport the actors. The committee members huddled together for what seemed a long time, and then–told him no.
Nevertheless, several members of the Committee were intrigued enough by his enthusiasm that they tried to help him on their own. They helped him arrange with the Authors Guild to use produce to pay for royalties (George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, wasn’t exactly thrilled with his Virginia ham), a famous actress gave him a silver satin cyclorama she wasn’t using, and gradually things started to come together. He started looking for actors willing to take a chance on this new idea, which was easier than usual given the economic situation in New York. He ended up taking a company of 22 (!) to Abingdon, most of whom hitchiked to get there, and most of whom were seasoned professionals.
The rest is history–the history of the Barter Theatre. The section of Porterfield’s unpublished memoir that Todd London published in his must-have book, An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, is charming and filled with funny stories about the first year of the Barter Theatre, which is still doing well (although without the produce) almost ninety years later.
So what do I think is important about this outlandish origin story?
First and foremost, Robert Porterfield picked himself. He looked around and saw a theater system that was failing to provide employment for so many talented people, including himself. The Depression looked as if it was going to get worse before it got better, so instead of standing in soup lines in New York hoping for things to get better, Porterfield tried to figure out a new model. And he himself took responsibility for making that new model happen. He didn’t have monetary resources–he was living on a quart of milk and a box of graham crackers a day–but he did have resources nonetheless: a vision, enthusiasm, knowledge of how another culture worked, and connections to that culture.
Porterfield ignored conventional wisdom. Seasoned professionals told him his idea wouldn’t work, and that people in a tiny town wouldn’t support a theater, but he thought otherwise. “There were two kinds of hungering,” Porterfield asserted, “hungering in the body and hungering in the soul. I wanted to bring together the actor who was hungry in the stomach and the people I knew best, the people of the Virginia highlands, because I had a hunch that they were hungry for the spiritual nourishment the theater could bring them. I thought they were hungry enough for it to pay in the vegetables and chickens and jam they couldn’t sell.” He turned out to be right.
Porterfield thought outside the box. Instead of being blinded by “the way things should be done,” he looked at the situation with fresh eyes and searched for alternatives. He used the magic phrase “what if” to crack open a new way of doing things. He thought, there are people in small towns that lack cash but have more food than they can eat or sell, what if they could swap food for tickets? What if artists didn’t have to be paid in money but instead the things they would normally use money to buy!
He also wasn’t stuck geographically. He didn’t think that his work was less important because it was being done in a town of three thousand 600 miles away from the Great White Way. He just wanted to act! He cared about the work, not the prestige.
To my way of thinking, Robert Porterfield stands as a terrific example of the kind of creativity that is needed today, when things are awfully similar to the situation he was facing. What crazy ideas do you have that might create a new model? What “what if” needs to be said to release those crazy ideas? And how long can we forget what we know in order to see our creative life with new eyes?