The show must not go on
Abingdon's historic Barter Theatre postpones 2020 season opening amid coronavirus
Abingdon’s Barter Theatre – the nation’s oldest Actors’ Equity Union theater – has closed the curtain on its spring season.
The theater, which opened in 1933 during the Great Depression, announced March 19 it would furlough 87 of its employees, then days later furloughed six more. This left a skeleton crew of 11 to fundraise, pay bills and perform other basic functions.
Katy Brown, producing artistic director, gave furloughed employees two weeks of work with pay to cover the time for them to apply for unemployment. But without an end date for the crisis, Brown is unsure what this will mean for the rest of the venerable theater’s 2020 season, which was set to run from the end of April through December.
“Right now, it’s not even safe enough for us to gather a group of people in a room together to rehearse, let alone perform,” Brown says.
Nick Piper, who has been with the company for more than 25 years as an actor and director, is one of the many furloughed.
“It’s a waiting game of when we’re going to be able to get back to work,” Piper says. “Even after the country starts to open up again, it’s going to be a matter of when people actually feel comfortable gathering together again.”
Although some theaters, including Staunton’s American Shakespeare Center, are streaming recorded performances, Barter Theatre has only been able to stream its Peter Pan performance due to restrictions from the Actors’ Equity Union. Theaters are only allowed to stream past performances or current performances, which Barter was unable to do.
In place of performance streaming, the theater is producing video content, including a discussion of “Macbeth” in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday in April.
But aside from that, much of the future is unknown.
Piper anticipates furloughed workers will remain loyal to the theater. Most are resident actors, he says, who live in Abingdon and work at least 40 weeks of the year there, which is atypical of an actor’s vagabond life.
“I think people just want to get through this and see what happens next,” Piper says. “Barter started during the Great Depression — a ridiculous time to start a theatre. I feel like it’s in its DNA to come back in some form, whatever it is.”