Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
actors graphicCreating America's Theatre
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Introduction to the Exhibit
Early American Theatre
A Novel Idea
Musicals
Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
Picks and Pans
Playbills and Programs
Regional Theatre in Virginia

Regional Theatre in Virginia

Theatre in the Commonwealth

Theatre in the Commonwealth of Virginia has a long and rich history. The first recorded performance of a play in English in the American colonies took place in 1665 in Accomack County. It is further documented that, in 1716, William Levingston erected a playhouse in Williamsburg, the earliest known theatre in the British colonies. The first professional troupes of actors arrived in Virginia in the mid-eighteenth century. These traveling theatrical companies would make their way through the colonies, particularly in the South, and perform in major metropolitan areas, including Williamsburg.


The nineteenth century brought growth and expansion within the Commonwealth, precipitating the desire of communities to build cultural venues for the performing arts. Opera houses, theatres, and public halls thrived in large towns, such as Richmond, as well as in small villages, like Charlottesville. During this time of the star system in American theatre, even the smallest community with a performance space could book a major professional actor and his company to perform there. With the advent of the twentieth century and the concentration of the professional commercial theatre in New York City, theatres elsewhere began to rely on regional talent to sustain the cultural demands of their communities, fostering what became known as the Little Theatre movement. One of the oldest of these types of theatres in Virginia, the Barter Theatre, was founded during the Depression in Abingdon and survived by “bartering” tickets for food. Today, the Barter Theatre is the State Theatre of Virginia, and the Commonwealth is alive with other theatres and resident theatre companies.


From Abingdon’s Barter Theatre to Lexington’s Lime Kiln to Staunton’s Blackfriars to Charlottesville’s Live Arts to Barboursville’s Four County Players to Richmond’s Theatre Virginia to Norfolk’s Little Theatre of Norfolk to Alexandria’s American Century Theatre, the list goes on and on. The citizens of the Commonwealth have many opportunities to watch stages shining with talent.

 

Lithograph captioned “The Burning of the Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, on the Night of the 26th December 1811, by Which Awful Calamity, Upwards of Seventy Five of Its Most Valuable Citizens Suddenly Lost Their Lives, and Many Others, Were Much Injured.” Philadelphia: B. Tanner, 1812.
From the Merritt T. Cooke Collection.

 

William Dunlap in his A History Of The American Theatre (1832), described the Richmond theatre fire of 1811:


The house was fuller than on any night of the season. The play was over, and the first act of the pantomime had passed. The second and last had begun. All was yet gayety, all so far had been pleasure, curiosity was yet alive, and further gratification anticipated… when the audience perceived some confusion on the stage, and presently a shower of sparks falling from above… Some one cried out from the stage that there was no danger. Immediately after, Hopkins Robinson ran forward and cried out ‘the house is on fire!’ pointing to the ceiling, where the flames were progressing like wild-fire. In a moment, all was appalling horror and distress.

 

Autograph letter, signed, from William Wirt to Thomas Abthorpe Cooper. 19 May 1816.
 

 

William Wirt writes to Thomas Cooper, a noted professional actor, regarding hiring a room for Cooper’s theatre troupe’s performance in Richmond:


I have made inquiry and find that there is a room at the Bell Tavern of the description you mention, which Mr. Brooks the keeper of the tavern has promised that you may have—it has the length & breadth you mentioned. You say nothing of the pitch of the room, which it occurs to me may be a matter of some consequence in a plan of benches to be raised in theatre style—the pitch of this room is a little upwards of twelve feet—I have seen large companies in it on similar occasions... as to the temper of the people, never fear it—You will find them in as coming a temper as you would wish—We have, it is true some hysterical ladies whose nerves may be shaken a little by such an exhibition—This is very natural and, perhaps, amiable –But I am much mistaking if you will not find torrents eager to catch at the offer and liking it more the nearer it approaches to theatrical representation.

 

Last Night but Two of M’lle Marietta Ravel…This , Thursday Evening, May 25th, 1865, Will Be Presented , John Brougham’s Laughable Burlesque in 2 Acts Entitled “Po-ca-hon-tas; or, The Gentle Savage.” Playbill for Glenn’s Theatre. [Norfolk, VA: Glenn’s Theatre, 1865].
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

A collection of playbills by William B. Wood for theatres in Alexandria, Fredericksburg, and Washington DC. Ca. 1835.
 

 

William B. Wood was a player and theatre manager.

 

The Barter Theatre

The Barter Theatre was the brainchild of Robert Porterfield, an actor and native of southwest Virginia. In 1933, in the midst of the Depression, Porterfield and his company of actors opened the theatre in Abingdon, charging playgoers 35 cents for admission or the equivalent in food—hence the name Barter Theatre. Playwrights meanwhile were paid their royalties with Virginia hams.


Over the years, such well-known actors as Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, and Kevin Spacey have performed at the theatre early in their careers. In 1946, the Barter Theatre became the State Theatre of Virginia.

 

Collection of programs for the Barter Theatre. Abingdon, VA.
 

 

The cast for the 1947-48 production of Twelfth Night included Ernest Borgnine.

 

Photograph of the Barter Theatre award luncheon for Henry Fonda. Town Hall Club, New York City, 1948.
From the Papers of Alfred Dickinson Barksdale.

 

The Blackfriars Playhouse

Virginia’s newest theatre, The Blackfriars Playhouse, in Staunton, houses a professional theatre company called Shenandoah Shakespeare. The playhouse, which replicates Shakespeare’s indoor theatre of the same name in London, opened in September 2001. In the future, Shenandoah Shakespeare plans to construct an outdoor theatre similar to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The company’s unique and lively performances successfully recreate the theatrical ambiance of seventeenth-century England.

 

Shendandoah Shakespeare. Blackfriars Playhouse. Program and brochure. [Staunton: Shenandoah Shakespeare, 2001].
Gift of Margaret Hrabe.

 

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