Creating a Sense of Community Throughout The Appalachian Highlands

Never Stop Learning: Barter Theater and the Pursuit of Dialogue

Saying that Richard Rose thinks theater is important is like saying the Pope is Catholic or the sky is blue. Growing up in rural Lena, Wisconsin meant Rose was surrounded by plenty of farmland, but he was never without theater. “My parents made sure we got to experience the arts, and for that, I am forever grateful. They took us to Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis in order to go to the theater. They always made sure that we got to experience theater.” Rose loved the theater, but he never imagined that it would end up being his life’s calling. He went to the seminary in high school and college: an entirely different calling to be sure. “I was fine in seminary. I was learning a lot and each class was taught from different perspectives. We would take a class focused on the history, religion, humanities, literature, and philosophical views. The priests made sure we looked at any subject matter from more than one point of view.” Immersed in his learning, and happy to be doing so, Rose never thought he would be called into the theater but, like much of life, fate intervened to change things. “In my first month in college, I got a call from my high school art teacher asking me to come and direct a play. I scoffed at the idea at first. I mean I had been involved in some theater productions in high school, but nothing major. I asked her why she was asking me, and she said, ‘I think you’d be a good director.’” The teacher was right about her hunch.

This is Rose’s 24th Anniversary at Barter Theatre, but the Barter wasn’t even something on his radar. “I was, happy doing what I was doing, which was working as Producing Director of American Stage Festival in Milford, NH, but fate has a way of sticking her nose in my business. I got a call from an actor, who I knew from his work at a neighboring theatre in New Hampshire. He was back in the area, asked if I’d meet him for lunch so I agreed. While at lunch, he told me that Barter was looking for a new director – he had acted at Barter many times over the years – and said he thought that what I did in theatre and what Barter Theatre needed would be a good match. So I applied.”

Rose didn’t imagine much would happen with his application. “Barter was really looking for either an alum of Barter or a southerner as Barter is a southern theatre.” But he was asked to interview and then he was asked to interview again and then, finally, he was offered the position. “The first time I visited Abingdon for my first interview, I called my wife, Amanda, and told her that she would love Abingdon and would never want to leave. I was right.” Rick became Barter’s Producing Artistic Director in 1992, at a time when Abingdon had just a handful of shops downtown, and when Barter had just about 47,000 annual visitors. Producing artistic director is a mouthful to say, but it is a job that entails Rose having to wear more than one hat and being responsible for both the financial and artistic aspects of the theater.

“Most theaters across the country have an artistic director who handles the actors and chooses the plays and then there is a managing director who handles the money, marketing, and fundraising: I oversee all aspects of the theater. It is a lot of work, but there are obvious advantages.” The advantage to having one person handle both positions means that there is someone running the theater that understands the actors, but also understands that the theater, in the end, is a business. “The key to running any successful business is to hire the best personnel and support them in their jobs for the greatest possible success. The team we have here at Barter are top-notch professionals, who I am honored to work with every day. We all work hard with long hours, but we get to do what we love and that means sharing our love of theater with as many people as possible.” To that end, Barter Theatre has, over the years, established many outreach and educational programs in order to reach the younger generation. “We are proud of all of the programs we have going on here at Barter and the actors who go out into the community to participate,” says Rose. Among the programs Barter Theatre has going on are Barter Youth Academy, which offers acting for kids of all ages. Students learn about theater, self-confidence, team building and life skills from the audition to the final performance on-stage in front of a live audience. The Barter Players are a group of professional artists who perform world-class theatre for young audiences. Barter’s Young Playwrights Festival, held annually, is an event aimed at cultivating and celebrating the writing and storytelling talent of high school students. Lastly, but certainly not least, there is Barter’s Project REAL. This program places teaching artists in schools in order to help students engage with the curriculum. “We all know everyone learns differently and just because that is the case doesn’t meant students should be left out of the learning process. Project REAL is something so unique and wonderful and its success speaks for itself.”

Barter’s Project REAL reaches students in more than six counties in three states and the numbers are growing because of two things: demand and success. “We have seen this program help students raise their test scores 25 percent, 35 percent, and so on. They are learning curriculum through interactive theatre techniques, and they are retaining what they learn because we engrain within these techniques how the curriculum applies to their live. Thus, they understand the purpose of the lessons and retain the information.” Rose beams about the learning that is going on in these classrooms and the importance of students learning subjects like Math and Biology through such interaction. Project REAL is helping students grasp material that they had previously struggled with and, in turn, abandoned. “Remember that we are not teaching theater to students with this program, that’s Barter Youth Academy, this is for using theatre techniques to help connect students with abstract ideas. The results have been, in no uncertain terms, phenomenal.” That Rose gets especially excited about a program such as this is no surprise considering his passion for learning and his belief that independent theaters such as Barter can serve as vehicles for education. “We invite classes all the time to come here. We offer scholarships for Barter Youth Academy and find ways to help any student, regardless of income, get into the theater to see plays. This is, I believe, one of  the few places left where both sides of any issue can come together in order to have a discussion. So many places today make us choose what side we’re on without allowing either side to explain their beliefs and thoughts. We see theatre as a place where people gather to experience the common ground of our humanity.”

Theater is, to Rose and others, a place to learn. A neutral ground on which to discuss ideas, many of which divide us once we leave the confines of The State Theatre of Virginia. He works hard; tirelessly in fact, to garner funding from any source he can get it since, without this money, the theater would close permanently. Barter has resident actors who are employed year-round and, while other resident theaters around the country perform a handful of shows, Barter has a schedule that runs throughout the year: on two different stages. Rose is, perhaps, not an easy man to work for and there have certainly been times when he made decisions that others did not agree with, but one thing is for certain, he has made Barter Theatre a success. What was once a theater that saw roughly 40,000 visitors a year, has grown into a bustling destination that now has more than 160,000 annual visitors from all around the globe. Visitors and successes aside, however, Richard Rose is happy Barter is still in action and has grown in its reach both in the local community and  in far off places. “One of the most important things we do around here is learn. We have a saying around Barter, ‘Art equals growth’. I constantly remind us all that we must never stop learning. I’m sure everyone is tired of hearing it, but it’s the truth. When we stop learning, we stop living up to our potential as human beings.”

Here’s to many more years of learning something at Barter Theatre. May the plays continue to be thought-provoking and earthshattering and may the educational programs continue in growth and depth and reach even more students than anyone ever imagined.

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