Part of my job as the Associate Artistic Director of the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia was to spread the “gospel” of theater far and wide throughout the mountain community. Sure, the Barter had been part of the local lives for 70 years, ever since an enterprising theater actor named Robert Porterfield, from NYC, started it, with payment from his audiences in the form of vegetables, jams, pies and hams (“Ham for Hamlet was a favorite slogan back then). Money was scarce during the depression but farm goods were a’plenty, and though the company only took in $37.00 in cash that first year, the company gained a composite weight of 200 pounds! They ate well, and had lots of geese flapping around rehearsal.
Thus the name Barter Theatre.
Anyway, by the time i got there it was ( and remains) a well established professional theater running in repertory, meaning there were always four shows running in rotation on its two stages, one for large productions and one for more intimate up-close experiences. You could see a musical at a matineé and a George Bernard Shaw play in the evening (rumor had it that Shaw, a vegetarian, got paid his royalties in spinach).
Eventually, as years rolled by, the theater began taking in actual money, and applied for many grants to help fund its various programs.
So, as Outreach Director, i took over a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts called SHAKESPEARE IN AMERICA, and we were given a ton of money to take Shakespeare and his wonderful plays to 12 under-served high schools in the region. In Appalachia (that’s Apple LATCH Uh, for those of you who need to know, not Apple Lay cha).
This meant I’d get up at 5:00 AM, with my teaching materials on subjects like “Shakespeare was the Rap Star of his Day”,etc, and drive my hardy old Mercedes (20 years old and ran like a top) into the mountains, where I would inevitably get absolutely lost, because the coal mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia and surroundings, were on no GPS system ever invented.
So, i would get lost A LOT.
One particularly frustrating morning, i got so lost, going up one hill, only to be to go down it and then end up higher that before, i got so upset, so lost, i stopped a coal miner and his huge truck and begged for help. He thought i was a lunatic, but he was cordial nonetheless and soon had me on my way down to my three o’clock high school assembly for which i was already late.
I nearly hugged the coal dirty fellow with gratitude, but kept driving…those kids were expecting me, and i was determined. It soon turned into the best session i had up to that point, and the kids really got the connection between Shakespearean language and the language of their mountain ancestors. We had fun playing Shakespeare games and throwing Elizabethan insults around like they had been using them all their lives.
These kids were smart as hell, and hungry for Shakespeare.
It was one of the most rewarding parts of my job, no matter how far i had to travel (Kentucky was particularly fun, with its history of Harlan County strike wars,)
and they sent me home with an armful of potted plants for my garden and pies from their kitchens.
I will never forget those kids, and am grateful that the NEA has such a program still, at least i hope so.
These kids got the immortal stories that Shakespeare relied on, and took Romeo and Juliet to heart like it had happened to them yesterday. Perhaps it even had.