GEOFF BENNETT: Barter Theatre, born out of the Depression, is thriving 90 years later, now known for bringing regional themes to its rural Appalachian stage.
Jeffrey Brown visited Abingdon, Virginia, to show the changing face of the area for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
ACTRESS: And I said, isn't it tragic, Carla?
He fell over on that big side.
JEFFREY BROWN: A rehearsal of a new play about a group of women in a small factory town.
ACTRESS: What's so wrong with me, mama?
JEFFREY BROWN: Experiencing loss and grief, friendship and family ties.
AUDREY CEFALY, Playwright: Her volume and intensity there is just kind of way off the charts.
JEFFREY BROWN: Playwright Audrey Cefaly.
AUDREY CEFALY: What I am trying to do is to articulate without condescension the interior worlds of working-class people of this region.
There are a lot of preconceptions and myths and stereotypes out there.
And I'm trying to dispel what I can with truthful characters from an honest perspective.
JEFFREY BROWN: Cefaly's play "Trouble (at the Vista View Mobile Home Estates)" was one of six featured this year at Barter Theatre's annual Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights, which offers regional writers a chance to work with actors and directors to fine-tune their plays.
ACTRESS: There's no water here, because that's fun.
It's so fun.
(LAUGHTER) JEFFREY BROWN: And to see how audiences respond during a staged reading here in one of Barter's two theaters.
AUDREY CEFALY: There's something very singular about being among writers who are all focused and devoted to the same goal, which is to elevate voices in the region from whence they came.
NICK PIPER, Associate Artistic Director, Barter Theatre: I think what it really is, is about our audience, to develop these plays for our audience, plays that reflect their lives, that reflect their values, or challenge those and explore them.
It is so good to see you all back here in person.
JEFFREY BROWN: Barter's associate artistic director, Nick Piper, is also director of the 23-year-old festival, an opportunity for local audiences to hear new stories and for regional writers to develop new work.
At least one of these plays will eventually receive a full production at Barter.
NICK PIPER: That has the possibility of changing a playwright's career and life.
Once it's gotten to production at, like, a regional theater, a professional regional theater, other theaters throughout the country are looking at -- we look at each other's seasons and see what other theaters are choosing and what their audiences are interested in.
And... JEFFREY BROWN: This is the ecosystem of theater in the U.S. NICK PIPER: This is it.
It's -- that's right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Barter is located in Abingdon, a town of about 8,000 in the westernmost tip of Virginia, wedged between West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.
The theater has a special role in this region, according to Henry and Flora (ph) Joy, longtime supporters who drove an hour from home in Johnson City, Tennessee, to see the festival.
HENRY JOY, Barter Theatre Patron: It's not just an artistic magnet, but it's an economic engine for not only Abingdon, in particular, but for the entire Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee region.
It is the place to go.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's also filled with history, 90 years of it.
Barter is one of the longest-running professional theaters in the U.S., founded during the Great Depression, when the price of a ticket was 40 cents, or a bartered equivalent in farm products, trading ham for "Hamlet."
Founder Robert Porterfield managed to salvage equipment and furnishings, including these balcony seats, from a New York theater going out of business, in order to build his own gorgeous theater.
He also brought in actors from New York and elsewhere.
Which the theater still does.
And legends like Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, and Patricia Neal have performed here as they were starting out.
Today, the theater fuels the local economy through tourism, but also by employing actors, stagehands and craftspeople, all part of the local community.
KETCH SECOR, Playwright: I have come to the greatest theater in the world, if you ask me.
JEFFREY BROWN: And it's continued to fuel the dreams of people like Ketch Secor, who grew up three hours away in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
"Hooten Holler," the fable of a boy who saves country music, is Secor's debut as a playwright.
It's a departure from his normal full-time gig as front man and fiddler of the Grammy Award-winning band Old Crow Medicine Show, and a chance to do a different kind of storytelling.
KETCH SECOR: It's the only way I can scratch the musical theater itch is by doing it, by writing it.
I wanted to talk about the authenticity of the originators of country music.
You know, these hills, like, they're alive with song.
This landscape is a soulful place.
So, it's no surprise that so much of the music that has become country and rock 'n' roll comes from this place.
JEFFREY BROWN: Barter, a historically white theater in a mostly white town, has also made a commitment to telling stories of Black Appalachia and promoting Black playwrights.
ACTOR: How did I, Henry Brown, escape the savagery of slavery?
JEFFREY BROWN: "The Transported Man" was part of this year's Appalachian Festival, written by Russell Nichols, who joined remotely, as actors gathered for their first rehearsal of the play.
WOMAN: Donovan (ph) and Gio (ph) are going to enter from house right.
JEFFREY BROWN: It tells the story of Henry Box Brown, who shipped himself from slavery in Virginia to freedom in Pennsylvania.
Terrance Jackson, a longtime Barter actor who lives in the community, now oversees the theater's Black Stories Black Voices initiative begun in 2022.
He says things were different when he first came here 10 years ago from his native Florida.
TERRANCE JACKSON, Director of Outreach, Barter Black Stories Black Voices: It was definitely difficult at first to try to find my place, you know, especially back when I first started.
It was not a lot of people who looked like me were about in the community, and especially at the theater.
JEFFREY BROWN: Jackson and others here are trying to change that through full-length plays, including at least one in the Appalachian Playwrights Festival, monologue nights, and community events focusing on Black stories.
TERRANCE JACKSON: My dream for us at the theater is that no one will ever be shocked to see a Black person in the audience.
No one will ever be shocked, including other Black people.
I want to be able to create a space where people feel comfortable at all times, whether they're white, Black, anybody.
I think its important because we need representation and we need our stories told.
JEFFREY BROWN: For playwright Audrey Cefaly, the festival gave her a chance to represent the working-class people she grew up around in Northern Alabama.
AUDREY CEFALY: Every writer that I know of that writes stories in this region is dying to have a space here.
So, I feel very, very lucky to be here.
JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, Ketch Secor adds this: KETCH SECOR: This is a big stop on the tour of what makes our country unique.
ACTRESS: How do we feel about bourbon as a verb?
(LAUGHTER) JEFFREY BROWN: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia.