I’ve never known a Barter Theatre minus Rick Rose.
I first became cognizant of the theater world and the beauty of the Barter while a young college kid, thanks mostly to a young college girl whom I was trying to impress — and would eventually, at least enough to marry, have a couple of kids with and ignore together the growing wrinkles, graying temples and other unmistakable signs of creeping age.
That play all those years ago — “Travels with My Aunt” — was at the beginning of Rose’s 27-year, 150-plus production run.
The Barter quickly became an essential part of our lives. Back in the old days, when springs stretched on forever and the chill of fall was the farthest thing from our minds, when money was more scarce than time, we’d buy the early bird passes, the most affordable for a young, expecting couple.
When the kids came, the Barter was perhaps even more essential, and we reluctantly traded our seats for “Liquid Moon” (sponsored by the Washington County News while I was editor there) and “Blackbird” for a spot in the audience at “Frosty” and “Junie B. Jones.”
It was at those Barter Player shows that I became acquainted with Katy Brown’s work. Brown took what was a good idea — the First Light Theatre — and turned it into what it is today — a top-shelf theater troupe, doubling as a training ground for young professional actors and tripling as a training ground for future patrons.
I’m not sure what a Barter without Rose at the reins will look like, but I’m excited to see what Brown might have up her sleeve.
She’s certainly facing an uphill slog.
The Barter is not immune to the general malaise impacting live theater in America — in August, Rose announced budget cuts to recover from a half a million dollar shortfall.
The stage lights are dim everywhere but New York, where big-named actors can parachute into a production based on a classic, well-loved book, as in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or perfectly made films that suffered in release only because they didn’t feature anyone in a cape with superpowers and green screen after-effects, as in “Waitress.”
Make no mistake, Brown is being tasked not just with keeping alive the promise Robert Porterfield birthed during the Great Depression but with figuring out the future of theater.
Myriad factors endanger American theater, not the least of which is Broadway itself. The monster shows with big-named casts eat the long tail that used to keep regional actors fed and making art. In that space, it becomes easy for a theater to perpetually almost fail, risk little and gain even less. The answer is to turn away from the New York world and toward the community, the very people who put 300 pounds onto the first season’s thespians. The Barter’s place is in the community, producing work that enlightens, challenges and celebrates those people and that place.
There’s no better person to have at the helm than Brown. With 21 years at the Barter, Brown is vested in the community and the theater. She’s a proven commodity, improving everything she’s been associated with.
From Porterfield to Rex Partington to Rose, each of the previous producing artistic directors have brought something to the Barter that it sorely needed. I’m confident Brown will do the same and more.