In the Moment: The Barter Players’ Touring Productions of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and ‘The Giver at The Alden’

The Barter Theatre, the state theatre of Virginia, might not be as well known in the DC metro area as it once was. The Barter Theatre has had a long and continuing production history that began in 1933 in the depths of the Depression.

While many of us who are theater historians or theater-goers know well of the Federal Theater Project and its work with theater artists during the early years of the Depression, fewer may know that the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia had the idea that folk should be able to see live theater even if they had no cash in hand. Now that is revolutionary.

It was Robert Porterfield, a young actor, who returned to his native Southwest Virginia with this unusual idea: local folk could “barter” the produce from their own farms and gardens to gain admission to a play. Revolutionary, don’t you think?

For those with interest there is plenty more to be found about the Barter Theatre at the theatre’s website, including information about the Barter Players’ upcoming January 2017 performances at the Alden Theatre in McLean Virginia.

The Barter Players are professional actors who perform theatre for young audiences. The two Barter Players performances at the Alden will be two family-friendly productions; The Giver and The Ugly Duckling. The Giver, based on the award winning book by Lois Lowry and adapted by Eric Coble is recommended for Grade 4 and up. The Ugly Duckling, for K-6 audiences, was adapted by Catherine Gray from the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

This column is based upon interviews with Danielle Van Hook of the McLean Community Center, Barett Guyton, Associate Director of The Barter Players, Barter Theatre, and Megan Atkinson, director of education and director of Barter’s Project REAL.

David: Why did the Alden schedule the Barter Players?

Danielle: With limited opportunities to present touring acts for children and families on The Alden stage each year, every show has to be great. With Barter Theatre, we not only get a company that is one of the best kept secrets in theatre, we also get two of the best coming of age stories – The Ugly Duckling is a classic that has audiences rooting for him to learn to love himself before he can discover who he really is. The Giver tells the story of Jonas growing up in a world unfamiliar to us, but his struggle to take control of his own destiny is all too real. It is incredible that this can all happen in one day!

The Barter Players perform The Ugly Duckling. Photo courtesy of the Barter Players.

What can audiences expect?

Danielle: Audiences should expect to escape into the world of the story, whether a quaint pond or a sci-fi alternate reality, and enjoy these beloved books coming to life. These stories have all the elements that allow both children and adults to relate to them and think about them long after the show has ended. We don’t know what Old Man Winter will bring us this January, but we do know that it will be a fun day at The Alden!

Barret, why do the Barter Players tour children’s shows? 

Barrett: Since its inception, Barter Theatre has toured to regions around the Commonwealth, and the Barter Players continue that tradition by touring all around the Southeastern United States, taking plays for young audiences to children who maybe aren’t exposed to theatre any other way.

Why is it important for children to see live theater? 

Barrett: We believe it’s vitally important for children to have the opportunity to see live theatre. Not only is it an exposure to different art forms through the costumes, storytelling, music etc., but live theatre has been proven to help young people learn empathy. It’s also shown that students remember stories better when they can see them in theatrical form. Most importantly, we believe that by taking shows about people who are brave into the students’ gymnatorium, where maybe they were bullied the day before, the students will be brave, too.

How many touring performances and different venues does The Barter Players visit in an average year? 

Barrett: The Barter Players tour every year during January, February, and March, taking three different plays into schools and performing arts venues all around the Southeastern United States. The Players do around 130 performances during these three months, and see around 30,000-40,000 audience members, many of whom aren’t able to come to the theatre.

Why did you select The Ugly Duckling and The Giver as two of this year’s touring performances?

Barrett: Both of these stories, as well as our other touring show, Great Expectations, are stories that we really love and value the message of. We think they’re stories that students will immediately relate to, with important messages and protagonists. Both The Ugly Duckling and The Giver are based on important pieces of literature for young readers, which helps go hand-in-hand with their in-class education.

Tell me a bit about the Barter actors performing in The Ugly Duckling and The Giver.

Barrett: The Barter Players are a group of actors who want to grow and learn every day. All the Players studied theatre at universities all over the US, and are at the beginning of their careers. Barter Player alumni have gone on to start their own theatre companies, perform on Broadway and national tours, and join Barter’s Resident Acting Company, among many other accomplishments.

What do you hope children take away after seeing a Barter Players show?

Barrett: Of course we hope that children will remember these stories and their lessons. We also hope that, by seeing these actors challenge themselves during the play, they will want to do the same. We get letters from kids every year about how the show they saw at their school has made them want to be brave, too.

The Barter Players perform The Giver. Photo courtesy of the Barter Players.

Tell me about the sets and other technical aspects of touring these shows? How does Barter Theatre transport the set/light/costumes around?

Barrett: The Players travel in a 15-passenger van with the six actors, sets, costumes, and props for three different plays, and their luggage!

How does being a Virginia Commission for the Arts touring grant recipient assist Barter Theatre to tour Virginia?

Barrett: The Virginia Commission for the Arts has been a vital part of the Barter Players the entire time the Players have existed. They are one of the main reasons we are able to tour so extensively: the VCA makes it possible for us to bring shows to schools who might not be able to afford it otherwise. VCA funding directly benefits the schools and their ability to provide as wide of an education as possible.

Please tell me about the Barter’s Young Playwrights Festival.

Barrett: It is a playwriting competition for high school students in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Teachers are taught by Barter’s Playwright-in-Residence how to write 10-minute plays, and these teachers then instruct their students. This year, we had 394 different plays written by 608 playwrights! (Up to three students can work on the same play.) It’s an excellent opportunity for students’ to learn a different kind of creative writing, and one of the best events of the year.

Megan Atkinson, Director of Eduction, Director, Project REAL at Barter Theatre. Photo courtesy of Barter Theatre.

Megan Atkinson, could you tell me about Barter’s Project REAL(Reinforcing Education Through Artistic Learning)?

Megan Atkinson, Director of Education, Director, Project REAL: Project REAL is an amazing program here at Barter. The program places teaching artists in schools around the region (Abingdon, VA region including West Virginia and Tennessee) to assist teachers in engaging their students with the curriculum. Barter works with schools at all grade levels.

Project REAL‘s teaching artists assist educators by utilizing theatre techniques and integrating the student’s life experiences into the curriculum. This process helps provide lasting knowledge through a transformative educational program which measurably improves learning and allows students to take responsibility for their own education and shape their communities, now and in the future.

The Barter Players will perform The Ugly Duckling on Saturday, January 14, 2017, at 1 PM, and The Giver on Saturday, January 14, 2017, at 4 PM, at the Alden Theatre performing at The Alden Theatre at The McLean Community Center – 1234 Ingleside Road, in McLean, VA. Tickets can be purchased online.

Note: Barter developed study guides for the two shows are available at:

The Ugly Duckling Study Guide

The Giver Grade 4 Study Guide

Note: Click here to find more information about The Virginia Commission for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other sponsors that provide funding for the Barter Player’s touring performance.


  1. I started out at the Barter Theatre in 1981. My first season of theatre. And they traveled then to George Mason in 1982, which started my professional life in Washington in 1983. Great to see The Barter is alive and well. Nice piece.


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