ABINGDON, Va. (AP) – “Do you DO or do you mildew?”

That line from a play in rehearsal at the Barter Theatre, “Feeding on Mulberry Leaves,” applies not just to the Appalachian characters who inhabit the stage: a family tied to the comforting but stifling confines of the gas station and convenience store they run in Virginia.

It applies as well to the young actors who found their way to this well-regarded, out-of-the way playhouse. And to the set builder who finally said enough was enough one biting cold day when he was constructing houses with his grandfather in Ohio, and cut away to scene-design school.

It applies to the producing artistic director who came to Abingdon a dozen years ago from northeastern regional theaters and New York. And to the town itself, which decided to do, rather than mildew, when tobacco could no longer sustain it.

The Barter Theatre opened in 1933 at the height of the Depression. True to its name, it accepted live hens, a dead rattlesnake and canned goods in return for tickets. A ham for Hamlet, as the saying goes here.

Today it is a big deal in this southwestern Virginia town of fewer than 8,000 people, drawing 150,000 through its doors in a season.

An economic anchor, the Barter is an eye-popping presence on occasion. For example, its staging of “Liquid Moon” in 2003 featured two naked actors for part of the performance, drawing protests from a state senator and the Cedar Bluff Baptist Church in nearby Atkins.

Theatrical talent is not enough at the Barter, which is also known as The State Theatre of Virginia. Actors practically work farmers’ hours, and everyone has to be resourceful.

Between several productions going on two stages at once, rehearsals for coming plays and children’s shows, workdays stretch across 12 hours.

Richard Rose, who runs the Barter and directs the productions, says a lot of theater these days is about spectacle. But he cannot afford it.

“We will skirt the spectacle and really go after the heart of a story,” he said, pausing during the cast’s first rehearsal of “Mulberry Leaves.”

The wail of a passing freight train echoes through the tall, old windows.

“We probably do more theater with less money than any theater in the nation,” he said.

“Mulberry Leaves” by Lucinda McDermott is about finding your place in the world. One of the patriarch’s sons loves to design clothes, wonders if he is gay and risks his father’s wrath with his wish to go away to design school. Sister says he must go. “Do you do or do you mildew?”

Elizabeth P. McKnight, 29, has found her place as a member of the repertory company, for now. She plays the sister.

From Nashville, Tenn., she has been here three years. It’s her first acting job. She was too scared to pursue her calling until she auditioned at an actors’ “cattle call,” so many years after she took the stage as Patsy Cline in fourth grade.

“I’m still terrified,” she said during a rehearsal break. But after more than 36 plays, “I feel like I’m an actor now. I would not have said that a year ago. It’s time to feel good about this career choice and take it out for a spin.”

She’s nailed sister’s Appalachian accent, reaching not far back into her past for a variation of it. She worked to lose her natural Tennessee accent but said when she gets excited, angry or tipsy, she lapses into her Southern twang.

Scot Atkinson, also 29, of Louisville, Ky., came here by way of Los Angeles. He plays the family’s other son, the dopey one. He said being an unknown actor in Los Angeles is all about marketing yourself. Here he gets to act. And act and act.

“Why choose this life for yourself?” he asks. “The odds are against you. You gotta love it.”

They live in a dorm, sit in a garden practicing their scripts, catch up on laundry on Mondays.

These young actors know that whatever the odds, others who spent time on the Barter stage found success. Among them were Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn and Ned Beatty.

Probably no one needs to show as much resourcefulness day in and day out as Mark DeVol, the technical director. Running the scene-building shop, he has learned tricks to make more out of less, and magic out of the mundane.

Discarded carpet tubes become skinny trees on the stage. Garland is so realistic as pine leaves that the stage director asked him what will happen when they turn brown. Jack-sand rubber roofing compound makes great bark, holding paint just right.

Quitting home building, DeVol went to Kent State to learn stage design, figuring his carpentry training would give him a leg up because “I knew all the tools.” Here he’s become versatile enough to design some sets as well as make them.

Rose, who lets loose with a crazy cackle when he finds something funny, says there are three ways to find your place in the world: accidentally, with the help of others, or knowing what you want and making it happen yourself.

“It’s about finding your nest,” he said, speaking for the play but also about the people around him. “It’s about finding your mulberry leaves.”


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