We’re basing our summer vacation this year in Konnarock, on the flanks of Virginia’s highest peak, Mount Rogers. It’s a return visit for us to Southwest Virginia after scratching the surface here last month. There’s a lot to do, and much of it is outdoors. We started our trip biking on the Virginia Creeper trail, this time on the stretch from Damascus to Abingdon.
In addition to enjoying outdoor stuff, we love taking in local culture during our travels–but so much of culture is typically indoors, and there’s sadly not a lot of comfort indoors these days. However, with challenge comes opportunity, and the pandemic has spawned some new approaches to familiar experiences. A great example is this summer’s season at Abingdon’s Barter Theatre.
The Barter was founded in 1932 and bills itself as the longest running professional equity theater in the US. So what’s an “equity” theater, you might ask? Well, in the midst of the Depression, the performing arts were struggling to stay afloat, along with most everything else (sounds a little bit familiar). The Barter’s solution was to have actors perform in exchange for farm goods…hence the name “Barter.”
This year promised to be different for the Barter, and the season was nearly cancelled. But they put their heads together and figured out a plan to move shows outdoors to an old drive in, the Moonlite, on the outskirts of town. The Moonlite had been in foreclosure since 2017 and was overgrown and falling apart…but no more. On Saturday night, we joined 200+ of our closest friends (but not too close) at the gleaming and newly refurbished Moonlite for a live production of the Wizard of Oz.
Things were very well thought out at the Moonlite. Admission and parking were touch-less and socially distant, the stage was covered, the show was simulcast on the drive in screen, and the audio was through FM radio (the 2020 adaptation of those clunky metal drive in speakers that I remember as a kid). Perhaps best of all, the place was filled with folks that were thrilled to be able to safely enjoy live theater.
We brought along homemade pizza, antipasta, and a few beverages and enjoyed a little tailgate ahead of the show.
As we waited for things to start, we swapped stories of childhood experiences at our local drive ins (longing for the days when it was appropriate for us to put on pajamas before heading out to a show).
The Barter troupe put on a terrific performance, with a lot of very talented folks and a high production value…not your typical drive in fare. The choreography was great and the voices were amazing. The show was headlined by a fabulous version of Dorothy played by a young actor named Libby Zabit. After each song, headlights blinked and horns honked, which must have been a new experience this year for Libby and a lot of the on-stage talent.
This was a fantastic way to enjoy a musical in the midst of a pandemic…or, really any time. In addition to being a great show, it reassured us that the world is adapting in ways large and small. It shouldn’t be surprising that the creative people in the performing arts are some of the most creative among us.
In the end, we got to experience an old show in a new way–and we did it at a venue from a bygone era. Hard not to smile at all of that!
Looking around before the show, there were lots of smiles– and even a few pajamas–and you could sense the anticipation. After the show, we were smiling and laughing ourselves amidst the honking horns and flashing lights.
In the end, it was just a night at the drive in, a simple thing in a complex time. But it felt like something to be happy about, and we were. And as the Tin Man reminded us on this night, “happiness is the best thing in the world.”