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New program putting spotlight on Pulaski Theatre

Barter Theatre techniciansBy MELINDA WILLIAMS



A new program spearheaded by Barter Theatre in Abingdon will not only put the spotlight on the historic Pulaski Theatre in terms of marketing, but also will bring some Barter productions to the local stage.

Spotlight Southwest Virginia is a theater networking and support program created through a grant from National Endowment for the Arts and ArtPlace. Spotlight’s coordinator, Amy Ball Braswell, says the program is designed to be a networking service for Pulaski and eight other historic theaters in Southwest Virginia.

Just as the Crooked Road spotlights Southwest Virginia music venues and ’Round the Mountain spotlights Southwest Virginia crafters and artisans, this new program will spotlight historic theaters. Only historic theaters that are in downtowns and in operation are able to be part of the program.

They have to be “downtown” theaters because “eventually, what we would like to see is the theaters become part of the overall driver of the creative economy so that they become a focal point for their downtowns and help build economic growth for their areas,” Braswell says.

In areas where historic theaters have been in operation for a while, she says, the difference in the town before the theater was revived and after is apparent. “Abingdon probably wouldn’t be Abingdon without the Barter Theatre,” she adds.

Theaters can be a focal point for the community and a driver for local traffic, as well as tourists.

There is no fee to be part of Spotlight Southwest Virginia, so workshops, consulting and other services are all written into the grant. “It’s a free service for the theater,” she said.

Monday, Barter lighting designer Andrew Morehouse and Barter production director Camille Davis were at Pulaski Theatre providing stage lighting assistance for Friends of Pulaski Theatre board president Bob McKinney. All services were provided free of charge by Spotlight Southwest Virginia.

Braswell says the 16-month grant started in 2014 with visits to each theater and consultations with the theater operators on challenges they face and their future goals. Based on those conversations, the program is focusing on several areas.

First, they’re creating a booking plan that will allow multiple theaters (that typically do not share the same audiences) to book performances together in order to save money on booking fees. In other words, a performer would charge a lower booking fee to perform at multiple theaters in the same general vicinity.

Second, the program is developing a “best practices” manual that can be shared among the theaters. The manual would include ideas from theaters across the nation by working in conjunction with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and American Historic Theatre League.

She says she is hopeful the theaters will use the manual to share their own experiences, such as what works and doesn’t work.

Braswell also would like to see a website or social media site developed that would share information about all of the theaters and their events.

As for the Barter Theatre traveling productions, the touring schedule is still being worked out and will be released at a later date. She did say, however, that two shows are touring during a Mountains of Music Crooked Road festival in June. Those productions are “Keep On The Sunny Side,” the story of the Carter family, and “Stonewall Country,” with Virginia folk musicians Robin and Linda Williams.

Barter is the only theater among the nine in the Spotlight program that develops its own productions. The other theaters are “presenting houses,” she says.

The other theaters in the program are Star in Stuart, Lyric in Blacksburg, Rex in Galax, Lee in Pennington Gap, Lincoln in Marion, Paramount in Bristol and Jettie Baker in Clintwood.

Asked why she thinks there is a surge of interest in revitalizing historic theaters, she attributed it to nostalgia, environmental concerns and the desire to bring people back downtown to build on the community lifestyle and “make people feel they’re part of something bigger than themselves.”

As for the future of such theaters, she sees it to be “really bright,” particularly if youth are exposed to theater at an early age. Like reading, she believes an enjoyment of theater is built through early introduction to the medium.

Barter Theatre and Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation are coordinating part of the match for the program grant. Braswell says Spotlight Southwest Virginia covers the same 19-county footprint that is part of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation: east to Franklin County, north to Buchanan County and west to Lee County.

The program is funded through December 2015, but she is hopeful it’ll continue beyond that point through grant funding or other sources.



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