The Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia has, like community arts organizations, had to find creative ways to continue programming during the COVID-19 pandemic. They staged The Wizard of Oz at their local drive-in and launched the Barter On Demand channel for streaming original adaptations of American literary classics like The Scarlet Letter and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
For the Barter, such ingenuity and elbow grease takes them back to their roots. Robert Porterfield founded the theater company during the Great Depression to keep himself and other struggling actors alive, trading performances of Shakespeare for produce, eggs, and other staples, hence the name Barter.
The newest addition to Barter On Demand is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, adapted from Mark Twain’s novel by Barter’s playwright-in-residence, Catherine Bush. She was generous enough to answer some questions about the project.
1.) How did this project come about? What interested you in adapting Twain’s novel for the stage?
One of the perks of this job is creating work for the Barter Players, our non-Equity resident company that performs for young audiences, both in the theatre and on tour. When the Players go out on tour, they take with them three shows – one for grade schools (k-5), one for middle schools (4-10) and one for high schools (9 and up). Back in 2009, Katy Brown, the Artistic Director of the Barter Players, needed a “middle school” show and I recommended adapting The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It appeals to kids of all ages – kids today can still relate to a young boy who loves adventure more than he loves discipline. It’s also a “rural America” story – a great portion of the audience of young folks we serve lives in the coalfields of Appalachia. Tom Sawyer is right up their alley. Also – it’s one of MY favorites. I remember loving the movie with Johnny Whitaker and Jody Foster as a kid (I’m telling my age) and reading the book in school. I’ve even made the pilgrimage to Mark Twain’s boyhood home.
Anyway, that’s how it started. It toured with the Barter Players in 2010, then again in 2019. When COVID hit, we formed a “QuaranTeam” with a group of Barter Players, and filmed some of the shows we had done in the past in order to create Barter on Demand. We’re thrilled Tom Sawyer could be one of them.
2.) What did you learn about Mark Twain and the contexts in which he originally wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? How did it impact your adaptation?
I’m going to talk about what I learned with this recent, filmed production, because I’d be curious to know where others stand on this issue. When it came time to re-rehearse this play, the director – a talented, smart twenty-something – had issues with Injun Joe’s name. She was worried that there might be some Indigenous child in the audience who would be hurt, and possibly taunted/bullied with that name later. I argued that one of the reasons Injun Joe behaves the way he does is because of his name and how it reflects his status as an outcast. I told her Mark Twain knew what he was doing. I tell you, it was a battle royale! But then I remembered two other times I had changed the names so as not to offend: in Peter Pan, the Pickaninny Tribe became the Pa-Ja-Mas, and in The Scarlet Letter, the “Black Man” became Old Scratch. So, in the end, Injun Joe wore an eye-patch and became One-Eyed Joe. And I think the story still holds together beautifully. Was it the right thing to do? Because it’s a touring show, it’s only an hour in length – not enough time to dive into Injun Joe’s name and how that might affect him (Mark Twain didn’t dwell on it in the novel, either) – so as far as “that kid” in the audience is concerned, it might have been the only thing to do.
3.) What do you think makes this narrative compelling to an audience in 2020?
Well – for me – the COVID experience makes it more compelling than ever. Who wouldn’t want to go on adventures with friends these days? Who wouldn’t rather close down a Zoom meeting and hop on a raft with Tom and Huck and Joe Harper? It was a simpler time where we let our imaginations take us to places we can easily Google today – but somehow, it’s much more exciting in our imaginations. Long Live Tom Sawyer!!
4.) Finally, how do people get to see the show!?!
They can go to BarterTheatre.com and stream it there – $15 gets you two weeks of unlimited access for that show. Then PLEASE tell all your Mark Twain-loving friends about it!
Catherine Bush is Playwright-In-Residence at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia. Check out more of her work at CatherineBushPlays.com