The first day of rehearsal is always exciting for any cast-but the cast of Barter Theatre's "Half a World Away" is even more eager to get started, because they are working with the playwright herself.
Ruth Tyndall Baker has flown in from Fort Wayne, Indiana to participate in rehearsals. Her play "Half a World Away" is about to receive its world premiere as the third selection in Barter's Shaping of America series.
Through the year 2025, Barter has committed itself to developing one play per year that investigates the shaping of America from its founding to is present, appropriately called the Barter's Shaping of America series.
"In the last 10 years especially, Barter has become one of the most prominent theatres in the country when it comes to developing and producing new plays," said Richard Rose, producing artistic director of Barter.
As one of a handful of theatres that employs a year-round Resident Acting Company, Barter offers a group of artists-actors, directors, designers-who are dedicated and experienced in the development of new plays.
"All of our artists," says Rose, "are trained in helping playwright's develop their scripts into plays that will really connect with audiences. Our goal is to help the authors fully realize the play that they have written and to present them in the best possible way in front of a live audience."
Barter's Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights, the new play development program for Appalachian works, has given voice to dozens of new works that have gone on to full production at Barter and in theatres across the country. The Shaping of America series takes Barter's new play development a step further.
"Ideally, these are not necessarily plays documenting historical events, but rather the events are used as a springboard that lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves as a nation-our challenges, our culture, our character, our people: the stories you won't find in history books," said Nicholas Piper, director of new play development.
"Half a World Away" is the third play in Barter's Shaping of America Series and is a perfect match because the story is so universal. "We are a nation of immigrants and refugees, whether our ancestors came over on the Mayflower, through Ellis Island or in this century," said Piper.
It was a surprise to Baker to discover that Fort Wayne, a small city about the size of Johnson City, is home to the single largest Burmese community in the United States, and she was inspired to write a play about what it's like to be a teenage immigrant refugee, living half a world away from your homeland.
When Than Chan is at school, he is a normal American teenager. At home, his Grandmother tries to shave his head every chance she gets so he can become a Buddhist monk. His father is demanding when it comes to studying because in their native country, children could not attend school. He pushes Than to realize what an opportunity America provides. Than's best friend, an all-American-boy, just wants him to play basketball and doesn't understand why Than must study all the time. Then there's the love interest, Mya. She is also Burmese, but she was born a refugee. She is knowledgable about Burmese customs, but she's didn't live half her life in a foreign country.
Than is being pulled in so many directions, how can he be both Burmese and American at the same time?
Playwright Baker was a substitute teacher when 82 Burmese students arrived one day with no adult interpreter. The small group of Burmese who were already at the school were helpful; but nothing could prepare her for teaching the girls how to use a 'modern' toilet.
"Families arriving are mainly from refugee camps and are not around modern world things which are available in Myanmar (formerly Burma), but not in the camps," said Baker.
"Half a World Away" begins on Barter Stage II on March 16. Barter Theatre will hold three 360° Panels for "Half a World Away" tonight, March 16, 22 and 23 beginning at 7:30 pm. Playwright Ruth Baker will be in attendance tonight, March 16. Hear from experts before and after the performance about the Burmese culture, why the Burmese are fleeing their country and from the director and the cast on what it was like bringing this topical story to stage.
Call 276.628.3991 or visit BarterTheatre.com for more information.
Barter Theatre. With its unique beginnings during the Great Depression, Barter Theatre, one of this nation's oldest professional non-profit theatres, is located in beautiful historic Abingdon, Virginia. Barter Theatre is a theatre of firsts: one of this nation's first professional regional theatres, the first professional theatre to be designated a state theatre - The State Theatre of Virginia and more. Today, Barter offers a variety of musicals, classics, comedies, dramas and new southern and Appalachian plays performed February - December yearly on two stages: Barter Theatre and Barter Stage II. Barter Theatre continues to be one of the nation's most vibrant and exciting professional theatre experiences.