Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Yoder Barn Theatre

Yoder Barn Theatre

   From the intersection of Oyster Point Road and Jefferson Avenue in Newport News, a unique landmark juts out of the urban landscape. A vestige of old country life, a three story barn-turned-theater seems frozen in time. It is the Yoder Barn Theatre, and this is its story.


Yoder Barn Silo

   The Yoder family founded their dairy business in the county of Warwick in 1914 (which is present-day part of the City of Newport News). In 1935, their barn burned down. From the ashes, they built the barn that stands today. They used a bow-truss framework design the family had seen used for a barn in Ohio. This way, the outside walls supported the whole roof, leaving the inside open-concept.

   Yoder Dairy was a popular Hampton Roads dairy provider. It was regularly one of several local contenders to provide milk to the nearby school systems. They milked in the early morning, so they could promise all their customers “Today’s Milk Today.” They also had a sign saying “See Cows Milked in Parlor,” inviting anyone to see how a dairy was run.

   By 1969, Newport News had grown into a sizable city. This development cut down on land available for the Yoder's cows to graze on. Yoder Dairy closed their Newport News site and moved on to greener pastures. The barn was thereafter used for storage purposes for the dairy.

   In 1995, Newport News had been growing again. A new shopping center (Target) was being planned. The barn was in the way of that. Luckily, a group of Yoder family members and concerned citizens banded together to establish the Yoder Preservation Trust to save the barn. The barn, silo, and brick milk house were picked up and moved a quarter mile down Jefferson to their current location. (In relation to today, the Barn’s original location was around the unnamed intersection between Chick-fil-A, Buffalo Wild Wings, and the Target Parking Lot.) (Fun Fact: The whole shopping complex there is named Yoder Plaza. Thank you, Google Maps, I didn’t know that until just now)

   In its new location, the Trust decided to transform the barn into a theater space for the community. Take into mind, this was before the Ferguson Center for the Arts. The closest large-capacity theaters were located in Norfolk and Richmond. Smaller theaters (The American in Phoebus, Peninsula Community Theater in Hilton Village, places in Williamsburg) were closer, but mostly served their regional communities. Yoder could easily fill the theater void between Hilton Village and Williamsburg.

   In 1997, the Yoder Barn Theatre opened up with the world premiere of Pieced Together, a folk opera covering the centennial history of the Peninsula’s Mennonite community.

View of the Yoder Barn Theatre from the stage, 2010

   Yoder Barn Theatre was a pretty fun place and a unique venue. It was named by the Virginia Pilot in 2005 as the Best Place to Bring Visitors, Best Place for Family Fun, and Best Place to Hear Live Music on the Peninsula, and was nominated for Best Small Performance Venue in Hampton Roads by Port Folio Weekly Magazine in 2004, among other awards. There was even a children’s book written about it: “Hurray for the Yoder Barn!” by Catherine Kurchinski.

   In March 2007, Yoder's owners, John David and Esther Mable Yoder, decided to give the theatre to Christopher Newport University (CNU). Its Ferguson Center for the Arts had been completed in 2005, and was pretty successful thus far. It was ready to expand and take on another theater. The gift of the Yoder was appraised for a value of $4.1 million. Local businesses donated $300,000 to CNU for upgrades and programming for the building.

   CNU planned to use it for multiple purposes. It would be used as an extra theater for Ferguson Center programming, TheaterCNU productions, a proposed summer theater repertory company, and classroom space for CNU's Lifelong Learning Society. Campus organizations could also use it for their events, a welcome relief with the original Gaines Theater demolition coming January 2008. Bill Biddle, executive director for Ferguson, planned to use the theater for smaller, community shows, as well as more experimental ones that might not do as well in the Concert Hall.

   Before it could reopen, the barn needed to have upgrades to its tech equipment and be brought up to code. Over the summer of 2007, work proceeded for a September opening. Everything was going to plan, until Ferguson found out the building had a code of occupancy for only 75 people. The Yoder's were unaware of this maximum, and had had crowds of over 300. The code could be updated if a fire separation wall was built between the theater and lobby space. Work started right away, but the opening celebration had to be delayed. Shows that had been scheduled for the Yoder were moved to the Ferguson. If all three theaters at Ferguson were full (as was the case at least once), the show had to be cancelled.

Picture of the Yoder Barn Theatre's two-story
lobby space. The left wall is the barn-side.

   Finally, the Yoder Barn Theatre had its grand opening late February 2008. The first five days were free performances to get the attention of the community.

   Fast-forward a couple of months, CNU unveiled Tidewater Regional Repertory Theatre, a professional summer rep theater company. The first summer consisted of three shows: Quilters, A Musical, Of Mice and Men, and The Foreigner. The actors and crew composed of individuals that Artistic Director Steven Breese tapped to join, CNU students/faculty, and others from general auditions.

   Then the economic recession of 2008 hit. It was not a good time for the entertainment business. The Ferguson Center had a deficit of $450,000 at the end of its 2008-09 season. The next season was cut down to around 24 shows (For comparison, the 2007-08 season had 62 shows). Tidewater Rep was shelved indefinitely. Yoder was used less and less for shows until it wasn't at all. The space was still used by Lifelong Learning and student events.

   The last student event held at the Yoder was Initiative Student Theater's production of Macbeth on November 4th, 2011. The school closed the barn to student activity due to liability issues relating to transporting students and equipment to and from the building.

   As for the Yoder Dairy, the company went out of business in 2008. Esther Mable Yoder died in 2009. John David Yoder joined her in 2014.

   In March 2016, CNU asked the General Assembly for the option in the future to sell their gifted (aka free) theatre and keep the proceeds. The Assembly vetoed this.

   And that brings us to the current day. Other than the Ferguson Center using the building as a billboard to advertise its latest shows, Lifelong Learning has become the sole group using the barn.

   If you liked what you read, some of this research and language will be reused for my upcoming Ferguson Center history (which is still being worked on, so don't ask me when that will be ready).

   The rest of this post will be devoted to my personal thoughts and feelings about the Yoder Barn and CNU.


Yoder Barn Theatre view from the balcony, 2010

"It is our hope and expectation that the Yoder Barn Theatre will long serve our community and CNU as a vibrant center for education, entertainment, and community service."
- Paul Trible, 2007 at the Yoder Barn Announcement

   I had the pleasure of seeing two shows at the Yoder Barn Theatre, and then performing there twice. I easily fell in love with the space. It's a preserved structure from a bygone era. It has been transformed to stay relevant for its community. It's a theater. It has a circular staircase backstage. It is a beautiful building, inside and out. It is unique. It has character.

   CNU is a great school. Like Yoder, it has had a huge transformation to stay relevant. From a struggling college, it has become pretty successful and appears on lists of popular Virginia colleges. It has done a lot, and it has done it well. But it does a lot of things that disappoint me. Its failure to use the Yoder is definitely one of them.

Student Use

Cast photo from Macbeth at the Yoder Barn Theatre, 2011

   From Spring 2008 to Fall 2011, CNU allowed students to use the Yoder Barn. Why would it suddenly become a transportation liability for students? Yes, something could happen between campus and the Yoder, and CNU could possibly be implicated. But that wasn't a factor anyone seemed to care about originally. Why would it suddenly matter?

   I think the decision was more economically-based than legally-based. The new Gaines Theater opened up on campus that fall. Anything the Yoder could do, the Gaines could do, and cheaper. It is right on campus, no driving needed, and you don't need to pay for extra security away from the main campus.

   While the Yoder has been dark, the number of CNU performance groups has grown. When I started at CNU, there were four a Capella groups, one sketch comedy group, one theater group, and one dance group. When I left, there were at least seven a Capella groups, three sketch comedy/improv groups, one theater group, and two dance groups. This is not including events held by fraternities, sororities, student recitals, departments, the sometimes-monopolistic Campus Activity Board, outside group rentals, and other organizations on campus using the spaces for non-performing reasons. It can be struggle to find space.

   Since 2011, campus has only added one more space that can be used as an on-campus venue: The Pope Chapel. This venue in particular has the added complication of spiritual groups vying to use it. Campus life is bursting everywhere, while the Yoder is quiet. If campus life can support its reopening, shouldn't it be brought back as a scheduling option?

Professional Use

The Yoder Barn Theatre, 2013

   I do not blame anyone at CNU or the Ferguson Center for not using Yoder during the recession. It made sense to do so. But we are now OUT of that recession. The Center had 63 shows during its 2014-15 season, which is back up to pre-recession numbers. Ferguson is trying new things again, like a jazz party in the Concert Hall lobby, but the Yoder remains silent. It is used as a glorified billboard, and that infuriates me. Is there no value for the space inside?

   Let me say something I have forgotten to say so far -- Lifelong Learning is a great program CNU offers. I would love to join a similar program when I can afford to do things other than supporting myself. Yet the classes held happen during they day. They wouldn't be getting in the way of anything that would happen at night. Lifelong Learning and performance events could coexist at the Yoder Barn.

   The area around Yoder is growing again. Just across the street, a new shopping complex is opening up. CNU could capitalize on extra foot traffic/night life, but they aren't. Why? Why is CNU not using it? Why do they want to sell it?

   (But why not even use it for rental events? Why not use it for weddings? According to Pinterest, everyone loves weddings in barns. There are so many missed opportunities.)

Selling Yoder

Yoder Barn Theatre Sign

I want this theater to be alive. I want somebody, CNU or another group, to wake this resting giant from its current hibernation.

CNU has the resources and the strength to put programming back in the Yoder. I think it is a short-sighted move to try to get rid of an excellent venue. When it was first tried out, the economy was against all things theater. Of course it didn't do well. But now that time has past, give it another chance. The Yoder can work with the Ferguson name.

At the same time, I would love if CNU was rid Yoder, if that meant someone else got a shot at bringing shows there. Lifelong Learning would lose their space, but the program could be in any other building and be fine.

   One thing I will say -- the barn has been maintained under CNU's tenure. It was kept safe from bankruptcy under CNU's wing, which would have happened if it was still an individual entity during the recession. For these things, I am grateful. 

   In its protective net, it's kept from a community that has loved it. I'm glad the barn still greets me every time I drive into Newport News, but it's always tinged with sadness. It can do more. It can be more.

   Let it live.

Backside of the Yoder Barn

Sources Used [via the Wayback Machine, an excellent resource for Internet Archaeology]
Newport News School Board Minutes from the 1960's
Yoder Barn: Drawing On Local History For Kids
Google Maps
Google Earth
"Occupancy Restrictions Stymies Yoder Barn" October 13, 2007, David Nicholson, Daily Press
"Yoder Barn is Ready for Business" February 24, 2008, David Nicholson, Daily Press
"Taking stock of a new venue: The Yoder Barn Theatre hosts the first of three summer plays" June 15, 2008, David Nicholson, McClatchy - Tribune Business News
Paul Trible Remarks from Yoder Barn Announcement, March 14, 2007
John David Yoder Obituary
"Esther Mable Yoder" June 29, 2009, Anonymous, Daily Press
Yoder Dairies to end home delivery, close Virginia Beach store
Notes and notables: CNU and the Yoder Barn, program to prevent teen recidivism, local businesses helping out in the classroom
CNU wants flexibility to sell Yoder Barn property
The Art of Losing Money
Yoder Barn Theatre article from The Captain's Log by Jack Jacobs, mid-April (This article does not appear online anywhere except as a screenshot on a friends' Instagram (Thanks Nicole! Support Student Art!), which cut off the title and date)
Ferguson Center celebrates 10 years
William Biddle's 10th Anniversary Letter from the Director
"Gaines Will Go, Freeman Space to Replace" January 31, 2007, Shannon Humphrey, The Captain's Log

* See an online gallery of historical Yoder Barn photos, including some from its move, HERE.

[This is posted on the quadricentennial of William Shakespeare's death. More by chance than on purpose, but further proof that GOOD THEATER NEVER DIES!!]

Thank you to Maddy for inspiring me to write this! I should have done a while ago.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this AJ! Many of my questions have been answered. I have been upset by Yoder's stillness over the years as well, and I was never able to be in or see a performance there. I hope to one day at least go in the space! I'm hoping it will be revived by someone soon. Additionally, I can't tell you the number of times this year alone that I have said "I really wish CNU had another student performance space." I wish Yoder Barn could have been it.

    1. You're welcome! I am sure if you contacted the Lifelong Learning Society Office, you could arrange for a tour! It would definitely be worth it.

  2. Beautifully written, AJ! The Yoder Barn has always been my favorite performance space at CNU, and I was very disappointed when they halted student use after my first year. I would love to see it brought back to life, either with CNU's support, or as another performance groups prized location.

    1. Thanks Nichole! Long live the Yoder!