2018-04-11 / News

County theater stays true to its ‘playhouse’ roots


Swift Creek Mill Theater artistic director Tom Width portrays Geppetto in “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” The theater has staged children’s shows like this one for three decades. 
JENNY MCQUEEN Swift Creek Mill Theater artistic director Tom Width portrays Geppetto in “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” The theater has staged children’s shows like this one for three decades. JENNY MCQUEEN The plates and cups of punch wait in the dining room. Onstage, Geppetto’s toyshop has taken the form of workbenches and cabinets. Outside and throughout the building, theater employees stand sentry with walkie-talkies.

Finally, the elementary school students file in to be wooed by the toymaker’s singing of “chip, snip, whittle” as he carves a marionette from a “strange piece of wood.” From Prince George, Henrico and Chesterfield counties, these children have come to Swift Creek Mill Theatre on a recent weekday morning to watch “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” an original live-action musical.

For roughly three decades, Swift Creek has staged shows like this one as part of its youth series. The purpose of these performances is more than just an hour’s entertainment; for the tens of thousands of youngsters who have sat in the seats of this old grist mill, these plays and mini-musicals have often served as a first introduction to live theater, teaching about art, empathy, and perhaps knocking out a few pesky Standards of Learning requirements in the process. Five times a year, Chesterfield’s lone independent theater company mounts children’s shows in addition to its adult-focused mainstage season.

A scene from the show, with Nancy Kent Collie as Pinocchio and Rachel Hindman as the Turquoise Fairy. 
JENNY McQUEEN A scene from the show, with Nancy Kent Collie as Pinocchio and Rachel Hindman as the Turquoise Fairy. JENNY McQUEEN At the center of all these shows is longtime artistic director Tom Width. While many adults know him as the public face of the theater, scores of children have known him by a different name: Cowboy Jim. Width inhabited the lasso-carrying character as part of the Mill’s Christmastime “Drifty the Snowman” shows for roughly two decades before passing on his spurs to another actor in 2016.

Arriving at the Mill in 1976, Width would soon become its resident actor. He took the title literally; in the early years, the actor, director and magician lived in a trailer in Swift Creek’s parking lot alongside the rabbits and doves from his act. That summer, Width began performing a magic show for youngsters called “Peanut Butter Sandwiches,” taking its name from the catch phrase of “Sesame Street” Muppet magician The Amazing Mumford.

“I have to admit, it’s still my favorite thing to do,” says Width of the children’s theater. “I just have the best time listening to them all squeal and giggle and call things out. They’re not jaded yet.”

After Chip McCoull purchased the theater from his uncle Buddy Callahan, the magic shows evolved into Sunday children’s theater in the 1980s.

“The first thing he did was put together a Christmas show that he could take to the [Medical College of Virginia] children’s ward,” says Paul Deiss, Swift Creek’s former resident musical director and creator of many children’s shows.

Over the summer, McCoull would stage Bible-based works to appeal to local Bible camps. During the school year, the Mill began staging three or four children’s shows with short runs.

By the early 1990s, children’s theater at the Mill was in full swing, with Deiss co-authoring his first children’s show with Holly Timberline. The years would see them stage around 90 children’s shows, with roughly two-thirds of them original titles authored or co-authored by Deiss. The more popular works are rotated back in every few years to entertain a new crop of children. “These shows have been run through the Mill, so to speak,” Width jokes. Usually 40 to 50 minutes in length, Swift Creek’s children’s offerings play twice each weekday for a six-week run. Eighty percent of the audiences are made up of field trip groups, and schools can purchase a lunch of pizza, punch, cookies and an orange slice for a small fee.

Deiss, who teaches musical theater at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School and is married to Width, says he’s familiar with the demands of youngsters.

“It has to be fairly quickly paced, especially these days,” he says. “[We have] to keep it moving, to keep it visually stimulating.”

With “Pinocchio” – which will draw 6,000 students from a 50-mile radius during its run – Width penned the script and lyrics and Deiss wrote the music.

Rachel Hindman, a local actress who plays the Turquoise Fairy and other roles in “Pinocchio,” says it’s been refreshing to perform for outspoken children’s audiences who firmly believe in her character. As a group of students was about to leave after a performance, a kid ran up to hug her. Soon there was a line of students who all wanted hugs.

“It’s so sweet and pure,” she says. “I felt exactly like a princess.”

The Mill also sprinkles in non-original shows, including stagings of “Flowers for Algernon” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” for middle and high school students. Some of the theater’s mainstage shows are also offered to older students as afternoon matinees. This past season has included performances of “The Woman in Black,” “All My Sons” and “Dames at Sea.”

The latter, a tap-heavy homage to the lavish Busby Berkeley-style movie musicals of the 1930s that’s playing through May 5, has drawn its share of young admirers.

“They are a lot more uninhibited with their reactions,” says Nicole Morris-Anastasi, who played the character of Joan in “Dames” for student groups. “It lends a bit of a different energy to the show. They kind of egg you on a bit, and it’s more fun for everybody.”

Still, the Mill’s biggest seller is always its Christmastime “Drifty the Snowman” show, for which they’ve written 22 scripts. Some 1,200 children, teachers and parents come through the Mill for the shows during a five-week run, no small feat for a 210-seat theater.

“We have a lot of families that come and have been coming [to “Drifty”] for 25-plus years,” says Pat Foley, director of children’s theater programming at the Mill. “The ones that came as children are now coming back as adults with their children.”

Given their close proximity to children and the time of year, “Drifty” casts are notorious for getting sick. This past year, Width says everyone stayed healthy until the show’s final week.

“[Children] love to hug you, they love to high-five you, and you just have to make sure you don’t touch your mucus membranes [after],” Width says.

When the Mill transitioned from a for-profit theater to a nonprofit organization in June 2001, it switched its name from Swift Creek Mill Playhouse to Swift Creek Mill Theatre. Sad to see the former name go, Width added the subtitle “the people’s playhouse for more than 50 years” to reflect its roots as a community space.

“We are very much a homegrown and home sustained organization, and we keep that in mind when we’re producing things,” Width says.

In providing theater for a community that wouldn’t otherwise have it, Width finds purpose, especially when presenting mature works for older students.

“You find empathy in children that you didn’t know was there,” Width says. “I always try to teach them that theater is a place where you can feel safe to feel anything without fear. If they’re seeing something very emotional and it’s a sixth or seventh grader witnessing the Nazis coming in to get Anne Frank, it can get very emotional for them.

“I hope they’ll be theatergoers for the rest of their lives once they experience that kind of thing.” ¦

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