As you open the ancient door, you feel as if you’ve gone back in time to another era. Echoes can be heard of Patsy Cline, the Big Band era, a wheel with water turning and the sounds of bebop dance.
To some it may just be bricks and mortar or just an interesting old building on Jefferson Davis Highway that connects Chesterfield County and Colonial Heights.
In reality, Swift Creek Mill Theatre has been the hub of the community where it sits for nearly 350 years. Today, it serves as one of only a handful of live performance theatres in Richmond and the surrounding areas.
Ask anyone who’s been to see a production and sat in the upstairs vintage theatre seats that have served many a fascinated patron as they see plays and hear the music. Also, dinner served in the downstairs space is an experience with a variety of Virginia-style buffet offerings.
“Swift Creek Mill Theatre serves this community as the only area playhouse with this unique history,” said the Development Director Jennifer Procise. She explained that the theatre is only a few years from celebrating 50 years and is celebrating 350 years as a gristmill.
The location at 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway originally started out as a gristmill, as it adjoins the water of Swift Creek River. Families would come over to the mill to have their corn ground and socialize.
Henry Randolph started the mill around 1663 and it changed hands many time over the years and operated in various capacities over those many decades. In 1929, again working as a gristmill, it was designated Swift Creek Mill and remained a mill until 1956.
By 1965, the “Mill” had fallen into neglect. Three families had a vision of a playhouse where live performances would take place. They began what is known today as Swift Creek Mill Theatre to bring the theatre culture to the area.
For just shy of 50 years the “Mill” has been preserved as both a historical landmark and a cultural outlet for the talents of artists, among all those that make each performance the award-winning productions they are.
The legacy is imprinted on that small place on Jefferson Davis Highway of wonderful experiences. Swift Creek Mill is a Chesterfield County historic landmark, a Virginia Historical Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The playhouse has produced hundreds of live dramas, comedies, musicals and children’s theatre for local audiences.
Procise shared, “Swift Creek Mill Theatre is one of the oldest gristmills in the country and it has been the people’s playhouse for more than 45 years.”
Artistic Director Tom Width, who has served as the director of the playhouse for many years said, “We have stewardship over a magnificent piece of history, and, we have a commitment to entertain, educate and enlighten through the theatre.”
With that in mind, the playhouse started to look at what needed to be done to the historic property. “The last renovations to the property were in 1965,” Procise shared. The renovations to the playhouse will include: an addition to the rear of the property that includes a new kitchen, new bathrooms, stairs, an elevator, and new dressing rooms.
These renovations will be done by the playhouse’s partner and current owner, Rosyln Farm Corporation.
“We will be ADA-compliant in 2013,” said Procise, “And we’re just so glad to be able to provide this for our clients with disabilities so they can enjoy the shows too.” This will provide easy access to the theatre through two entrances and wheelchair seating in the theatre. Also, assisted listening devices for the hard of hearing will be available.
“Figuring out how to maintain the historic character of the building while adding the necessary improvements has been a challenge, but we feel the challenge has been met,” said Width. “In my 37 years here, these are the biggest changes I’ve seen and it’s a very exciting time.”
There will be renovations to technology in the theatre including new theatrical lighting, updated sound equipment and more efficient, state-of -the art technology made. This is being done using funds through grants and donations, by the non-profit organization that operates the theatre. The committee is halfway through their fundraising goal of $350,000 and appreciates all donations or help for this endeavor.
November 1 and 2, the theatre plans to have their grandest reopening gala to kickoff their 2013-2014 season. The funds from this event will be used to help with the infrastructure projects of the fundraising goal. There will be heavy hors d’oeuvres and select and premium seating available. “It gives our great patrons a chance to see the new renovations and a chance to see some wonderful talent,” said Procise. This is the only year the playhouse plans to do the extra benefit to help with the new updates.
Procise added, “The gala will be a fun event and has its own show so the community has a chance to see the changes and lots of singing and dancing.”
The regular 2013-2014 show season will kick off after the gala and include:
The youth season will also kickoff then and shows can be viewed at www.swiftcreekmill.com. Also available is the pricing and information for the upcoming season.
“The gristmill was a gathering place — every week friends and family mingled and came together in community,” Procise said. “This is still that same place — it’s a theatre of our community and we want to continue that gristmill tradition for family and friends to gather and share wonderful, happy memories for the next 48 years.”