Don’t tell Kevin Russell of Chipley he can’t do something. That only makes him more determined—especially when he is focused on family, his hometown and theater.
Finding an old playbill tucked away in his grandmother’s bookcase was an awakening for Kevin when he was in high school. The fourth-generation Chipley native saw it as a sign.
“It was really weird when that program from the Spanish Trail Playhouse fell into my lap,” says Kevin, now 34. “Not only did finding it open some doors about my family, I also learned a bit about the history of Chipley and how my family was connected to it.”
The original Spanish Trail Playhouse entertained the people of Chipley for more than a half-dozen years in the 1960s.
That single playbill saved from one of his grandparents’ dates opened the conversation with his grandmother about the Chipley theater that had since closed. During the chats, Kevin learned his great-grandmother Edna Myers was a musician for the Spanish Trail Playhouse, playing piano from 1962 to 1968.
Soon, Kevin’s curiosity had grown into a mission. He wanted to bring the Spanish Trail Playhouse back to Washington County.
“By the time I was a sophomore in college, I had decided that I wanted to start my own theater in Chipley,” says Kevin, who was studying theater at Chipola College at the time. “When I mentioned it to my mentor and high school theater director, Luwana Locke, all she said was, ‘You don’t realize how much you’re biting off.’ I didn’t let that discourage me. I knew this was what God was calling me to do.”
At age 19, Kevin launched his plan—first assessing community interest, then establishing the theater as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and creating a board of directors.
All the while, he pursued his college degree.
“Many people in the community wanted to see the theater succeed,” Kevin says. “My pastor’s wife was a CPA and helped with the business side. People stepped up to serve on the board and to assist with funding. Thank goodness, because I was pretty new to all this.”
In August 2006, the group staged a womanless beauty pageant called “Miss Hot to Trot” and raised $1,000.
“We had 15 men from the area—from a bank president and business owners to county commissioners—participate, all dressing up to help,” Kevin says. “I’ve never seen so many men jump into a dress for a good cause.”
Other fundraising events followed, including an original play written by Kevin and Chris Calton. “Skits-O-Phrenia” featured a night of comedy and music. It was so successful it was repeated for several years, helping fill the coffers enough to launch the group’s first season in 2008.
The first show in September 2008, “Steel Magnolias,” brought together actresses from two counties, playing to community accolades.
“We still needed a permanent home,” Kevin says. “The old Chipley High School had sat dormant for eight years. Around the time our first season started, we were able to take over the lease of the old high school’s auditorium.”
The auditorium needed extensive repairs—but once again, the community came through.
People turned out for workdays during the next nine months to remove and replace seats, clean up the stage and back of the house, make repairs, paint and bring the auditorium into usable condition. Most materials were donated or purchased at cost.
In April 2009, the reopened Spanish Trail Playhouse presented its first musical, “A Stroll Down Broadway,” in the renovated 365-seat auditorium.
Kevin says they were selling seats before they even had a seating layout.
“It was the theater’s first musical in 40 years and featured 35 cast members of all ages,” he says. “It really set the tone for the playhouse’s comeback.”
For the past 13 seasons, Spanish Trail Playhouse has produced an average of four to six plays a year, including classics such as “The Mousetrap” by Agatha Christie, “Driving Miss Daisy” by Alfred Uhry and “Charlotte’s Web,” based on the book by E.B. White.
Musical productions such as “Annie,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Smoke on the Mountain” and “Oklahoma!” are a mainstay. Shows include local musicians and singers. Auditions draw actors from more than an hour’s drive away who commit to several weeks of rehearsals, then five to six performances over two weekends.
In addition to regular theater shows, the playhouse produces the Spanish Trail Opry, showcasing local talent and providing opportunities for the community to experience music.
Now in its 11th season, the Opry is directed by Jimmy Miller—a founding board member of the reestablished Spanish Trail Playhouse. He also is technical director for the playhouse.
The Spanish Trail Playhouse is one of less than a handful of volunteer theaters in Florida.
No one is paid, including Kevin. That means he must juggle a full-time job teaching English and theater at Chipley High School while running the day-to-day operation of an all-volunteer theater.
“We couldn’t have accomplished this much if it weren’t for community support and a strong board,” Kevin says. “The Spanish Trail Playhouse has been a labor of love for the community and by the community. I’m just so glad that we can give people something to distract them from all that’s going on around us.”
The Spanish Trail Playhouse has not only been reborn. The playhouse has become a hub of activity and source of pride, helping build a strong sense of community in the Northwest Florida town. It is the linchpin of the cultural and musical fabric of Chipley.
Thanks to the theater’s return, the old high school building was revitalized, offering usable classroom space, heating and air conditioning, and room for storage of sets and costumes.
The list of sponsors and donors for the playhouse is rich with supporters. Mil Cox—who traces her roots to the theater back more than half a century—chairs the group’s sponsorship committee and serves on the board of directors.
“Volunteers are the lifeblood of community theater,” Mil says. “Not only do they provide hands, talents and enthusiasm, they make it possible for us to continue to bring quality productions to the stage.”
From the time she was cast in the role of Louise, Mil has been a regular as an actress and director. Her shows include “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Daddy’s Dying; Who’s Got the Will?” and “On Golden Pond.”
Mil is directing Kevin in the theater’s summer fundraiser, “George M. Cohan Tonight!” The one-man musical tells the story of the composer’s life as one of the most popular musical-comedy writers/performers of his day. The show will raise money to replace seats in the theater.
“Before the new playhouse was here, people used to drive from Chipley to Dothan or Panama City for entertainment,” Mil says with a smile. “Now, all those folks and many others are coming here to Chipley, and it’s all because of Kevin and the quality productions of the Spanish Trail Playhouse.”
The 14th season at the Spanish Trail Playhouse includes four more productions:
- “George M. Cohan Tonight!” July 10-11
- “An Evening of Southern Gospel,” August 7
- “Bonnie & Clyde: The Musical,” September 17-18, September 24-26
- “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some),” December 9-12
For ticket information, call 850-638-9113 or visit spanishtrailplayhouse.com.