The salty-sweet scent of popcorn permeates the air as audience members make their way through the Kaufmann Theater at the Tillotson Center in Colebrook on a Saturday afternoon. Young children, parents and grandparents, friends and neighbors — some 150 people in all — fill the plush red seats well before the lights go down and the curtain opens on “Schoolhouse Rock — LIVE!”
This performance is the culmination of 17 rehearsals over several weeks. But the show represents the work of more than those rehearsals and the dozen kids on the stage today. This show — cast, produced, and directed by the Tilly Players — is the culmination of years of youth theater instruction in the community, which started with a summer camp for elementary school kids in 2006 and has grown to include a junior Drama Club and, most recently, the Tilly Players.
Support from the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund, in a grant awarded by the Empower Coös Youth Grantmaking Program, is helping to fund the further theater education and endeavors of the Tilly Players, a group of middle school and high school theater enthusiasts who have grown up through the programs offered by Colebrook’s summer recreation program and the drama club.
Both the Tilly Players and the Empower Coös Youth Grantmaking Program are in their inaugural years. And both strive to inspire teenagers and young adults in Coös County and surrounding communities to step into leadership roles.
“We wanted to put young people in charge of decision-making,” said Kirsten Scobie, director of the Neil and Louise Tillotson Funds of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. The Empower Coös Youth Grantmaking Program is an initiative of the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund. “We invited 11 young adults from the area to serve on this committee. We gave them a budget, a guided curriculum and some basic guidelines, and they developed program goals and criteria, then used those to award grants. What they built is awesome.”
The priorities for grant funding through the program include increasing extracurricular activities for youth between ages 12 and 22 and strengthening community engagement – both aspirations that the Tilly Players embrace.
“We started with a drama camp and we had too many kids,” said Melissa “Mooch” Shaw, Colebrook’s Recreation Director. “Then we started a drama club, and we had too many kids. Then those kids got older. The Tilly Players is the progression step from the drama club.”
It all started in 2006, when a summer camp counselor started a drama program for the summer campers. That program continued to grow, and the drama club, for kids in grades 2-8, started in 2015. Last fall, with Shaw’s support, several club members who had aged out of that program formed the Tilly Players, with an eye toward continuing and expanding theater options in the community.
“I went to see a show when I was three years old,” said Colebrook Academy sophomore Bryn Pearson. “Apparently I ran up to Mooch after the show and asked when I could be in one.”
Now, Pearson and about two dozen other middle and high school students from Colebrook and surrounding communities run the Tilly Players. They do their own casting and directing, make the props and design the costumes, and plan to put on two shows a year — between studies, sports and other obligations.
“The kids are in charge,” said Shaw. “It doesn’t make sense for me, as an adult, to go pick a show these kids are not going to have any interest in doing.”
So, while she is on-hand to help as needed, the Tilly Players run the show.
The Tilly Players also help mentor the younger thespians, deciding what shows the Drama Club should tackle, directing those plays, creating the choreography — basically taking a performance from casting through curtain call.
“It’s really fun to work with them,” Colebrook Academy freshman Olivia Barba, who directed the Drama Club’s spring show with Pearson, said of watching the younger kids gain confidence on the stage, learn to sing in front of a theater full of people, and put on a successful performance. “It’s really rewarding.”
The $4,000 grant from the Empower Coös Youth Grantmaking Program will be used to help the Tilly Players bring theater pros to town for workshops on directing and stage management; to fund travel to other theaters — both high school and professional — to see how other productions are run; and to establish a scholarship fund for kids who face financial obstacles but want to be involved in theater.
Building community, creating continuity, and fostering youth leadership are the goals for both the Tilly Players and the Youth Grantmaking Program.
“We were given a lot more power than I thought we would be given,” said Jessica Church, a sophomore at Profile School and member of the youth grantmaking committee. “I knew that community was important. But I didn’t know that young people were so important to the community.”
Other grants awarded through the Empower Coös Youth Grantmaking Program include $10,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of the North Country for development of an after-school environmental education program; and $5,000 to After School Kids in Whitefield for after-school programming.
The Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund is currently accepting applications new members of the Empower Coös Youth Grantmaking Program. The deadline is May 6. The committee that will make grants in 2020 will begin meeting in September of 2019. For more information, visit www.nhcf.org/empowercoosyouth.