Twenty years ago, seven theater moms created the Kids Coop Theatre in Derry in response to the lack of local onstage opportunities for their kids.
One of those founders, Debbie McKitterick, can still remember the audition that started it all. She was standing in line with her kids and their friends, who were waiting to sing and dance for parts in a Massachusetts production of Annie.
“There must have been 500 little girls auditioning to be Annie or the orphans. I remember turning around and saying to one of the other mothers, Sheila Schaefer, ‘We could do this.’ And then, it seemed like 24 hours later, she called me. Within a week, we were sitting around a kitchen table trying to figure out how to start a children’s theater group,” McKitterick said via phone last week.
They created a board, and members paid $50 apiece to get the rights for KCT’s first show, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, in December 1997 at the Londonderry Senior Center. Schaefer directed, and the the rest of the moms did everything else.
“The reason we named it [Kids Coop Theatre] was because we asked all the parents to be involved in some fashion — building sets, watching the kids, monetarily, anything, and 99.9 percent chipped in. The key thing in our group was there would be no cutting. If the director said he could use 50 children in a show, the first 50 that signed up were in the show,” McKitterick said. “At our auditions, you knew you were already in the show. That’s what made it different.”
This was one of the most important aspects of the KCT structure, McKitterick said. Founders felt theater wasn’t just beneficial for kids naturally good at singing, dancing and acting.
“Not every kid wants to be an athlete,” McKitterick said. “It was a great outlet for kids who didn’t want to do sports, but who wanted to do some sort of activity outside of school.”
Parental involvement also made it different. They volunteered backstage, built sets, sewed costumes and tackled the publicity, management and fundraising jobs. Some rehearsals were at the Upper Village Hall, others were in members’ living rooms.
“While the kids were upstairs doing rehearsals with the director, parents were downstairs pounding nails,” McKitterick said. “I remember shaking my head so many times thinking, what the heck are we doing! We worked nonstop the first four to five years. Literally, that’s all we did. If we weren’t sewing costumes, we were overseeing rehearsals and babysitting people’s children.”
Twenty years later, the program is going strong with more than 260 active families putting on three regular productions each year, plus one summer teen show and one summer theater camp for kids ages 8 to 18. Board members hire professional directors, musical directors and choreographers, but everything else is still done by kids and parent volunteers.
Members celebrate with a gala Friday, Jan. 6, at the Derry Opera House, which will include entertainment by current members and alumni, dancing, hors d’oeuvres, a cash bar, dessert, raffle, silent auction and a special exhibition featuring memorabilia from the last 20 years.
Former KCT president and musical director Ron Barth thinks thinks one of the reasons the company lasted so long is because parents like the opportunity KCT offers them to spend time with their kids.
“It’s like when other parents want to be involved with their kids’ sports teams by becoming coaches. It was another way to get involved with your child’s passion, doing theater,” Barth said.