The First-Person Project

Paula (Mitchell) Demers, ’91

Concord, NH

Director, Performer, Teacher in Community and School Theatre

Major: Elementary Education

Minor: Theatre Arts

Growing up in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, three friends and I would put on plays for my parents. We wrote the plays and the music as well as performing. When we hit high school, we started MWM Children’s Theatre Company, named for the initials of our last names. It was theatre run by children and performed by children. We held auditions, rehearsed, and performed at the community center in Contoocook, charging 50 cents for admission. It was an early form of summer day care for a lot of the parents. Ooh, my kid can go to theatre camp! The theatre continued even after my friends and I moved on, and it ran for a total of 15 years.

My grandmother was a Keene State graduate, but my dad didn’t go to college, and my mom went to Plymouth State but didn’t finish her degree. And I have to be honest: I did not want to go to college. I am kind of a homebody; I’m happy with my comforts and I’m an only child, so the thought of sharing a room with someone made me very apprehensive. But I knew I needed to go to college to have a career. I was interested in teaching, and I had always loved school. I really, really loved theatre, and doing theatre with elementary and high school students, but knew the realities – those jobs are very competitive.

I chose Keene State because it wasn’t far from home. I applied early decision and got in. I enjoyed my senior year of high school, and then came the end of summer. We have a picture of me sitting in the back of my parents’ van; it’s filled to the gills with all my stuff, and I’m in the back with this little mug on my face. I did not want to go. I arrived, walked down the sidewalk in front of Huntress Hall – the dorm where my grandmother had lived – and who did I see but a girl I’d been friends with at Girl’s State the year before. It turned out her room was practically across the hall from mine. I loved Keene from that moment on.

I decided to jump in with both feet. I was vice president of my hall council, I was an admissions tour guide, I was on the orientation staff. I auditioned for everything that came down the pike at the theatre. I ended up being kind of part of three communities on campus. I majored in elementary education, so I knew all those people, I was part of the theatre crowd over at Brickyard Pond, and because I was especially interested in musical theatre, I spent a lot of time with the music majors.

Here’s one very cool thing that happened. I had a small part in the play The Clowns – it was a comedy that took place during Shakespearean times, and there was a sword-fighting scene. Dan Patterson, the professor who was directing, got this fellow from New York City to come in and teach stagecraft and help choreograph the fight scene. At one of the rehearsals, I was sitting and watching; I had my hair up, and I was wearing my red chamois shirt with the collar up. Somebody shouted from the stage, Paula, you look like Katharine Hepburn sitting there! And I said, Really? I love Katherine Hepburn! So I continued to watch, and then this woman came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. It was the wife of the guy who was teaching stagecraft. And she said, Did you know that my husband is Katharine Hepburn’s nephew? No! I told her that I had tried to write to Katharine Hepburn and never received a response. So the next rehearsal, her husband gave me Katharine Hepburn’s home address. I sat down and wrote a letter to her – this must have been October, early November. December 1, my birthday, I come back to my room one day – this was when they used to deliver the mail under the door – and I see an envelope, Paula Mitchell, with a New York City return address. I pick it up, I tear it open! I’ve now got it framed. It was a letter from Katharine, on my birthday! That’s one of my favorite theatre connection stories from Keene State. I wrote her a couple more times, so I actually have three letters from her, on her Katharine Houghton Hepburn stationery. Pretty cool.

I met my husband, Chris, the year I was a sophomore and he was a senior. We weren’t on campus together long, because he did his student-teaching and lived at home during the second semester of that year. After I graduated, I had two job offers, and I took the one in Derry, New Hampshire, because it was close to Chris. He was living in Londonderry and teaching in Hudson. And he proposed! I graduated in May and he proposed in June.

So we got married, and I worked in Derry for three years. I taught first grade and fourth grade. In my third year, the town voted to cut a bazillion dollars from the school budget, so they pink-slipped all first, second, and third-year teachers. And art, music, and PE. So I got pink-slipped, which turned out to be fine. I had some experience but was still low on the pay scale, which made me pretty marketable. I got a job teaching third grade in Bedford, and taught there for four years.

When Chris and I were first married, we lived in Nashua, across the street from Elm Street Junior High, where the Nashua ActorSingers perform. Chris and I did a few productions with them, and in the summers, I continued to do children’s theatre camps. When our daughter, Katharine – named for Katharine Hepburn – came along, I left the classroom. Along the way, we moved up to Concord, and the head of the Hopkinton Independence School asked me to start a children’s theatre company using the school as a base. That led to directing the musicals for my alma mater, Hopkinton High school.

When Katharine was about seven, I signed up to be a substitute teacher here in Concord, and that turned into being an educational assistant for the school district, part time. I love being a homemaker and I love doing theatre. I’m very active in the Concord Community Players, and I direct a biennial variety show at our church, the First Congregational Church in Hopkinton.

The appeal of community theatre: There’s a place for everybody. You could be in the ensemble, you could help with props or costumes, you could have a lead, you could have a secondary lead, you can play in the pit orchestra; whatever. The other big piece is, it’s community theatre. You get to know your community. I love the rehearsal process. I love hashing out lines and working on character. But I also love meeting people, people in our community. It just builds such wonderful bonds.

Community theatre provides an opportunity to belong, which is really critical. Also, you can participate in theatre at any age. With the church show, we’ve got 80-year-olds performing with eight-year-olds. On Sunday morning when they go to church, they’re waving to each other across the church. They’re friends. People have told me that a show got them through the winter or through a divorce. It’s really the journey and not the final product. I think if everybody knew this, we would have so much theatre we wouldn’t know what to do with it, because anyone who gets involved with theatre, they never turn back.

Our whole family is involved with the Concord Community Players. Chris and I have both served on the board many times, and performed, and built sets and worked on lighting and costumes and props. Katharine, she’s 17, a senior at Concord High School, has been performing since she was an infant portraying Jesus in the church Christmas pageant.

The church variety show has a family connection –my mom started those shows back when I was in middle school. I had always assisted her with them, and then in the ’90s, I started writing and directing them. My grandfather used to put on a minstrel/vaudeville fundraising show for the Hopkinton PTO, and when the church was looking to do some sort of fundraiser, my mom thought, Well, my dad used to do shows, so why don’t I? It started off as a talent show then it morphed into a variety show, and now it is an extravaganza with a cast of 40-plus. I can’t get over how many people want to be involved with it. And we sell out! The community supports it, and all the money goes to charities.

One more Keene State story: Three of my class of ’91 friends and I have a girls’ weekend twice a year, and we’ve done it for 20 years now. Me, Diane Croteau Langlaw, Chrissy Hagwood Barton, and Linda Backus Gary. Diane got it started, two years after we graduated. The first year we went to Boston to see Phantom of the Opera, and ended up having a sleepover here. It’s been wonderful, supporting each other through marriages, careers, children, and now aging parents. They were all business majors. See, there was another community I was part of!