MANCHESTER, NH – What she lacked in stature, Emma Bechert made up for in personality. She had a megawatt smile and sparkled from the inside out, like the glittery pink baseball cap that once compensated for the hair she lost to cancer, and is now her trademark and her posthumous calling card. Her fellow Palace Youth Theatre performers take turns wearing it like a badge of honor, in her memory.
On Tuesday they gathered in front of the sacred space that was once St. George’s Church, the building on Pine Street purchased a year ago as the new home of the Palace Theatre’s youngest thespians. It also provides storage and rehearsal space, and has been known as the Pine Street Studios, a name that was just a placeholder, says Megan Quinn, Director of the Palace Youth Theater.
Going forward, it has become what it was always destined to be: Forever Emma Studios.
“She considered this her second home,” says Quinn.
With as much fanfare as you might expect from a group of teenage actors, Emma’s peers stood near the front steps in shades of pink and purple as Artistic Director Carl Rajotte recalled how the expansion of the Palace’s youth program came to pass 15 years ago. By design, it is a program where everyone who wants to be in a show has a role to play, from production to center stage.
Emma made her mark and left her magic, and over the years wove herself into the fabric of every production and the heart of every player. You can hear Rajotte’s remarks in the video below, followed by a few words from Quinn leading up to the ribbon-cutting. Emma’s brother, Owen, did the honors with an assist from Mayor Joyce Craig, who has cut enough ribbons to know that it’s all in the technique – stand front and center, and never turn your back to the audience.
And when the big scissors fail, make sure there are some real ones in the wings.
After the ribbon was cut and the new sign, unveiled, Mandy Bechert thanked all of those who came to celebrate the renaming of the studio.
“I want you to know if ever there’s a place of acceptance and belief in who you are, this is it,” she said. “It gives us such peace to know this will be perpetuated in her name. Just keep carrying that energy with you and everything will be OK.”
Her dad, Tim Bechert, said Emma’s love of acting was in her DNA – inherited from her mother, and her mother’s mother.
“There was immediate acceptance here. Acting was something she embraced,” said her dad. “Emma had challenges, but it made her feel good to be here and truly it was her passion and her drive, specifically the ability to be part of productions. It’s what she looked forward to the most.”
He smiles as he takes in the moment. He talks about how pink was his daughter’s color, “always,” and how much Emma loved going to Broadway and Boston to see shows with her friends and family.
“How does it feel to see her name on the sign? It makes your heart grow. Just the fact that she continues to touch people, three years later, and will continue to — it keeps her mother, her brother and me in a good place,” he says.
Emma’s challenges began when she was diagnosed with cancer before the age of 2, but she never complained, and never let the challenges get in the way of living life to the fullest.
Her friend Kate Peters recalls the first time she met Emma.
“She lit up the room,” says Kate. “When I joined the Palace family I said to myself, ‘Oh yeah, she’s going to be my sister.’ And she was. It was her big heart. I really don’t know how else to explain it.”
Shana Potvin stands next to her daughter, Ella Weintraub, who is caught up in the emotion of it all, somewhere between grief and happy tears. Potvin spent years volunteering as team manager her daughter’s Destination Imagination team in Bedford, which carried them to many victorious DI performances in the international program that focuses on creativity, teamwork and problem-solving. Emma was an integral part of the team.
“We have all been best friends since elementary school,” says Ella Weintraub. The girls — Cat Ahnen, Ella Erwin, Julia McCahill and Lydia Woodgate — reminisced about the trips they took to Tennessee for competition, and how even during some of the toughest times, Emma persisted.
And when they weren’t practicing for “DI” competition, they were performing on the Palace Stage together. As they swap stories, at times holding hands, or with arms wrapped around one another, the absence of Emma is still raw. They talk about how Emma made them laugh, or made them think, and made them better.
“Once Emma died I stopped coming here to the theater group,” says Ella Erwin, trying to ignore the stream of tears making its way down her cheek as she explains herself. “It was just too hard. It wouldn’t be the same without her.”
“I had the opposite reaction,” says Cat Ahnen,” after Emma died, it was like I couldn’t stay away. Being here somehow made me feel closer to her. I think I’ve done every single show since she passed away.”
Below, a gallery of Emma and friends, courtesy of Shana Potvin
It’s been nearly three years since Emma lost her fight, and the circle of friends is getting ready to find their own footing as they step toward their futures. They each will carry Emma with them.
“She wanted to hang in there and be part of our graduation next year,” says Ella Weintraub, through a sad smile.
Shana Potvin says she’s just happy that the Palace has made sure that even when those who knew and loved Emma have outgrown the rehearsal space, her memory will live on and her story can be told to the next generation of aspiring actors.
“Once these kids are gone and in college, Emma will still always live in them,” Potvin says.
Below: Emma Bechert’s childhood friends Ella Weintraub, Cat Ahnen, Ella Erwin, Julia McCahill and Lydia Woodgate recreate a ritual that Emma came up with to create unity and positive vibes before every show, a ritual they continue, without fail, before every production.