Now Playing in the Lebanon Valley: The St. James Players

Visit Lebanon Valley Presents…

Karen Dundore-Gulotta & The St. James Players

Based on an interview with Karen Dundore-Gulotta & Steve Smith

PROLOGUE: Present day at the Lebanon Valley Mall.

[VISIT LEBANON VALLEY STAFF walks into the foyer] When you walk into the theatre of the St. James Players, you are met with a grand chandelier that hangs from the high rafters of the mall ceiling. It isn’t more than a few steps inside the theatre that the light fixture catches the eye, begging to tell a story. Ask Karen Dundore-Gulotta, the director of the theatre, and she will tell you the origins of the chandelier—how she found it on Facebook Marketplace, picked it up in Rochester, New York, pieced it apart, carefully brought it home to the theatre, and then pieced it right back together. It’s just one part of the theatre, but the chandelier seems to represent more than a trip down I-390. Instead, it feels as though it represents the way that Dundore-Gulotta has brought light to something—taking this once-forgotten chandelier and giving it new life as the centerpiece of the theatre’s front room—much like she has done for so many individuals throughout her life. From the light fixture in the foyer to each student that comes through the theatre doors, there’s a story to be told within the St. James Players that goes far beyond the curtain call of each performance. And that story begins at a local elementary school back in 1976.

SCENE I: The Late 1970’s at ELCO High School.

[10-year-old KAREN enters nervously] It was 1976 when a young Karen Dundore-Gulotta first stepped on stage in a theatrical production. She wasn’t part of a theatre company, and she was still in elementary school, but with encouragement from her music teacher, Karen auditioned for a role in the high school theatre production. Despite the nerves, she secured the children’s lead, and on opening night as the curtain rose, she had the realization: “I am going to do this for the rest of my life.” Throughout high school and college, Karen continued to perform in shows. It wasn’t until the birth of her children that she took a hiatus from the theatre, but it wasn’t a long one and Karen admits that she kept a foot in the door, doing costume work and taking trips to see shows as she was able. Then, at the age of five, her son expressed an interest in doing theatre, and soon the whole family found their way back into the world of theatre. As she continued to raise her children, guiding them through their own experiences of acting and performing, Karen was also working in a full-time teaching position. Through the busyness of it all, her thoughts of opening her own theatre got put on the backburner. But those thoughts simmered, and though she didn’t exactly know how it would work, Karen continued to dream.

SCENE II: The summer of 2018 on the beach in Ocracoke Island.

[KAREN sits on the beach, a red notebook in hand] In 2018, while on a sabbatical off the coast of North Carolina in a small beach town called Ocracoke, Karen began to transform her theatre dream into a plan. She was working at a school during the day and directing the town’s summer productions in the evening, but during the late afternoon, she would sit on the beach with a red notebook in her hands. “I’d sit there and I’d just started plotting out how I was going to do this—how much money I needed, what my first show would be—I just plotted it all.” And though she still didn’t know how any of it would work, and even now looks back saying, “it was just kind of silly to even think about it,” in that red notebook Karen let her dreams take form. When she returned to Pennsylvania that fall to head back to work, Karen hosted a yard sale where she spoke with a neighbor about a nearby church. “I didn’t even tell her I had this plan to start a theatre, but she was talking about this section of the church that they weren’t using anymore,” Karen remembers. “I’m like ‘this is supposed to happen.’ She’s telling me this, but she has no idea that I have this plan.” Karen listened as the neighbor told her about the flooding that had occurred at the church and the work that would be needed to fix it up. She later visited the church and saw the damage firsthand, but knew it was nothing she couldn’t handle. Soon, Karen was handing over $1,200 from her own pocket and with a small team to help, she began the process of cleaning, painting, and preparing the theatre for its first show.

SCENE III: The end of 2018 at the original St. James Players’ Theatre.

[the crowd fills the theatre; a shoebox sits stage left] On opening night for their first ever show, the scene wasn’t exactly set in the St. James Players’ favor. Karen had managed to bring together a cast and crew, calling on children and adults that she had worked with in the theatre community. She even bought the rights to a show with her own money and was passionate about the one that she had chosen. But many of those around her felt that the show she had chosen was too sad and that it wouldn’t sell. “So I’m opening the theatre with a show I’ve been told by two organizations won’t sell in a building that had been flooded with $1,200 dollars, no lights, no sound system… we had nothing,” Karen recalls. But the Players prevailed. With her ticket sales charted in a notebook, Karen watched as all three showings of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” sold out. She then called the show’s rights house and purchased the rights for a fourth run and that too quickly sold out. With those first four performances, Karen’s investment in the St. James Players was doubled. But rather than pocketing the profits, she put half of the money right back into the theatre and donated the rest. “The other $1,200 we gave to habitat for humanity. We literally gave it in a shoebox, I had no way to give a check.” From there, the St. James Players have continued grow in numerous ways. In March of 2019, they became a 501-C (3) nonprofit. Then, in 2023, the company moved into their current location at the Lebanon Valley Mall, where they have over doubled the space of the old church. But regardless of the changes and the growth that they have seen, the mission of the St. James Players has remained the same… and so has the name.

SCENE IV: The late 1970’s at the St. James Lutheran Church.

[12-year-old KAREN sits on a church pew, ROSALIE enters stage right] Though they have since moved from their founding location at the St. James Lutheran Church and despite having no religious affiliation, the company still bears the name The St. James Players. On face value, it appears as a simple homage to their origins at the church. But for Karen, the name bears far more meaning… “As a kid, I didn’t fit in anywhere. I loved the arts, but I went to school where sports were really valued. I felt like an outcast at the time, like no one valued what I liked.” She recalls. “I grew up in the St. James Lutheran Church and there was a lady there by the name of Rosalie Keller-Brant. She was just this fabulous lady who marched to her own drum. She was like no one I had ever met, and I just really looked up to her.” Looking back on her conversations with Rosalie, Karen still holds close the things she had shared with her, “She would talk to me saying ‘be who you are, it doesn’t matter who anyone else is. You don’t need to be like anyone else, just embrace who you are.’” So, when it came time for Karen to choose a name for the theatre, Rosalie was top of mind, “I named it the St. James Players because I valued what she did for me when I was a girl.”Although some had tried to convince Karen to change the name once they moved to the mall, she came back once again to what Rosalie had taught her, “When we moved to the mall, many people said this is your chance to change the name because a lot of people think you’re a church,” she says. “I thought long and hard about it and I went back to ‘do what you know is right for you’. You know, good, bad, or indifferent I decided to keep it because my heart is in this place.”

SCENE V: Present Day at the Lebanon Valley Mall (Again).

[children are seated in a circle downstage; a lively discussion appears to be taking place] Since moving to the mall in 2023, the St. James Players have been running on all cylinders. No matter the time of year, it seems that the show is always going on for the company, whether that is a mainstage performance, a summer camp, or even a quick flashmob in the middle of the mall. One of the offerings that the theatre presents is their Mainstage Shows. These shows require auditions and often feature children and adults who have prior experience in the theatre world, though Karen admits that she’d prefer to take every performer that auditions, “We try to cast as many people we can, but sometimes if it’s a child who’s just starting out, I say to the mom and dad ‘they just need a little more experience, sign them up for star academy.’” Serving as a sort of “little league” for those who are looking to get into theatre, the Star Academy is another program within the St. James Players and one has a special place in Karen’s heart, “It’s a starting place to learn about performing arts and learn about yourself,” she says, “It’s something that I’m very proud of and I’m proud of the kids that sign up, I love watching them grow.” The Star Academy is completely free and runs on a first-come-first-serve basis four times a year. It is open to children ages 7-14 and takes place three nights a week, culminating in a show at the end of the sixth week. Through the Academy, Karen teaches the children dance, music, acting, and singing, but she also provides them with many life lessons and gives them a safe space to grow. “Every day we have a snack and circle time where we enjoy our snack and many times we talk about things that kids need to talk about—feeling like you don’t fit it, who you can talk to if you are struggling, how you can help a friend who’s struggling. We talk about things that the kids want to talk about or maybe don’t always feel comfortable talking about.” The St. James Players also holds a summer camp which is run in tandem with Making a Difference of Lebanon. This two-week, all-day camp is run similarly to the Star Academy and also culminates with a show at the end of the last week.

SCENE VI: Present day in Karen Dundore-Gulotta’s theatre office.

[KAREN is seated in her office, she read quietly from a script on her desk; STEVE appears upstage, a paintbrush in hand] Today, both Karen and her partner, Steve Smith, are retired from their respective careers as a special education teacher and a graphic designer. But take one look at their daily schedules and you would never know it. Whether it’s Karen writing grants and making meals and snacks for the kids backstage or Steve mapping out the back drops and displays for each show, running the St. James Players is more than a full-time job for the duo. But when asked about the theatre, it’s not these long hours or the endless to-do list that come up as the topic of conversation. For Karen and Steve, the theatre has never and will never be about them or what they are doing. In fact, neither takes any profit from their work at the St. James Players. Instead, their mission comes down to each child that comes through the theatre doors. “A lot of kids we get, they don’t fit in other places, they’re told they’re different,” says Steve. “But when they come here, it’s just complete, total, unconditional acceptance. And you can tell the kids feel it and embrace it.” Ask Karen what her favorite part of running the theatre is and the same rings true, “The kids. I just love the kids. They look at the world in such a different way than adults do.” So, while their retirement might involve more theatre than leisure, for Karen, it all comes back to the mentorship and acceptance she received from Rosalie all those years ago, and bringing that experience to each and every person who visits the theatre, “I was born and raised in Lebanon County. I’ve moved away many times… and I’ve moved back many times. And I just wanted to build something this county didn’t have—something I didn’t have as a child.”

By Darby Seymour



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