Local theater defines itself by its dedicated volunteers who do anything they can to keep theater alive for people to enjoy. Jason (Jay) Kern is one such volunteer.

As a local theatergoer, it can be very easy to just show up and enjoy the show and not be aware of all the planning and preparation it takes by an army of volunteers to pull off the evening of entertainment.

Time for brief applause and appreciation for the people who make the local theater experience possible for the rest.

Kern serves on the Lebanon Community Theatre (LCT) board of directors, builds sets, takes to the stage in a variety of supporting roles, and can be found selling concessions or cleaning up the theater after everyone has gone home. If it weren’t for theater-passionate people like Jay Kern, there would be a void in the local theater and arts culture.

Jay Kern has been involved in set-building for LCT over the years. (Provided photo)
Set from Into the Woods. (Provided photo)
Set from Noises Off. (Provided photo)

Jay gets hooked on theater

Kern’s passion for theater dates back to 1986 when he performed on a high school musical stage.

“I have always loved singing, from high school to my church choir to the Jonestown Male Chorus,” Kern said.

In 2011, Priscilla Ebright proposed that Kern audition for LCT’s production of Scrooge, directed by Karen Gulotta. Kern heeded Ebright’s advice, and, as a result, he was cast as Tom Jenkins.

“It renewed a desire to be involved in theater again,” Kern said. “But the passion really took hold with responsibilities that involved helping play production in other ways.”

From there, Kern was handed down the responsibility of the LCT prop shed from Will Schaeffer. In 2014, Kern began set-building with the theater’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Kern has continued to take on more responsibilities and new roles ever since.

Over the years, some of Kern’s favorite plays to be involved with included The Addams Family, Arsenic and Old Lace, and Little Shop of Horrors.

Set from Arsenic and Old Lace. (Provided photo)

As an actor, Kern has most enjoyed playing the role of Tom Jenkins, which he performed in both 2011 and 2018. He has also enjoyed being the Grinch in Seussical, Maude the Bartender in Bye Bye Birdie, among other roles.

Life’s role models

“I think my biggest role models would be my parents,” Kern said. “They have been together for over 50 years and have shown me that life is not about making money or reaching a certain destination. The world is still a magical place, and I could not imagine living anywhere [other] than my hometown of Jonestown.”

Kern continued, “They taught me to find something that you love and go after it. You might fail at first, but you can’t get good at something without being bad at it first. Putting the work in pays off.”

Kern has put these words of wisdom into practice both on and off stage throughout the years.

The challenge of the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the area in the middle of the first week of LCT’s production A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. After serious debate on whether to finish out the first weekend, LCT ultimately decided to proceed with caution and postpone.

Like many organizations, LCT remained hopeful that the theater would be back to normal in just a few weeks. However, weeks quickly turned into months. The theater lost a significant revenue stream and was forced to eat the costs of sets and costumes. And still, the theater’s volunteers continued to do what they could to help the theater.

“For the better part of the year following, I was one of a small handful of persons in the theater. It was depressing, but I remained confident that we would re-open.”

COVID-19 took its toll on local theater among other things. (Provided photo)

While the pandemic kept the curtains closed and seats empty, Kern said that his personal life did not see as much change.

“I tend to be a relatively private individual,” Kern said. “My time is spent on projects at home and around the theater. My immediate family managed to get together throughout the pandemic.”

Kern also continued working as an assistant manager for his day job, Lebanon County PennDOT.

“I enjoy the problem-solving and dealing with the public,” Kern said. “My theater work is separate, but the experience I have gained has helped advance my professional career as well.”

Cheaper by the Dozen

Kern’s versatility is evident in LCT’s next play, Cheaper by the Dozen. The play is currently in rehearsal with performances scheduled Sept. 9-19.

Kern pictured with a local actress rehearsing Cheaper by the Dozen. (Jack Cantwell)
The cast members and crew have less than a month until performances. (Jack Cantwell)

The play is the second of LCT’s 2021 season, the first being the small play Greater Tuna in July.

Read more: Lebanon Community Theater holding two-person show this week after being closed for over a year

According to the LCT website, Cheaper by the Dozen “tells the story of the Gilbreth family. Their inventor father, who is well-known for bringing better efficiency to factories, keeps his family of 12 running just as efficiently. The play is told from the point of view of his children. It is an extremely funny, heart-warming, and family-friendly production that stands the test of time.”

For more information, visit the website or call 717-833-4LCT.

Finding the director

For the first time ever, Kern has assumed the responsibility of being the assistant director. Kern is always willing to serve in any position to see a production achieve success.

“Before Covid, we were seeking a director for the show and approached experienced director, Karen Mann,” explained Kern. “She was hesitant to do it until I offered to be her assistant. We are on the same page and think alike. It is working out well.”

Building a labor of love

The essence of community theater is the buy-in by cast and crew to passionately dedicate themselves to provide a memorable evening of theater for local fans. Ideally, the cast is a mix of veteran and fledgling performers eager to cut their teeth in theater by learning from the director and their more experienced castmates.

The veterans include Jack Ferry (Frank Gilbreath, the father), Sue Steffey (Mrs. Gilbreath, the mother), Ashley Hecksher (Lillian), and young Kathryn Wentling (Anne Gilbreath, older child). The other children in the show are a combination of kids with limited experience and rookies.

Two young actresses rehearsing. (Jack Cantwell)

The team has an audience-pleasing family-focused play to work with. One parent extolled, “All my kids want to be in this play.”

When asked what Mann wanted audiences to take away from Cheaper by the Dozen, her answer was simple, yet profound: “Life is short. Use your time wisely.”

Advice for younger people interested in theater

“If you audition for a part and don’t get it, take what’s offered,” Kern advised. He did this when he played the role of the Grinch in Seussical.

“I spent an hour painting my head green and putting on a prosthetic nose for six minutes of stage time,” Kern said. “It was amazing.”

Kern also pointed out that you don’t have to be on-stage to get involved. He suggested helping out as a volunteer stagehand or a set builder/painter, or running sound and lights.

Grand staircase from Beauty and the Beast. (Provided photo)
Steps and rails that Kern replaced during COVID-19 last spring. (Provided photo)

He said, “There is great pride involved in finishing a job, knowing I did my best, seeing a final production on stage, and [playing] an important part in making it a success.”

And Kern continues to do just that.

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