Harrisburg Stagecraft, Part 4

Karen Ruch, Director

by M. Diane McCormick, Photography by Kelly Ann Shuler

Karen Ruch’s high-school theater director believed that every student involved in a show should help create the production, “even if it’s just picking up a paint brush and painting a chair.”

“To me, that’s what theater is,” says Ruch. “You come, you show up, you make it happen.”

Ruch knows all about “make it happen” theater. She is a frequent director with Gamut Theatre Group, the troupe who recently transformed an old downtown Harrisburg church into a sprawling home for Gamut’s Harrisburg Shakespeare Company, Popcorn Hat Players, Gamut Theatre Academy and TMI Improv.

Without theater, Ruch says she “would be certainly not as happy as I am, certainly not as fulfilled as I am.”

“When you get people together in a dark theater to watch a play, it is a shared human experience that you don’t get any other way except through a live performance. It hearkens back to our tribal brain. We all get together to hear the story.”

Ruch came to Harrisburg from her native Lehigh Valley in the early 1990s, just as Gamut founders Melissa and J. Clark Nicholson were launching Harrisburg Shakespeare Company. The admitted “Shakespeare nerd” pestered to get involved. She stage-managed some productions and acted in others, starting with her appearance as the Second Witch in Macbeth (and yes, she will defy a dreaded curse and name “the Scottish play” in a theater).

She found her director’s voice with The Tempest, a tale that had always enchanted her. She created a world set at the height of the British naval empire and fashioned from found objects that typically wash up on a beach – ropes and driftwood and books.

As a director, she has learned to separate her technical-theater brain from her dealings with actors.

“You just give them enough rein to find their moments, and give them the appropriate nudges to find them,” Ruch says. “They’re not puppets, and they can’t be treated like puppets. Each actor needs something a little different.”

Around 2007, Ruch helped create Gamut’s Stage Door Series, presenting original works from regional playwrights. The 2016 production of As She Likes It gave backstories to Shakespeare’s underwritten women – the Ophelias and Cornelias who suffer alongside the Hamlets and Lears but rarely soliloquize about their dreams and fears.

“Most of the time, they’re not the center of the play,” she says. “Here, we have a chance for these ladies to stand forward and tell us the things we never get to hear about.”

Ruch’s job as a procurement supervisor for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission provides the leeway to spend evenings and weekends with Gamut and other companies throughout the region.

She sees the same devotion in countless others, including those who volunteered for “the most amazing barn raising you’ve ever seen” to create Gamut’s new home in the former First Church of God.

“All of those folks have a stake now,” Ruch says. “They’re stakeholders in this theater. They’re stakeholders in keeping live theater alive in Harrisburg and keeping it vibrant.”