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A Life: Old Church Theater’s Dominique Bulfair

— From its construction in 1793 to the turn of the 20th century, the building known today as the Old Church Theater was relocated three times.

When Dominique Bulfair moved to Bradford in 1984, stability came to both the historic building itself and the community theater operation she resurrected within it.

A native of rural Pennsylvania who ran an acting studio in New York City while an off-broadway actor herself in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Bulfair was 53 years old when she decided to uproot from Manhattan with her business partner Maryalice Krammer and take a chance on the Old Church Theater.

A group that once organized summer theater festivals there had disbanded years prior and the building had fallen into disrepair, but Bulfair was determined to restore it. She co-founded the nonprofit Old Church Community Theater with Klammer in 1984, serving as its artistic director for the next 20 years. Bulfair died last month at age 81 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer.

The facility continues to produce up to five theatrical productions per year in a season that runs May-September. As a reliable creative outlet for both aspiring and veteran actors in and around Bradford, the theater and its audiences make up one of the area’s most vibrant social platforms.

Such was the dream of Bulfair, born Dominque Mott, who spent time as a Flamenco dancer while married to John Bulfair in New York City. She became enamored with Bradford while visiting the Old Church Theater in 1974 during its annual Summer Stock play festival.

“She returned to Bradford every summer after that, and just really thought the area was beautiful,” said Bulfair’s daughter, Blaise, who joined her on many of the trips from New York in the 1970s. “She was really a free spirit, to change the direction of her life and leave Manhattan, where she had success and was a respected theater teacher. I think the fact that she had grown up in a small town (Hazelton, Pa.) made it easier for her, and she loved the mountains.” The Old Church Theater itself wasn’t so aesthetically pleasing when Bulfair and Klammer encountered the neglected building in 1984. Dank and moldy, the building’s electrical wiring and sprinkler system were long out of date, and the pair would sink more than $20,000 of their own money to allow it to meet state safety standards. New lighting, heating and sound systems also had to be installed.

It was worth the work and expense. The first production under the guidance of Bulfair and Klammer, in December 1985, was Finian’s Rainbow, a musical about a southerner who steals a pot of gold from a leprechaun.

It drew standing-room crowds, as did subsequent productions of It’s A Wonderful Life, Arsenic and Old Lace and My Three Angels. What Bulfair and Klammer created soon became mainstay of the area’s entertainment and recreation scene.

“They were just a great pair,” said Bradford resident Peter Richards, who played the lead role in Finian’s Rainbow. “They both had different skills, but they always worked well together even when they disagreed on certain things.” Bulfair’s directorial style was mainly quiet and reserved. Rather than interrupt practice scenes when something didn’t work, she took notes and offered one-on-one instruction with the actors later. During those conversations, she always was receptive to their ideas.

“She was very ladylike and laid back, not a big mouth,” recalled Richards. “That’s not to say that she wasn’t demanding, but she was skilled about it. You could always talk to her about the things that were on your mind.” Bulfair was also a master of sound and lighting techniques, blending the right amount of subtlety and forcefulness to create the perfect mood.

Jim Heidenreich, an Old Church Theater board member, said there was no one better at manipulating an atmosphere.

“She knew the power of lights and sound, and she would always be up there having a blast,” Heidenreich said. “You could tell she was a teacher, because she could quiet everything down or make everything very elaborate and chaotic. She loved the whole production of theater.” While at times the talent base drawn to act in Old Church productions could be limited — confident singing voices were particularly scarce at times — Bulfair never wavered in her commitment to cultivate a place for local actors to develop skills. Many one-time Old Church actors have gone on to major in college theater or produce their own plays elsewhere, and the facility continues to serve as a breeding ground for acting today.

“She put so many hours and hours into helping us be the best actors she could and making the best plays she could, and she was always patient,” Heidenreich said. “She had a wonderful smile and when people showed up for an audition, she always expressed how much she appreciated that we’d come out to help her put on a play.

“She trusted that we would do the best we could, and we always trusted her.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.