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From Emma – Thanks, Tamaqua!

August 5, 2015

The community-based Dear Tamaqua project came to its epic finale last night, with fireworks, chiming bells, and Jp and Anna rocking out with Tamaqua’s mayor. We even had a train participate in festivities!

Train coming through!

Train coming through!

(No joke – we had been trying for months to try and figure out if there would be a train running during the performance, which they were not allowed to tell us for security reasons, and right before the finale, a slow train chugged through town. Kids put pennies on the rail, and everyone waved to the conductor, and it couldn’t have been timed more perfectly if we’d tried!)

Setup efforts included traipsing through the woods to place lighting units, neighbors decorating their front porches as parade “floats,” graffiti art summarizing the varying attitudes of Tamaqua locals on their hometown, and massive paths of white cloth guiding the audience.

It was also a rare opportunity for Touchstone personnel; usually, we got a year or two (or more) in between large-scale, outdoor, community-based productions, and to have two in the same year meant that we were in much better practice for what a performance like this takes. In performing outdoor work (let alone large-scale outdoor work, let alone traveling large-scale outdoor work), there is so much that depends on proper prep getting done (large crews available at the right time, reminders for the hundreds of people involved to wear sunscreen and stay hydrated, anticipating the sound and light in a space, putting together remarkable new set pieces for the first time, and more). Major props to Mr. Jp as the production’s director/designer/co-conceiver and Miss Amber as badass stage managerette for the staggering amount of logistical prep!

For the show itself, I got to hang out with and assistant stage manage a collection of performers, ranging from local dance and vocal talent from the performing arts academy to cheerleaders from the high school to a local belly dance teacher and two of her students. It was wonderful to be able to watch these talented folks perform for their friends and family, as well as people who might have never seen them perform otherwise.

And now – at the end of it all, the morning after the show, there’s that familiar post-outdoor-community-based-epic-theatre feeling of aching muscles, slow rehydration, blur of memories from the day before, and immense satisfaction at having helped create something important to a lot of people.

The tunnel out into the finale area

The tunnel out into the finale area

We’re proud to have been involved in this incredible project. Thanks, Tamaqua!

From Lisa – Reason #1,980 Why It’s Awesome to Work at a Theatre!

July 30, 2015

yellowwillowThis past weekend, in preparation for an 80’s party coming up on Friday night, I raided the Touchstone costume shop (Not the first time I’ve done this, nor will it be the last, I’m sure!).  This is a pretty nice perk for all of us working at Touchstone that can come in handy for Halloween, theme parties, etc. My guess is most of us have done this for one reason or another over the years. The unspoken rule is return it clean, and if you damaged or lost it, then replace it. So far, so good with this rule… fingers crossed!

cathleenskirtThe added perk for me, as one of the costume designers at Touchstone, is that I have a pretty good idea of our costume stock.  After pulling any potential 80’s pieces from my home closet and running a little light in the neon, I remembered the costume I bought for a character called the Wire Monster in my Young Playwrights’ Festival play two years ago.  The costume was electric yellow, hard-to-even-look-at-bright – perfect for the 80’s. I also remembered the poofy black skirts I bought for the Shopping Cart Ballet in Follies when we did a roller derby themed ballet about five years ago.

After rummaging around, I found a black mesh shirt I knew was donated recently, too. The beginnings of the perfect 80’s costume… see for yourself!

80s Lisa

From Jp – Dear Tamaqua…

July 21, 2015

Two years ago, after learning about community-based theatrical work by way of a TED Talk, the Tamaqua Community Arts Center enlisted Touchstone Theatre to help them create a piece of art specific to their community. Since Touchstone began to make community-based work one of its hallmarks in 1999 with the debut of Steelbound, a site-specific epic produced on the recently closed Bethlehem Steel grounds with a cast and crew of nearly one hundred local steel workers, all of our large-scale community work has centered around our home city of Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley area.

This new opportunity in Tamaqua would now allow Touchstone to expand on its practice and evolve battle-tested approaches to community-based work for use in communities other than Bethlehem. Our latest community-based project, Dear Tamaqua… was born.

Just as we do with all our other community-based endeavors, we reached out to the community for the generation of raw material. This project saw that solicitation through the open-ended prompt of ‘Dear Tamaqua…’  The website created for the project instructs:

‘Show your hometown pride by penning a letter to Tamaqua.  Your hopes for the future, your fondest memories, “constructive criticism”… a love letter, snail mail, email, a song, a selfie, your art about Tamaqua… T-town is listening and so are we. What’s special, what’s unique… What’s ours!  Help us build the community we all want!’

The view from Potlach Theatre's "Invisible Cities" production

The view from Potlach Theatre’s “Invisible Cities”, inspiration for the “Dear Tamaqua…” performance

From a community of roughly seven thousand residents, we received over five hundred submissions.  After combing through the five hundred submissions and being inspired by the community-based work of Teatro Potlach’s Invisible Cities, a series of site specific works that challenge perception of urban environments, we’ve developed a ‘performance walk’ that leads participants through a mile of borough streets where they will encounter both spectacle and performance meant to transform their normal relationship to the borough as well as encounter content pulled directly from the gathered raw material. (Not only did the fine folks at Potlach inspire us in this project, they will also be Touchstone’s ’15-’16 season opener with their show Fellini’s Dream!)

A map of the "Dear Tamaqua..." performance walk

A map of the “Dear Tamaqua…” performance walk

Now, after two years in the making, Dear Tamaqua… will debut! For one night only! This project has required a huge amount of resources from Touchstone but also the entire borough of Tamaqua and some remarkable people up there who have given their blood, sweat and tears to make their community come to life with this project. Thanks to all our Anthracite Region friends for letting us help them with their project! If any of you Lehigh Valley folks are up for the drive, come see the production on August 4th. You can read more about it at www.deartamaqua.com

From Bill – Revisiting South Bethlehem: 150 Years of Photography

July 15, 2015

Lehigh University is heading towards its 150th Anniversary, and Ricardo Viera, the Curator of Lehigh’s Galleries and a dear and long-time friend of Touchstone, decided to commemorate the event by mounting a photo exhibit from their teaching collection called: Revisiting South Bethlehem:  150 Years of Photography. And he generously asked me to “play the fool”–create a performance using the collection that would dissolve the work into another creation of sorts, but this one dramatic and set to open to the general public at Baker Hall on September 24th at 7 pm. Thanks, Ricardo.

An image from Revisiting South Bethlehem:  150 Years of Photography.  Lehigh University’s

An image from Revisiting South Bethlehem: 150 Years of Photography. Lehigh University.

When I came to Lehigh it was all male, which was what I wanted, but then very quickly realized… it wasn’t. Couldn’t seem to get anything right, couldn’t seem to find my footing. My parents were in Argentina; I’d spent most of my high school years in Japan. And at the football games… I wasn’t so much bored as just an outsider, disconnected, like one of Shakespeare’s fools. Folks like me, outside the mainstream, can be useful, comme Jacques in As You Like It or Velasquez hiding in the corner of his painting, Las Meninas – a little melancholic perhaps but a useful perspective.

A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’ the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!

[…]

I am ambitious for a motley coat.
It is my only suit,
Provided that you weed your better judgments
Of all opinion that grows rank in them
That I am wise. I must have liberty
Withal, as large a charter as the wind,
To blow on whom I please, for so fools have.
And they that are most gallèd with my folly,
They most must laugh. And why, sir, must they so?
The “why” is plain as way to parish church:
He that a fool doth very wisely hit
Doth very foolishly, although he smart,
Not to seem senseless of the bob. If not,
The wise man’s folly is anatomized
Even by the squand’ring glances of the fool.
Invest me in my motley. Give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of th’ infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.

But there’s no danger here; Shakespeare’s Touchstone has a sharper tongue than I.

Still I must admit I can’t look at a picture like this…

lehigh2

… and keep from thinking of … well, you tell me. What do you see? What do you think? There’s a comments spot at the end of this blog. Write your reactions first, and then read on.

I see the moustaches, the similar hats, the virtually identical three piece suits — in two shades, dark or light — the secret conspiracy of fashion-conformity to keep the feeling of being safe as possible. The car’s pretty neat though, and if we actually knew any of these men, well, everything would change wouldn’t it? We’d see the individuality beneath the surface of generic amiability and desire to fit in.

These are my thoughts: often ungenerous, critical, even angry. Yup, that’s what I’m stuck with as I face the page, and from that soil must I grow this piece of theatre. But there’s more, much more. September 22 at Baker Hall on the Lehigh University Campus. Let’s see how it turns out. Hope to see you there.

From Emma – Step-Back Perspective

June 30, 2015

Working together as an ensemble and a company, the same people in the same rehearsal room for several years on end, it becomes very easy to forget to appreciate some of the particulars of the artistry and talent in the room. It’s a silly sort of phenomenon, but besides Young Playwrights’ Festival — where we get to step back and observe each other working at a little bit of a distance — we sometimes get so caught up in working together that we don’t really see each other’s work.

Here are some other instances recently where we’ve gotten a chance to do some external-to-each other— and external to Touchstone— artistic creation. It’s nice to take a minute to step back an give them a look.

Chichester Wall 1 Chichester Wall 2

 

Our wall, our wall, our Chichester wall
The Romans, they built it, but now it is ours,
Our wall, our wall, our Chichester wall
We hold it so tight ‘cause it makes us feel right
– Original lyrics by Jp Jordan

Man, all I seem to be blogging about this year is graduate school… Jp and I recently returned from a whirlwind three weeks in the UK for our university summer intensive, traveling, studying, and creating performances that developed from our research and practices. Here, we see Jp at one of Chichester’s great local icons – its city wall. Jp’s research project includes an exploration of ideas of hometown and local identity (freshly on the mind due to our work on the Dear Tamaqua project, which culminates this August), inclusivity and exclusivity, community building and boundary building. Much of the trip, Jp spent with a guitar strapped to his back; at every stop along the journey, he’d take a few minutes to sit down, plunk out a few notes, and write a song inspired by the place. He has a whole concept album’s worth of material.

As a later part of the project, Jp spent an afternoon out on the wall at Chichester, asking locals about the wall and their knowledge of it, their memories of it, its relevance in modern society— and who it should be keeping out. From their very candid responses, he created a very cheeky, very dark little song, which he performed for us out on the wall. Students and professors who were longtime residents alternated between hearty laughter and uncomfortable cringing, and it was a pretty delightful performance experience all around.

Holy Stuff 1 Holy Stuff 2

Please keep your distance. Distance is necessary for a holy experience.
Please do not have a holy experience
Please do not holy
Please mind the gap between the holy and yourself
Please move to the next station and press the button when ready
– Original text by Emma Chong

Here’s my summer intensive performance project – where Jp took full advantage of one of the sunniest days we saw in England, I brought things back into a mostly darkened theatre, with a little bit of dim lighting and projection. My project revolved around the journey (freshly on the mind due to all our Journey-ing this year), holy pilgrimage, and how we experience holiness in the 21st century – for some it’s church, for others wicca/shamanism/new age stuff… and for others, it’s extreme devotion to a favorite band, or a favorite TV show.

My performance component involved a miniaturized walking audio tour – a self-proclaimed complete and authoritative tour of holy stuff. It felt very different from my usual comfort zone, and I really enjoyed piecing things out. Also, my greatest point of pride for the whole thing was that I sufficiently polished my British accent enough that for my pre-recorded audio text, no one recognized the voice as mine.

Holden 1 Holden 2

Who is this monster flowing in me like fire? Who lit the match? Who cleared the land and gathered the wood? How long can I contain this molten metal running right through me to God knows where? Running after the hero I cannot defeat. Then I will slay him in his sleep, his cape, his saber, his damsel, and his horse shall be buried quietly and deep. And I will be a new man, standing above the hero’s grave. The tree that grows there will be a mighty tree. It covers me with a cool shade and bears a fruit I have yet to name or taste.
– Original text by Anisa George

And most recently, here’s the one and only Bill George, in a new devised piece directed by the one and only Anisa George. It’s called Holden, and Bill plays JD Salinger; we’ve been getting periodic updates from their Philly rehearsal venue over the last few months, as to how things have been shaping up, or what the overall pace or curve of the narrative is looking like, or who has been brilliant to work with, or what new developments have… developed. Yesterday, Bill (by way of Anisa) passed along some photos from this weekend’s run; it looks gorgeous.

I can only vaguely speak to this bit of performance, not being in the room and all, but as a long-distance outside-eye viewer, the devising process alone looks like a delightful, chaotically generative artistic maelstrom. It’s part dark exploration via Catcher in the Rye, part snarky and tragicomic No Exit, and it’s performing at the NYC Ice Factory Festival this August. You can read more on the project at georgeandco.org

(And as for Jp and myself, we’ll be cloistered away for most of August – in the wake of summer intensive time, it’s dissertation-writing time! Wish us luck)

From Lisa – “Cool. Thanks. Jinx!”

May 22, 2015

There are often claims of “brain twin”-ness around Touchstone. We all work together so much and for so many years now that “sharing a brain” is natural – and quite helpful. Very often this happens between Emma and I, probably because we are/were both stage managers and our brains often jump through the same thought processes at production or company meetings. It also helps when we have our one-on-one meetings, since our agendas are then similar, and we are already in sync with a number of things (Evidenced by the title of this blog entry – Cool. Thanks. Jinx! – which is how we ended our meeting yesterday morning, accidentally speaking in unison) (which we’ve never done before, but my guess is we will do again at some point!)

Apparently our brain twin-ness is crossing over into wardrobe now, too. We kinda knew we might be wearing similar colors, but then the night of the Young Playwrights’ Festival, this happened….

Brain and dress twins - or triplets. Not pictured - Emma's matching black cardigan. Photo by Anthony Medici

Brain and dress twins (or triplets). Not pictured – Emma’s matching black cardigan. Photo by Anthony Medici

Jennie must have got the brain twin memo that night, too, because she wore the “Touchstone uniform”, as folks starting calling it. I guess when you spend a lot of time with the same people, you start thinking and dressing alike! For more pictures of Young Playwrights (and people not in uniform) go here.

From Jp – A(nother) Salute to Breakfast

May 12, 2015
Lately, April has seemed to be the busiest time of year at Touchstone. Three years ago, we debuted A Resting Place, a community-based work commemorating the Civil War.  Two years ago we debuted Ulysses Dreams.  Last year, we debuted Journey:  Dream of the Red Pavilion, and this year, Journey from the East. All of these productions take a lot of work to make happen, but the gods seem to smile on me when things get stressful at this time of the year, because without fail, right around this time of year, Wawa runs their breakfast sandwich special.  That’s right: the 2 for $3 Sizzli deal. And it’s not just me; cast members, crew members, they all take advantage of this beacon of bacon hope to help them through their day.
I’d like to take this brief opportunity to thank Wawa for synching their schedule up with ours so we all remain fed during this busy time of year.  Wawa, you’re a real class act.  Thank you!
2for3_sizzli
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