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From Bill – On Beauty, Money, and My Dad

January 27, 2016
Photos by H. Scott Heist

Photos by H. Scott Heist

The work at Touchstone– this love and service of beauty in the form of theatre– finds its way out of the rehearsal room to the stage and spills over into everything we do. I can’t seem to not talk about it. It sets the fire and passion for learning in our educational programs and provides the framework and inspiration for our large Community-Based endeavors. As David Brooks recently wrote in the NYTimes: “Beauty is a big, transformational thing, the proper goal of art and maybe civilization itself …Beauty conquers the deadening aspects of routine; it educates the emotions and connects us to the eternal.”

The art critic Frederick Turner wrote that beauty “is the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action.” And thus what we learn in its service provides useful insights, and these we’ve tried to apply to stimulate creativity in the business sector with our Corporate Creativity Events.

Brooks goes on to say:

“The shift to post-humanism has left the world beauty-poor and meaning-deprived. It’s not so much that we need more artists and bigger audiences, though that would be nice. It’s that we accidentally abandoned a worldview that showed how art can be used to cultivate the fullest inner life. We left behind an ethos that reminded people of the links between the beautiful, the true and the good – the way pleasure and love can lead to nobility.”

Well, here’s perhaps where I part ways with Mr. Brooks a bit. He’s too polite. We didn’t “accidentally abandon” anything. We consciously chose to place beauty second to utility, creature comforts, and money (or third or fourth or fifth) Blame it on the all too sensible Puritans, or the excesses of the Mother Church that forced the Protestant Reformation. Blame it on the Dutch and the materialism of the ever growing domination of the market place. But it was a choice, not an accident. I’m speaking in broad generalities here, but to put it simply, we all too often choose money and safety over beauty and risk. When I was discussing the necessity of choosing a creative life with a patron of Touchstone recently, she said, “Ah, but that takes a lot more work.” Yeah. It does, and so often we choose the easier route, the one, as they might say, “more traveled by”.

Whenever I travel abroad, I always am struck by how much more the arts are appreciated by people who are not Americans. In Ireland, to be an artist, particularly a writer, is to be a national hero. In England, to be an actor is to be a bulwark of national pride and identity. In Russia or Chile or Hungary, to be an artist is to be at the center of power. The work of the artist is at the very dangerous crux of political, economic, and social consciousness.

Photos by H. Scott Heist

Photos by H. Scott Heist

Whereas, here, in the United States, well, you know what it’s like. It’s about Celebrity, Wealth (or lack of it in my case), Entertainment– Show Business. This is the work, for me, more and more these days: yes, the commitment to make truly beautiful art, as hard as I find that to do, but even more so, to change my culture so we understand how important a commitment to art and creativity is and that it effects everything–whether we are working in the fields of education, government, finance, manufacturing, and of course in our spiritual lives. Beauty matters. Push come to shove, beauty matters.

When I was growing up, I got into a kind of argument with my Dad. He didn’t oppose my trying to be an artist, but was VERY skeptical. Of course, most parents worry how their children will find a way of making money. I get that. Still, I wonder why parents don’t equally worry about their children’s ability to make beauty. Beauty matters.

Photos by H. Scott Heist

The picture just above, from The Whitman Piece–my play about theatre and the importance of beauty—the insanity of it, its eternality, and the dysfunction of we as people trying to work together.  I’m in the center, wearing my father’s shirt. Photos by H. Scott Heist

From Emma – So This is Christmas

December 18, 2015

I started writing my blog post about three weeks ago. It wasn’t this. Guess the time got away from me.

Follies has a way of twisting and distorting time. It feels like we start Christmas celebrations at the end of September/beginning of October, hit a peak at beginning of December, and then work like crazy to keep that seasonal high lasting through three weekends of performance.

It’s easy to complain about how early the Christmas decorations go up in stores. I get that. Sometimes I agree. But there’s definitely something energizing about rocking out to Christmas music (or rocking out to not-traditionally-Christmas-music-but-I’m-wearing-an-elf-suit-so-it-must-be-Christmasy music), especially with a fun, talented group of people that you love.

Follies is a joy this year. I mean, it’s a joy every year. Still, it’s a challenge to sustain that seasonal joy over thirteen shows. Part of the process for original work (and Follies in particular) is the fact that it’s created anew and often still evolving; you create the show, you trust the director, but it’s not until there’s an audience in the room that you know how the thing moves and breathes. Still, deviate too much and it ceases to be the same show. You want to be practiced, precise, but adaptable – while simultaneously projecting seasonal joy, love, ridiculousness, and energy. It’s a lot to track in your head.

After being a part of the process for eight years, and having been raised Jewish, I find myself wondering lately what Christmas is like for “normal people.”

For me?

Christmas is Bill in a wedding dress, singing “O Holy Night” in falsetto.

Christmas is a battle royale of yellow post-it notes on the rehearsal room wall: 120+ scene ideas walk in, 24 walk out.

Christmas is clown noses and shopping carts and high heels and a full-head fish mask and a panda.

Christmas is costumes draped out across every seat in the theatre while Lisa dresses us up, scene by scene.

Christmas is me trying to capture backstage moments on camera, despite the dim lighting playing havoc with the auto-focus.

Christmas is sold out houses on closing weekend, full of families who waited until all the kids were home for the holidays to come and see the show.

It’s closing weekend, so pretty soon, Christmas will be shifting to things like travel, spending time with family, catching our collective breath, and eating too much food (or drinking too much boilo…). But looking back at the past two months of merriment and insanity, it really is such a privilege to be a part of Christmas for so many people every year.

And look, I know it’s like, ten months away, but we’ve already started kicking ideas around for next year’s Follies

From Lisa – Office Yoga

November 20, 2015

It’s that of year again when many things come colliding together and all these things are urgent! Yup, it’s Christmas City Follies crunch time, which also always coincides with our annual audit, and, because why not keep things interesting, let’s throw in a Board Meeting on the first day of the audit too. Cue stress… now!

Fortunately, I’ve learned some important tips when it comes to time and stress management over the years. One lesson that took me a little while to accept was that taking a “time out” rather than “pushing through” is ultimately more effective. If I feel like I’m hitting a wall and not thinking as clearly I should or just super sleepy, I’ll give my officemates a head’s up that I’m giving myself a time out for 10 minutes. Then, I go do my favorite yoga pose – “legs up the wall” – on the wooden bench outside the rehearsal room in the upper lobby.

“Legs Up the Wall” or Viparita Karani:

It’s amazingly effective for me as a way to refocus and recharge, especially when I pair “legs up the wall” with deep breathing exercises. Plus, since I sit or stand most of the day it helps with circulation to have my legs at a higher point than my heart. It’s also supposed to be great for your nervous and digestive system. Perhaps the most important lesson though is that doing less is more. By simple resting and not running around trying to get a million things done at once, I’m allowing my body to recuperate and am far more effective afterwards than if I would have powered through.

Last week, during the Follies/audit/board trifecta, I did this pose and realized as I came out of it that there are a number of marks on the wall from where the heels of my shoes rest up against it. I’ll need to clean those off before opening night of Follies!

From Jp – So Hard to Say Goodbye

November 13, 2015

The Network of Ensemble Theaters defines an ensemble as: a group of individuals dedicated to collaborative creation, committed to working together consistently over years to develop a distinctive body of work and practices. Ensemble members, both artists and administrators, are empowered to help shape their theater’s artistic direction and organizational structure.

For Touchstone, this isn’t just a definition; it’s a means of existence. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that the lines between home and work are blurred beyond clear definition. Beyond being our livelihoods, this is our art, our vision, and we’ve decided to create it with each other. It’s a marriage. It’s a battlefield foxhole. It’s a senate. Some might call us exclusionary in the act of Ensemble making; you don’t often find Touchstone (outside of our community-based undertakings) holding open auditions or rapidly bringing new Ensemble Members into the fold. This week, we once again remember, in part, why: because it hurts when someone leaves. It’s the dissolution of the family. It’s the fallen comrade. It’s the nation collapsing in to it’s pieces. Whether on good terms or bad, it hurts either way.

I often tell people the quickest way to become friends with someone is to jam. It’s that simple: pick up an instrument and play… sing a song together. When the music ends, you’ll carry that moment of sublime human harmonic resonance forward. But whenever the best music ceases, there is always a moment of emptiness, something where there was once something. In the mythos of the Greek god Pan, there is a story where Pan and Apollo had a musical competition. Pan played first, and all of the animals and humans came to hear the beautiful music and celebrate in it. When Apollo played, all sat rapt, and when he was finished playing, it’s said that the absence of his music made everyone feel as if they had lost a loved one. Apollo was crowned champion.

This week, Ensemble Associate Josh Neth leaves his post for the greener pastures of sunny California. Josh had been a part of the Ensemble for the last two years and had become not only an invaluable member of the artistic family but a true friend. We will all miss you, Josh. Thanks for jamming.

From Bill – Creating Holden

October 17, 2015
Holden—the protagonist in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and title of Anisa George’s new work from George & Co., now performing at Fringe Arts in Philadelphia.

Holden—the protagonist in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and title of Anisa George’s new work from George & Co., now performing at Fringe Arts in Philadelphia.

First a few words about the image above. Matteo on the left, Adele walking center, Scott in the red t-shirt, and Anisa all pregnant, leaning on her elbow, and supervising the rehearsed moment on the far right. I think it’s Alex on sound with the laptop.

It was close to a year ago that Anisa called together a handful of friends – designers, directors, choreographers, actors – to Dan and her home to read a script she’d drafted with her co-workers (There will be important collaborators I fail to mention, but certainly Jaime – eventually to play Chapman – must be named). That’s about when I started getting involved.

Emma has asked me to write a bit about it, but it’s hard for any number of reasons. First of all, I’ve worked with Anisa making theatre since before she could talk, and creating a piece like this with her is a profound life-privilege, if you know what I’m trying to say. It also is a professional gift, as the piece is easily one of the most beautiful works I’ve ever had the good luck of being a part. I am deeply grateful to Touchstone for giving me the permission to do this piece at not great levels of remuneration – which means Touchstone is supporting me a bit.

Anyway, there’s a long but fairly entertaining interview Anisa masterminded about our working together, art within the family, that whole thing. I encourage you to listen.

Scott and Mateo rehearse, Anisa supervising, a moment in Holden.  Anne, our stage manager, is over on the right with the blue scarf.  Matteo’s character (Zev), on the right, is teasing Scott’s (Hinckley) about being a “rhyming prosey man”.  They’ll soon be on the floor wrestling.

Scott and Mateo rehearse, Anisa supervising, a moment in Holden. Anne, our stage manager, is over on the right with the blue scarf. Matteo’s character (Zev), on the right, is teasing Scott’s (Hinckley) about being a “rhyming prosey man”. They’ll soon be on the floor wrestling.

The whole question of why do this stuff always bounces around, sometimes hitting me in the face and at others just…bouncing, never to go away I guess. After all, Holden will see, after so much plain ol’ grunt work, anxiety, hope, and assiduous loving labor, at best, a thousand people. The kind of dedication required is profound, the remuneration that results pitiful. It’s a cliché that isn’t very funny and it speaks to the values of our culture in ways that can’t be dealt with here. I simply wish to say, I’m grateful.

I was lying up stage of Salinger’s cot on the set at Fringe Arts as pregnant Anisa, hardly able to move (she’s due in just three weeks), worked with Scott (again and again) on a particular movement phrase;  I decided to sneak out my phone to take a little video.

The stage:  it’s a magic and even holy place when enchanted by a loving and honest act of dedicated creation.  I thank God I am permitted to express my gratitude for the gift of life through this act of collective creation.

Closing performance tonight! Come see us!

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


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