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!’
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!)
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
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.
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…
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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….
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.
Being a “professional artist”—which is a sort of dichotomy of terms, though there are those who have done it I’m sure (Van Gogh perhaps, but then again he was destitute, and I wonder what kind of plays Shakespeare would have written if he didn’t have to worry about box office or pleasing clergy and royalty)—as far as this person is concerned, requires a good deal of flapping of the wings to stay afloat—the ability to handle a number of different jobs simultaneously.
As I shared last time around, we’re all fully engaged: I just walked through the building and Emma was working on tech considerations for Journey from the East, Lisa was at a Building Bridges workshop for the Intermediate Unit, Jp was working on the possibility of growing our apprentice program into a degree-giving graduate program, Mary was focused on Young Playwrights Festival and getting the directors in order, our apprentices Anna and Remy were hard at work getting their final presentation for the Integration of Abilities class ready. And I’m on this blog—between a possible real estate question, a class plan with Hester for Bucks County Playhouse and how to secure a building for the zip line we hope to have our Cannibal Sandy enter on during Act I of Journey from the East!
One of the most interesting things happening right now, as I write, is that downstairs Jim Gloria is putting together a mural to go on the not so attractive back side of our building. With the financial help of a Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce initiative and growing out of the exquisite renderings of our Chinese friends—The Utopia Group, Deng Dafei and He Hai—we hope to have a beautiful image up before the end of the month. Take a look at my sketchy little phone video.
(And, if anyone’s interested in helping paint or put it up, give me a call – 610-867-1689. Like I said: so much excellent work to do!)
See you at the show! Journey from the East is coming! Think good thoughts for the weather and join us.
Winter is (slowly) (knock on wood) on its way out, and spring is approaching. With spring comes the enormous, daunting, magnificent Journey from the East (with its large cast, cowboys, dragons, costume quick-changes, and multitude of vehicular needs), as well as the landmark tenth anniversary performance of Young Playwrights’ Festival (with its new preshow party in addition to the glorious postshow gala, as well as a smorgasbord of ridiculous props, sets, costumes, sounds, and more). Besides those main courses, we’ve also got the tasty side dishes that accompany our year – Jp and I still hard at work on grad school assignments; Bill in rehearsal/creation of a new production directed by the one and only Anisa George; Mary directing Velveteen Rabbit over at PYT (it opens next weekend!), plus a multitude of teaching and administrating for all of us (and making up for a multitude of snow days).
And that’s not even including the summer. Oy, the summer.
Nevertheless, since the start of the new year, Bill, Mary, Josh, Jp, and myself have been meeting once or twice a week (when not otherwise barred by production week crazies) (or those accursed snow gods) to begin creating materials for a new devised piece, to premiere next April.
There’s a lot we don’t know yet, a lot that’s living in the realm of “maybe” and “what if” and “there’s no way we can do this, but how about,” which is a particularly magical place to be. We think there will be four of us onstage. We think we may be merchants characters, in some manner of bazaar. We think there will be magic – or the appearance thereof. We think sound and music are important. We think we know some of what the set looks like.
At Jp’s encouragement, I’m trying to not be stage manager-y and just focus on being an actor-creator. Usually, taking clear, objective, detailed notes is my bread and butter. For this… I still want to take notes, but I’m trying to be less objective about it. More fragments. More scribbling. More drawing in the margins. Less worrying about accuracy.
This feels like a really slow-cooked project for us, which is exciting, especially during this very productive but very busy pressure-cooker of a spring. For this work, for now, there’s time to let things simmer and coalesce. There’s time for the messy drawings to melt together and become something more, or develop for a while before we say, “eh, screw it,” and throw it out the window.
It’s like tea (I’m a minor tea nerd). You don’t let a strong black tea steep for the same amount of time as a flowery herbal tea, or at the same temperature as a more delicate green tea. We’d let a Follies steep for a month or two. We’d let the script for a large-scale community-based work, like A Resting Place or Journey from the East, steep for half to two-thirds of a season. But for next April’s piece? We’re going to let this sucker steep for fifteen months and see what comes out on the other side.