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From Emma – Empty Spaces

September 7, 2017

At just a week into the new season, we’ve been working on one of the traditional beginning-of-year activities: CLEAN UP! In a building this heavily used throughout the year, it’s a huge schlep and a definite necessity, every year. What we’re often left with, after the cleanup days, is the unfamiliar treat of free space emptiness that we can use anew… or clutter up with more stuff. But for the immediate future, it’s full of possibility.

In his 1968 theatre classic The Empty Space, Peter Brook writes: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” And boy, do our cluttered and empty spaces love to perform; we find such gems in them, or invite them to take on a new persona and purpose, or can’t bear to tidy them because their internal chaos has taken on a life of its own.

And it’s all about expectation, what you’ve gotten used to seeing versus what you see now.

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So this maybe doesn’t look like much, but there’s clear floor space in the tech booth. Clear floor space! (my heart skipped a beat, typing that) A nest of cables has been sorted and struck from the place, and a stack of old newspapers has been taken off to the recycling bin, and there isn’t an ancient tape deck shoved in the corner – there’s space to kick your feet and do a little dance. The booth is a good friend of mine, so this is particularly exciting to me. It feels like the space can breathe again, and I love that.

20170906_161454And this one: this is a little cubby backstage that’s been a hot mess of brooms, snow shovels, and similarly shaped miscellany, for as long as I can remember. I think it always looked a little like a monster in the closet, except the monster’s legs were all too many broomsticks without brooms attached to them, all curled up and cranky in its own shadowy corner of backstage. There are shelves there that I didn’t even realize existed. Shelves! (my heart skipped a beat just typing that) And looking at it now, the space is ready to help, ready to help carry things, ready to serve and serve all our outdoorsy cleanup needs. Ready for snow, even, as much as we’re definitely not thinking about snow yet (although it’s less than a month from start of Follies rehearsals…)

And that’s just the theatre area; let me tell you about our attic and the good work that Miss Mary, our industrious saint of de-cluttering-and-organizing-and-paper-shredding, has been doing. Our attic was piled to the ceiling with boxes of old documents, 15+ years old. Mary’s found real artifacts, genuine treasures up there – sun-faded old posters, vinyl pockets of slides, and (my personal favorite) hand-written lesson plans from the early days of our arts-in-education work. But there’s also been a lot she’s found that, as per our company policies, we can and should throw away. So the last few weeks have been dappled with us cheerfully toting boxes full of these old financial documents or those old marketing strategies down to Mary’s car, so that she can hand them over to be shredded. And after, seeing these wide shelves ready to welcome some of the paper goods from our crowded office – it’s impossible to adequately describe how awesome that feels.20170906_162003

And of course, clearing out all of the old cluttered spaces has such moments of revelation. Another big one found yesterday was a pair of oversized bolts, the size of fists, that had been used as percussion instruments in Steelbound nearly twenty years ago. Clinking together, you could still hear them wanting to sing their song.

“A stage space has two rules, Brook writes. “(1) Anything can happen and (2) Something must happen.”

Anything can. And something must. We have the space for it.

As great as it feels to open up that empty space for the new season, it’s sad, too– discovering all these gems to say goodbye to them a moment later. Yet making way for the possibility of everything that’s yet to come makes all the dust, grime, sweat, sweeping, scratches, and farewells worth it.

From Jp – Beautiful, Radiant Things

August 23, 2017

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Holy Moly, I can’t believe we are a few short weeks away from our first show of the new season! I feel like I never got to say good-bye to last season properly, and here it is, this awesome new season already here. If you haven’t received your brochures in the mail yet, they are certainly on the way, and the Touchstone website has been updated, so you can check out this incredibly rich season, featuring two debut guest artists to the Valley as well as a brand new production penned by Touchstone Ensemble Member Christopher Shorr.Cirque-It 7.15.2017-6876

This past season has been an incredibly rewarding one, as we presented some amazing artists and debuted new work created right here on the Southside of Bethlehem. I’d like to take this chance to thank you, the audience and supporters of Touchstone, along with the artists and extended Touchstone family, for all they did to make it possible. I’m truly grateful to all of you.

Working on The Jakopa’s Punch Processional this last season was an especially meaningful process for me. A year or so back, I read a story about Russian-American anarchist Emma Goldman, wherein she rebukes the condemnation of a younger peer who has issue with Goldman’s enthusiasm for dancing, while there is a “revolution” taking place. Goldman writes in her biography:

I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy.  I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister.  If it meant that, I did not want it.  ‘I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.’

— E. Goldman, Living My Life

JPunch-33This story became somewhat of a guiding light for me. Why do we strive, why do we dedicate our hearts? It’s because we all want our own personal joy, our own ‘beautiful, radiant things’. Our embracing that which is joyous allows us to transcend the struggle itself, to a level where we touch something deep inside of ourselves and understand what we keep fighting for. We sing, we dance, we celebrate… because we can and should.  It’s life-affirming. I entered into the Processional project with the belief that these same forces are those that can and do bring communities closer together, and I believe we saw that happen over a brief weekend of performances in July.

As a way of saying a final goodbye to last season and ushering the next, I submit for your enjoyment (and perhaps first time viewing!) a complete video of the show. We had an overwhelming turnout for the show, and I’ll be doing a future edit to take out some of the air from the traveling, but here it is in all of its revelatory glory. Enjoy!

From the Intern’s Desk – How to Succeed in Interning WITH Really Trying

August 17, 2017

Maggie1My name is Maggie, and I am a 21-year-old college student studying in Massachusetts. Having just relocated here, I was fortunate enough to find Touchstone and be able to spend most of my summer interning here. With a background in acting and arts administration, I was able to dive into many different tasks over the course of the summer. This included aiding in costume designer Mary’s responsibility of dressing the cast of Jakopa’s Punch Processional, teaching an acting and theatre session at Donegan Elementary school, running Camp Touchstone’s Camp-After-Camp, as well as helping the managing director, Lisa, with various administrative tasks such as mailings, listings and transferring files over to next season. As my time interning at Touchstone comes to an end, here is a fun look back on all of the things that helped me have such a spectacular summer here. Thanks, Touchstone!

  1. Be honest about the things you do not know how to do (most things), but be willing to learn!
  2. Always check the cafe to see if anyone’s there before ringing the doorbell and making Emma run down the stairs to let you in.
  3. Be nice to Mary – she will help you fix the sewing mistakes you make because you learned how to sew 20 minutes ago.
  4. Remember that the Letter “Z” is a difficult choice for Busy Bee, especially when teaching first graders.
  5. Be very nice to Mary- she really is a goddess!
  6. Before Camp Touchstone begins, try to recall all of the fun theatre games you know – Bippity Boppity Boo anyone?
  7. While making puppet hands for Jakopa and his friends, don’t judge them for their lack of thumbs; they still manage to defeat The Silence!
  8. Try to be very careful when transferring Young Playwrights’ Festival documents from binder to binder, everything will fall out if you don’t shut the rings!
  9. Don’t be afraid to ask Lisa questions – she is also a goddess.
  10. As the Camp Touchstone performance starts to come together, look back at how far both you and the campers have come.
  11. When doing the annual file transfer, don’t feel bad about having to sing the alphabet song to make sure G comes before H.
  12. When saying goodbye to The Touchstone family at the end of the summer, don’t forget to thank them for the awesome summer you had. file1

From Mary – Newton’s Laws of Motion

August 8, 2017

I’ve been thinking about Newton’s laws of motion.

First law:
In an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.

Second law:
In an inertial reference frame, the vector sum of the forces F on an object is equal to the mass m of that object multiplied by the acceleration a of the object: F = ma. (It is assumed here that the mass m is constant – see below.)

Third law:
When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.

Life around Touchstone through much of the year is one of almost constant motion – training, rehearsals and performances, teaching, grant writing, designing. Summer is usually the “force” that acts upon us to allow us to move more slowly. The people around Touchstone never fall into inertia.

We leave that to some of our stuff. Or should I say, I leave that to some of MY stuff? In the hurly-burly of a production or a project things get set down and later I find myself wondering, “Why are there twenty three gold stars here in this pile of paperwork?”

This summer was more hurly than burly … what with designing costumes and puppets for Jakopa’s Punch Processional and two days after closing, jumping into directing Camp Touchstone for two weeks, in addition to coordinating three separate Young Playwrights’ Lab programs. Sometimes coordinating also means jumping in to fill-in as teacher and/or dealing with issues that invariably come up for teachers and school administrators.

And so on August 1st I found myself starting some personal “inertia” time after trying to clean up my office area a little so it didn’t look quite so much like the aftermath of a cyclone for my office mate Bill.

As I glanced around the office I found myself struck by my years at Touchstone and how they are represented by the objects left behind.

There are strands of origami cranes hanging in the front corner office that I hung there about 15 years ago. The cranes were an art project I did with my kids … back when they were much younger and I sat at that desk as the Ensemble member responsible for marketing and touring. 15 years.

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I sit a back office that I share with Bill now. On the wall behind me hangs a piece of art created by Brazilian artist Jonas Dos Santos when he was here making giant art pieces for Don Quixote of Bethlehem. There’s also the poster for If At All, the original ensemble devised piece we performed in 2002 under the direction of Gerry Stropniki.

Recently we were cleaning out a back room we’ve called the Green Room for years as storage for all of the Jakopa’s Punch equipment and puppets when I discovered remnants of the glass menagerie used for the play back in 2004 when I played Laura to Bill’s Tom.

And then around my desk you’ll find tokens of my last few years.

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A painting of Little Red by my father-in-law

A doll’s head collected by my character Maj in Bhudoo

A thank you note from some acting students

A Chinese medallion that was a gift from Jp and Lisa when they visited China in preparation of our two year Journey project.

Drawings made by YPL students

A stuffed penguin from a Little Red bit in Christmas City Follies in 2015

A rubber ducky representing a play in the Young Playwrights’ Festival of 2016

The poster from my one-woman show Mae Swe.

Clearly it doesn’t seem to matter the Mass of the object. The Force required to act upon them is too great for me. Sometimes that Force is busy-ness. Sometimes that Force is nostalgia.

In less than a month the pace will pick back up in a big way and we’re off to the races again… until next summer when I will look around and think, “How did that get here?”

From Bill – Everything’s Connected

June 21, 2017

Once, we were two Bethlehems, and it was 100 years ago North and South realized the importance of working together and became “one” (and, we’re still working on it, really). Here’s an image of the two Bethlehems, in “the good ol’ days”, when “working together” may seem to us a remarkably less complex challenge, but back then was as “crazy hard” as anything one could imagine.

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Touchstone is exploring a project called Festival (un)Bound, and to do it, we’ve got to get EVERYBODY working together to envision what kind of future we want for this city that today we call just “Bethlehem”.

The problem is, more and more, as we sit down and talk with folks, it becomes apparent that everything effects everything else.  Let’s say you’re homeless. One might be homeless because one is dysfunctionally dyslexic.  One might be dysfunctionally dyslexic because the educational system didn’t recognize it and teach good coping mechanisms.  The educational system may have failed you because you were living in a poor community and there weren’t funds for such things.  There weren’t funds for such things because the political system was too combative to achieve anything but band-aid solutions.  Combativeness got out of hand because of entrenched, old power structures and a media that feeds on sensationalism in order to sell information to the general public.  And… I could go on FOREVER!  Everything’s connected.  Still, there you are, homeless!

The important thing to remember, we’re learning, is that it’s not you that’s homeless, it’s us, you AND me.  We’re all connected.  When we begin to realize that, the net of connections begins to be healed.

One of the major movements in redesigning our culture is called the permaculture movement. Permaculture uses observation of nature to create regenerative systems. The place where this has been most visible has been on the landscape, but there has been a growing awareness that the principles of permaculture can be used as effectively to create vibrant, healthy and productive people and communities as they have been in landscapes.

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The permaculture “flower” diagraming the connectedness of our multiple systems.

But, these days, it’s hard to believe we have any power to effect that “net” that holds all the pieces of the flower together.

(Special note, EVERYONE!!! Come see The Jakopa’s Punch Processional, a puppet parable about working together and making a difference! July 14 & 15, 2017 at 6:30pm – run time 60 minutes – on the South Bethlehem Greenway, meet us at the Chinese Harmony Pavilion between Webster and Taylor Streets. Tickets – FREE)

It’s tempting to despair at our social dysfunctionality, but if we look at the bigger picture, it’s clear we’re making great progress, folks! Here’s a fascinating article called: A History of Global Living Conditions in 5 Charts.  The conclusion of this article states succinctly: The successful transformation of our living conditions (is) possible only because of collaboration. Such a transformation would be impossible for a single person to accomplish. It is our collective brains and our collaborative effort that are needed for such an improvement.”

An NGO for the United Nations recently wrote: “If community is to further the progress of society in its own right – complementing the roles played by individuals and social institutions–a much more expansive conception of community life must be actively embraced. New patterns of action and interaction will have to be built, and new forms of relationship and association constructed. Experimentation, trial and error, and a robust process of learning about the nature of lasting cultural change will be vital – all of which require effort and no small amount of sacrifice… Movement in this direction will require qualitatively different approaches to decision-making than those adopted in the past.”

Festival (un)Bound is one of those “qualitatively different approaches”.

From Emma – Photo Shoot

June 2, 2017

For a number of reasons, we ended up having to re-shoot promo photos for the upcoming production of Fresh Voices, our annual apprentice showcase. This was about three weeks ago, three weeks before Joe and Sabrina would take the stage– which they’ll do tonight– with their original works-in-progress in a showcase of their own.

The photo shoot ended up happening on the loading dock of Zoellner Arts Center, after our annual Young Playwrights’ Festival & Gala. Sabrina wore her gala dress, a flowery affair in black, white, and red. Joe wore stagehand clothes and some sweet eyeliner that he’d had on from playing an Egyptian Guard in the Festival performance. There were giggles and ridiculous dramatic expressions and accidental artful backlighting and handstands.

And to me, this photo shoot kind of encapsulated what makes Sabrina and Joe so wonderful. It was the end of a long, busy day– in the midst of a long busy week, month, spring, year– and there could easily have been annoyance, resentment, or at least an underlying current of “Let’s hurry up, please – it’s eleven o’clock, and I’m working on two hours of sleep and two slices of pizza, and I wanna go home,” but there was none of that. They were completely chill, patient, willing to play. They never seemed to run out of steam. It was giggles and handstands, all the way.

Every apprentice year is a learning experience, for both apprentices and ensemble.  Every year, the apprentices bring particular skills or gifts that set them apart from those that have come before. And don’t get me wrong, Joe and Sabrina are both incredibly talented performers, but I think that what’s impressed me the most about them this year is their ability to do the work– and work hard– without being daunted by the enormity of the work. This is the job of being an artist, and they were going to do it, always moving forward. Cleanup around the theatre? Absolutely. Engineer a costume fix? You got it. No snark. No refusal. Giggles and handstands.

Tonight and tomorrow, the apprentices take the stage for Fresh Voices. Tonight, the show is followed by a celebratory reception for the apprentices; and tomorrow night, they’ll have a post-show talkback with the audience. Hope you can join us.

From Jp – A Busy April

April 26, 2017

Blog time… oh my!

My turn on the blog this time comes as a momentary welcome distraction (as does everything at this point in time) because I’m deep into completing the final draft of a thesis, due one week from the writing of this blog. My mind is so scattered at the moment, and while I thought that maybe I would just copy and paste my thesis draft in here and let you all proof it for me, I thought it would be a great time to update you on a couple of things.

1.  It’s two for one Sizzli time at Wawa!  (Though unfortunately my schedule with writing, doesn’t have me out of the house that early)

2.  Next week, the amazing faculty and student body at the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts will be opening their production of Hair. Touchstone was honored to be asked by the Theater faculty at the school to come down for this production and mentor teams of student designers through the process of putting the this show together. Myself with set designers, Emma with lighting, and Lisa with the costume folks, worked alongside the students as they put their minds toward creating a cohesive aesthetic for their production. I was able to see a dress rehearsal of the show on Monday and was delighted by what I saw. I’m really proud of my design team, proud of all the students involved, and last but not least, proud of Touchstone Ensemble Affiliate Ashley Weller’s direction and choreography is out of the ball park.  Check it out: Hair

3.  The Jakopa’s Punch Processional’s script and songs are all complete! We are now entering production mode. The band has been hard at work for the last two weeks learning the new songs, and we will be holding audition for puppeteers and stilt-walkers the week of May 22nd.  Just this week, we had to make a very important decision… which of these look more like tiny satyr horns?

It’s really quite a nuanced thing…  where do you set them on the head? Do you go for a cleaner arc? Do you go for the more curvy ones? Do they both just make people look like the devil? Decisions!

Really this is just the tip of the iceberg!  We’ve got the Young Playwright’s Festival coming up, we’ve got Bill slow cooking the (Un)Bound project, we’ve got Emma over at Moravian Academy, we’ve got a set to build for PYT Seussical, we’ve got…  yeah… I guess I better get back to writing this thesis.