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From the Archives – Make We Merry

April 9, 2020

The transition from a peripatetic touring theatre group to a company with a home, a 72-seat theatre at 321 East 4th Street, Bethlehem, meant more changes. It meant having to generate a season of work; whereas before we could create perhaps an hour of material a year, now we had to find ideas and content to fill a season of four or five offerings for our audiences – ten times as much.

Early on, one of People’s Theatre Company’s first paying gigs was as entertainment at a Bamberger’s department store (in the Lehigh Valley Mall) Christmas celebration. We offered Renaissance events, as this was Barbara Pearson’s initiative – dancing, singing, miming. From that original idea, Bridget George and Barbara Pearson developed a full length theatrical performance called Christmas Revels that we staged at Asa Packer Chapel for several years — until we were asked to stop calling it Christmas Revels, as there was a national program, started in Boston, called Christmas Revels. Bridget and Barbara changed the title of the production to Make We Merry, and we performed it several Christmas seasons in a row at Touchstone.

This production, written by Bridget George and compiled from many classical, religious, and historical sources, took place December 15, 1991. The theatre was decked out (vaulted ceiling and all) as a small English church, with Dan Sigley as the priest. We, the audience, are at a Christmas service, and the Lord of Misrule (Eric Beatty, Touchstone ensemble member) and his revelers break in – as was the custom hundreds of years ago – to disrupt the authority of the church in the name of partying down. Larry Lipkis was our Musical Director (on crumhorn), Barbara Pearson, Director/Choreographer, Susan Chase, principle dancer, actress. (I apologize for not digging for all the names, but we will!)

Here another interest of Touchstone’s work can be seen – the tension or interplay between the forces of the sacred and the secular.  It was for this reason I took off a year or so later to explore these issues.

— Bill George

From the Archives – Pierrot in Love

March 31, 2020

Touchstone’s street work (see our previous postcard) sparked an interest in gestural theatre, as working outside made clarity of movement and size of gesture of crucial interest. And the need to create work that could reach across language barriers was still an unsolved challenge. By evolving our movement and mime technique, we could expand our technical skills as performers, reach all of our audiences no matter their native language (we hoped), and be more commercially viable — in the late 70’s and early 80’s, mime was quite the fashion (until the streets became glutted with unskilled performers and Woody Allen came along and ridiculed it…)  And with Lorraine coming from a dance background, it provided common ground for the two of us to work.

This clip, produced under the name of B&B mime, now a part of People’s Theatre Co., features an introduction by Bridget George, Bill George as Pierrot, Lorraine Zeller as Columbine, Set Design by Peter Ruhf, Costumes by Mildred Greene, and music by Larry Lipkis, Composer in Residence at Moravian College. I don’t believe Bridget is quite right saying the music was composed for us. Larry had created Pierrot in Love (four movements, this being an excerpt from the final movement), and we decided to create a pantomime story to it. Larry’s creation came first. This video was taken by Professor James Eppes. Professor Eppes retired as a professor of mechanical engineering at Lehigh University in 1973 and had served for many years as acting head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. His house was full of old video equipment, and he and his wife were angels, helping us to our feet as a company.

— Bill George

From the Archives – “Yo Soy Quixote!”

March 24, 2020

In honor of us all, and the good work in which Touchstone has poured so much of its love and effort over the years, Jp has asked me to put together a series of video post cards from our past, to take this time to remember where we’ve been, to have some entertainment, and to remember what in part motivated us, what we’ve been curious about, and those flashes of beauty that have enchanted us along the way.

I’d like to start with our Street Theatre, as it is from this work that Touchstone grew.  It’s our deepest root, though there are other parallel ones.  This very brief scene comes from People’s Theatre Company in 1979 at Yosko Park on Bethlehem’s SouthSide, before we changed our name to Touchstone in 1981. This one-minute excerpt (taken by myself on equipment provided by Altronics Security Systems with the help of Larry Barkan—Larry died in 1994 at the age of 44.)  The piece was directed by and features the inimitable Ricardo Viera. My apologies, I can’t remember the names of the other performers, except for the early Touchstone stalwart, Belkys Lopez, the tall actress on the right in the red T-shirt.

It was Ricardo’s idea to do Quixote, and it is his bi-lingual adaptation for the children. John Pearson had passed away three years earlier, summer of 1976. And though Ricardo’s motivation for mounting Quixote are unknown to me, we were all still under John’s spell, and trying to understand how those who’d passed inspire us and keep a hold. We knew we had to carry on, and thus the strong message of how we must translate what inspired us about our lost ones, into ourselves and our actions. Yo soy Quixote!

– Bill George

From Christopher – Where Do All the Plays Go?

February 21, 2020

SONY DSCUnlike the vast majority of theatre companies, Touchstone produces only original work. Our audiences won’t see a Neil Simon comedy, or a Broadway musical, or a famous Pulitzer Prize winning drama on our stage. Even when it APPEARS that something familiar is coming down the line, it ends up being some original twist – like a three-actor version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest… or Homer’s Odyssey turned into a song cycle with monologues and movement (Ulysses Dreams).

This choice is not made out of disdain for existing plays – we love the amazing theatre that has been generated over the centuries – but rather a commitment to the creation of new work. So instead of seeing the repertory of theatre you might see produced or presented by another company, at Touchstone you see plays created by members of the ensemble – like Dream of the Red Pavilion by Mary Wright, or The Complete and Authoritative Tour of Holy Stuff by Emma Ackerman— or plays devised together by the ensemble such as the annual holiday favorite Christmas City Follies.

Christmas City Follies -- Run Throught -- Dec. 2018-4366Over the four decades of Touchstone’s history, our audiences have experienced an incredible catalog of new work. But what happens to these plays after they grace the Touchstone stage, or the neighborhood playground, or the Southside Greenway where they initially perform?

Sometimes the plays tour. Productions of The Tempest, Walden, and Tales from the Middle East have toured to locally to schools, Dictators 4 Dummies toured to Poland, and Bhudoo toured to Italy and Hungary after performing in multiple local venues. Although these are recent examples, touring is nothing new for Touchstone. In the 1980s and 90s, Touchstone took shows to Mexico, Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, and Chile. In all of these cases, these were plays created by Touchstone and performed by Touchstone on tour.

But what about OTHER companies performing shows that premiere at Touchstone? That’s a question we hear a lot. It’s usually a version of “You work so hard creating something, and then it just disappears. Can’t someone else perform it?” The short answer is “yes, they can,” but it can be tricky proposition for a couple of reasons.

img076One reason is that because Touchstone is so focused on our local community, many of our shows deal with subject matter that might not resonate to the same extent somewhere else. Something like A Resting Place comes to mind. That show was written by Alison Carey but incorporated stories gathered from local residents and focused on the legacy of the Civil War here in Bethlehem.

Some of our shows are site-specific, and are performed in venue specific to the subject matter. I immediately think of Steelbound, a show about the closing of Bethlehem Steel performed in the old Iron Foundry, or Don Quixote of Bethlehem, addressing local English and Spanish-speaking communities, and performed right in the streets of Southside Bethlehem. In both of those cases, the subject matter, though highly local, WOULD likely resonate nationally: Bethlehem isn’t the only American community dealing with the loss of manufacturing jobs, or cultural/language barriers. But because these pieces were created to happen here in these very specific locations, those locations themselves are woven into the fabric of the pieces. Without the locations, the plays would lose some of their power and meaning.

DQcharginglampostThose plays also involved huge casts. Part of the Touchstone approach is to not only tell the community’s story, but to involve the community itself in that telling—a practice we embraced after working with Cornerstone Theatre on Steelbound. Each of these examples of site-specific Bethlehem-based productions had casts of 60 or more performers. Producing an event of that scale requires a huge commitment of resources. That makes sense for Touchstone, because it is so central to the company’s mission in the community, but for another theatre somewhere else, it would be hard to justify that level of investment in a project that was not specifically created for them.

There are occasional exceptions. I am in the midst of “peddling“ my musical Dictators 4 Dummies that premiered at Touchstone in 2018. I have been sending it out for other companies to consider and have submitted it to some festivals. The future of the piece was looking bright—it was chosen as a finalist for the New York Musical Festival (NYMF), one of the premiere launch pads for new musicals, but in a tragic (at least for this show!) turn of events, the festival shut down before Dictators could be produced. I have not given up, though—I am continuing to search for new avenues to get that show out into the world beyond the Lehigh Valley. Perhaps this show will still find “legs.” Dictatorship 4 Dummies 4.12.2018-1612

However, for the vast majority of plays produced by Touchstone, they are created, they are performed here and then… they are gone*—hopefully to live on in the memory of our audiences, and in the collective memory of our community. Is that frustrating? Sure. Often it is. But it also makes it special. When these events come along, seize the opportunity to experience them. Unlike a movie, you can’t just put off seeing it, catch it some other time, or wait for it to come out on video. These are experiences to be looked forward to, relished when they are here, and cherished.

 

*Well, “gone” gets a footnote: As we approach our 40th anniversary, we are undertaking a major archiving project that includes digitizing old recordings of productions from decades passed.  This archive will be used for research and reference by students and artists.  So in a way, we ARE finding a way to keep the shows around!

From Mary – By a Nose

December 11, 2019

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After Festival UnBound, as I was attempting to clean up my desk area, I discovered a spare red-nose sitting in a drawer. “Spare” red-nose, you note. Yes. Doesn’t everyone keep a red-nose handy?

One of the things I love about working at Touchstone is the very fact that we too keep the tools of our craft close at hand. That includes, for me, business cards, pens and pencils, sticky notes, a calculator, computer, etc… But then, there’s the not so common tools of our trade: the bag of juggling balls (for arts education); the measuring tape (for costumes); the red nose (for, well, for anything really).

A red nose is a very personal thing. It helps define the character – its size and shape as compared to your own face’s size and shape. I’ve been wearing the same red nose as Little Red, the silent(ish) clown, for almost 20 years now. Recently, I had misplaced the nose, and so I went on-line to re-order it. But I couldn’t remember what nose I’d ordered in the first place. Believe me, there are TONS of professional red noses to choose from…so I ordered a few:

Change the nose, you change the character – as much as changing a costume.

And speaking of costuming…

Most of you never get a chance to see our costume shop. For a long time it was a closely guarded secret… we didn’t want people to see it. Think hoarders. On steroids. With Festival UnBound coming up, we knew that there would be lots of other artists from other organizations needing to browse through our costumes. So, during the hottest months of the year, a crew of brave souls ventured into the costume shop and cleaned the whole place out.

Thanks to Steven Barnett, we had a window-unit air-conditioner doing its best to cool the place off. Thanks to Robert “Ippy” Ippolito, Emma Engler and Kyra Zimmerman, we all managed to sort, clean, purge, and re-organize the space.

During the Great Clean-Out, we realized we owned about 500 hats, (and really, who needs 500 hats?) Ippy had a brain-storm: create a costume made entirely out of hats.  We started calling his idea “The Hat Lady.” Again, the costume creating the character. Pretty soon it became clear we had enough hats for two hat-ladies. You may have seen them at the Closing Ceremony for Festival UnBound. You may have one of the hats we were happy to share with the community!

So, the next time you see a fun hat, or accessory, or a red nose, try it on for size – and see who you become.

From Bill – Evolution of the Old Guy

November 12, 2019

Old GuyThe work of the actor has many, many possible approaches. This picture is of a prop – well, actually a collection of props – I use as the Old Guy, in Christmas City Follies. There are a few peculiar aspects to the Old Guy. He’s always been the Old Guy, though I was about 48 years old when I took my first stab at this clown character (you see the red nose by the Christmas sheep?), and he’s pushing 70 now. He really is old now. He came into existence, inspired when I saw Mark McKenna do a brusque, pushy clown in a piece at Touchstone, and I thought I’d try something like that. I think the first time I performed him, I was working with my daughter Anisa. She’s very important to his shape and attitude. Anisa was perhaps 16, and I brought her on in a bag, threw her onto the floor – another idea I’d stolen, this time from Ronlin Foreman. Ronlin had been at Touchstone back in… scratching my head… 1987, I think. He had done a piece with his little girl, bringing her on as a doll that moves when he isn’t looking. I loved that bit, thought perhaps Anisa and I could find some more to do around it. But Ronlin’s daughter was perhaps seven or eight. Anisa was 16… a LOT more involved in shaping our work, and significantly heavier. Anyway, we scratched something silly together from things I’d seen and what we could come up with ourselves, and the Old Guy was born.

But that being over twenty years ago, he hasn’t stayed the same. I’ve heard actors talk about working on a part for months, years even – particularly great roles like Hamlet or Oedipus – working to get it right. Great roles are usually archetypes; they’re like psychic bottomless pits. As the performer/interpreter changes from year to year, he/she must adjust to the naturally deeper understandings of what it means to be a lover or a hero or a fool that comes with time. What was done six months ago is suddenly realized to be not deep enough or just a wrong understanding. Or they’re written with poetry that has layer after layer of interpretive meaning that can be peeled away. One shot at the role may not be enough.

The Old Guy’s a bit like that, and a slippery devil to boot.  Over time he’s been a big-hearted lover, a dreamer, a wandering curmudgeon never happy with inauthenticity while always trying to get by with the tricks of the huckster, the con-man, the guileless child. Every year, thanks to the encouragement and generosity of Touchstone, he’s come back and hacked out a new scheme to make money, find true love, or heal the problems of the world – all three at once if possible. He’s sung, played the ukulele, recited poetry about stars and angels, railed against the golden calf, spread love (very dangerous act indeed), sold junk, and incorrectly or profoundly explained the ways of the world to anyone who’d listen. The challenge primarily rests in this: how to do something he’s never done before without doing something so different that it’s “not what the Old Guy would do.” In twenty years, I’ve created, along with the help of Jp Jordan and the Touchstone Ensemble – particularly Mary Wright and Emma Ackerman – something like 5 hours of material. That’s a lot. It feels like the character, over time, has worn a groove in my soul that I always have to be careful NOT to fall into. Unless of course, I am actually interested in playing him.

More to the core of the challenge, it’s like an old relationship. We’re past the first excitement of getting to know each other. We’ve gone through dry periods; is this guy really worth spending any more time with? We’ve had so much fun together; will those moments ever come again? Where does the play of it come from now? It can’t be the same as it was in the beginning, but what new horizons might be sought? I went through a period a few years ago where, for some reason, I was always trying to kill him off, but I think it had more to do with me trying to understand what it felt like to get old than anything to do with his character.

Twenty-some Christmases I’ve spent with the Old Guy, trying to figure out what’s funny now, what’s true now and isn’t being said, what’s Christmas now in this ever more noisy, dissected, anxious, and alienated age.  Looking back again at the picture up top, though, I can see what holds me always transfixed, breathes joy and life into the Old Guy every time. Right there in the middle, sitting at the base of the candle, between Donald Trump and the Wegman’s sign, is that little, rascally doll I use to represent Mary, the Christ child in her lap. Somewhere in all that is a miracle that never fails to inspire this actor to want to play, to play, play, play.

From Jason – Tales from the Tour – Language Lessons

October 17, 2018

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It became a bit of a cheeky running joke amidst our traveling troupe that started over our first hotel breakfast together. It was apparently apparent enough that I had spent the evening of my first full day in Poland burning ye olde midnight fires and drinking the old midnight potions, for as I plopped myself down last at the table Christopher inquired as to what sort of shenanigans I had succeeded in sashaying into. When I replied “actually it was really cool– I was up all night participating in language lessons,” it was perfectly understandable to see the group break out into wry smiles and hear CS’s sparkly-eyed snarky response of “riiiiiiight…language lessons.”

And though it evolved into our daily nudge-nudge, wink-wink over coffee and sausages that I’d stayed out all night again performing my diplomatic duties by engaging in wordplay until dawn (especially the morning I announced that I’d been sharing tongue-twisters with the Italians: “riiiiiight….tongue-twisters) the truth is that this is indeed exactly (well, mostly) what I was doing while huddled around the nightly bonfires: teaching and being taught language.

These language lesson sessions lead me to a few profound realizations that I have come to recognize as the greatest gifts I was given in Goleniów– gifts I am now obliged to give you.

First, allow me to describe a typical language lesson. The setting is pretty much what you might imagine at this point: after midnight festival revelers unconcerned with the tick-tick-ticking of time feeding the fire, passing the Polish beer and vodka, and laughing as much as possible. (A footnote of sorts on that laughter: I was informed one evening that amongst our early morning mob I was being referred to as “the American with the explosive laughter who stays up all night.” A true diplomatic badge of honor to be sure. You’re welcome, America.).

Within this setting English was indeed the common ground everyone communicated from, but the levels of mastery (or lack-thereof) of the language varied. There were many pauses in conversations in which someone would stop for clarification of a certain phrase, ask for the meaning of something you just said, or describe a concept they wanted to communicate like “um, what is the word you use to say [insert foreign word/phrase and English clues about the subject matter at hand, a brief volley of potential words, joyous acceptance of appropriate word, repeat of phrase with correct words now in place].” Most nights there were as many questions being tossed around as there were statements.

Feelings of fascination, delight, and community pervaded these occasions as we guided each other into deeper understandings of each other’s language and cultural experiences. One particular afternoon, I was honored to share such a language lesson (and music sharing) session with a woman who invited me to lunch so that she and her daughter could practice their English. We found ourselves on a bar veranda overlooking the Ina river writing words and pronunciations on paper in-between taking turns showing each other our favorite bands via YouTube videos. This appetite for learning and sharing was a wildfire that seemed to engulf the entire festival.

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These things lead me to Profound Realization #1: here in the USA, we’re struggling with poignant (and regretfully heated) discussions about immigration and walls and borders and what it means to be an American and whether “if you come here you should speak the language” and a whole bevy of subjects that seem to separate and alienate us from each other more and more. Within those debates there are many among us who honorably spread our well-meaning humanist hashtags like #unity #onelove #respectforall and #oneworld, but what occurred to me is that it is not enough to just THINK correctly or accept that getting along with everyone is a good idea. It’s not enough to change our Facebook avatar to say we support the maligned group du jour. It’s not enough to simply care. The experience I had over and over is that what it takes to heal and solve these issues is a GENUINE DESIRE to want to reach out and understand another person and “the other side,” and also (as it was described to me one evening) to have a genuine desire to simply accurately BE UNDERSTOOD. Every night the success of our good vibes, camaraderie, and establishing new lifelong relationships hinged upon people who genuinely wanted to make sure they understood each other’s words and therefore their culture, history, and viewpoints.

And as it turned out EVERYONE wanted to understand each other. It was a vision to me of how things can be. And it was so easy! Basking in this new reality I began to feel a creeping depression as I realized I would have to leave this place at some point and return to America where the current cultural modus operandi is too often one of “I don’t want to consider your side—you are wrong, and here’s the ways I am right, and since you’re the ‘bad’ guys I would be justified in violence against you so here’s a paragraph in ALL CAPS that lets you know I think you’re an idiot and I hope you and your kind fade from the cultural landscape.” In Poland it was “let’s work to talk and understand each other and discover how all of our many differences make a beautiful rich cultural HUMAN MOSAIC.”

Here’s one such general moment: I was sitting by the fire next to a West German woman and we were having a conversation with a Pole seated on her other side. In casual conversation we were all guiding each other just fine through the three language barriers, but as the night wore on and the beer loosened lips we dove into deeper conversations of political and philosophical natures. In order to debate subjects that required much more specific language (filibuster, korsarz, obstruieren) much of the conversation became powered by translations the two ladies researched on their phones in attempts to tackle these tougher topics. We were able to intellectualize and discuss the state of the world (oppression, unterdrückung, ucisk), the nature of power and political systems (amendment, poprawka, Änderung) and the histories of nations (millennia, tysiąclecia, jahrtausende) because that genuine desire to foster deeper understanding lead us to take the time to utilize the available technology, compare phone translations, and TALK deeply to each other.

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That notion of “advanced” language vs. “simple” language lead me to Profound Realization #2, and it’s akin to a notion that we in musical circles call “the KISS principle” (Keep It Simple, Stupid). On one hand there is absolutely great value in mastering your own language in order to speak and write in as educated a manner as possible and push the intelligence of the species forward; I myself lean towards my English Major roots and often patrol social media as one of those “grammar Nazis” who can be found commenting “it’s ‘THEY’RE’ not ‘THERE,’” but when gathered with people from all corners of the globe (6 of the 7 continents were represented at the festival including nearly every European nation) what I discovered was that it was the use of SIMPLIFIED language that allowed us to all communicate and create community. Often I would find myself consciously not using our so-called “big words” and purposely using LESS and SMALLER words to boil things down to their pure meaning. As an artist who tends to let the flowery verbosity flow (I mean, just look at this blog!) this notion of the immense power of simple (even “uneducated”) language was a revelation to me. In the proverbial end it’s the meaning that matters…not how “educated” you say it.

A further revelation in this realm was the discovery that many people in Poland had taught themselves English by watching American cartoons and reading our children’s books (the folks I met universally disdained “the Queen’s English,” and instead of adhering to their school book curriculum many honed their language skills by watching Hollywood movies). All of these things gave me a new understanding of the rich value of speaking simple elementary English (this blog, of course, is not my best example of that concept, ha!), and so the lesson I pass on is that if approached by someone struggling with the language DO THE SAME. Keep It Simple, Stupid. There’s a sweet spot somewhere in our 2nd Grade grammar books and children’s literature that allows us to be better international diplomats.

And finally, Profound Realization #3: floating above all these words (either simple or complex) and all these conversations is a pure form of language that crosses ALL borders and peoples—MUSIC. On one side of the magic of music lies the nightly concerts where we all communicated through the joy of dancing together, chanting along to songs, or simply standing side-by-side in awe of a sublime melody. On the other side of this musical wizardry was the jam sessions. Many were the daily opportunities I had to work with international musicians, and often were the moments (especially with local native Poles) in which I could not SPEAK with a musician to ask for clarification of a musical passage, but I could COMMUNICATE through music. We couldn’t “talk,” but a musician could strum a chord for me to hunt for the matching tones on my piano. We would then share smiles and proceed to play songs and write beautiful stories together using notes for words and riffs for sentences through the language of music.

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Many times in my musical life I’ve uttered such platitudes as “music can save the world.” It’s been a lofty notion that FELT right but was really little more than some barely-thought-out inspirational meme fodder. In Poland I saw it in action. I saw joy and love and the absolute destruction of prejudices as people reveled in the power of music.

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And I’ll end with this exclamation point. It’s not a profound realization but rather a validation of a long held belief. There’s something very important to be said for that other universal language: LOVE. I imagine that at the core of all these lessons was LOVE. Love for each other fueling the trust and the desire and the PATIENCE to fulfill genuine communication and understanding; love for each other and love of music fueling our rehearsals, jam sessions, and performances–including the desire to spread that love outward by playing properly and presenting the audience with a great show in the shared love of group experiences; love of humanity at large which was the desire at the heart of the festival to do the work that betters the planet and humanity, and to keep that fire in our hearts to fuel our future artistic endeavors; and then, of course, just good old-fashioned romantic love dancing in the fire’s flames and fueling various exploits…but that love and that desire is a whole other “language lesson” blog J

Keep talking, my friends. Continue to reach out and share your positions, your politics, and your passions, but let’s not view those beliefs as a battalion at the front lines of an intellectual battle we must win. Let’s instead see them as word ambassadors seeking information who open the door to our homes where all the other languages and viewpoints can come in for dinner and discussion. Have the patience to listen, for when you do you find the end result is usually a smile and the realization that the differences are tiny and often meaningless before the reality that we’re vastly more similar than we are different. That’s my language lesson. Na zdrowie!

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