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From the Archives – “Fool’n Angels”

May 28, 2020

Fool’n Angels (1988) was a seminal work for Touchstone, and it wasn’t ours. We’d met Ronlin Foreman at the 1976 American Mime Festival where he was performing a solo clown piece, and we invited him to join us to be part of Touchstone’s 1988-89 season when we started producing. Ronlin brought in this family production, featuring himself and his two daughters— the elder, Lila, and the younger Myra. You’ll notice the patchwork curtain. The production was costumed and in part designed by Ronlin’s wife (whose name I’m sorry to say I can’t get right now). It was from this curtain (that she sewed) the idea for Follies’ curtain grew. I stole shamelessly from Ronlin. Later in the production, he brings on his daughter in a bag, and they do a bit about a mannequin that comes alive. I used that idea, in part, when Anisa (my daughter— much older at the time and heavier I might quickly add) performed in Follies III.

In this clip, we see Ronlin amidst his daughters (angels) and an un-planned moment, when Myra bangs her head on his accordion. It’s a precious moment. Note how Ronlin never stops playing – leaving Lila on stage to cover when he has to go backstage to make sure Myra’s really okay. AND notice how Lila is totally game; she’s ready for her solo, even if it is improvised.

— Bill George

From the Archives – “Holiday Memories”

May 21, 2020

Holiday Memories — 1992
Directed by Jerry Stropnicky
Adapted from Truman Capote
Jennie Gilrain, Susan Chase, Sam George (double cast with Sam Shipman), Mark McKenna, and Eric Beatty

One of the earliest productions by Touchstone to use an “outside director”, again Jerry Stropnicky, and be based on an “outside” or already existing text. We were becoming “like a real theatre”; and that was scary to me. Was Touchstone losing itself? This production, this script, is one of the sweetest holiday stories ever written. Full of the deep pleasures of the holidays, and the melancholy.  Wonderful pantomime, puppetry, poetic text, and ensemble work combine.  A great fit for Touchstone, and very well received by our audiences.

It, of course, tugs at my heart to look at it now, almost thirty years later.  Not just to see Jennie’s beloved Miss Sook, Mark’s mannered Capote-like narrator, and the entire ensemble at work, but this version features Buddy as played by Sam George, my son, at the age of twelve, with relaxed and beautiful expression.

— Bill George

From the Archives – “If At All”

May 14, 2020

If At All (2003)
Directed by Jerry Stropnicky
Written by Jerry Stropnicky with the Touchstone Ensemble
Jennie Gilrain, Cora Hook, Mary Wright, Bill George, Mark McKenna

Using T.S. Eliot’s FOUR QUARTETS as a spring-board, the Ensemble partnered with Jerry Stropnicky of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble to create this very original piece of theatre in which we see how relationships with our parents and our children evolve. It’s an exploration of the meaning of time and life– done with humor, poignancy, and movement. Drawn from T.S. Eliot’s FOUR QUARTETS and texts by Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and contemporary cosmologists, IF AT ALL was an entertaining and provocative creation. It strove to reveal the mystery of our day to day struggle with time and eternity. A remarkable, Mozartian creation, full of both science and human emotion, philosophy and quotidian triviality.

I am fond of any number of moments during the show, but the end of this sequence, where the Mother (Jennie Gilrain, who has passed away) consoles her Daughter (Cora Hook) and we see how the echoes of those nurturing words and loving gestures make their way to her Daughter, Mary Wright, is simply and touchingly profound.

— Bill George

From the Archives – “Under Milkwood”

May 7, 2020

An early collaboration (May 1991) of Touchstone with the Pennsylvania Stage Company (Artistic Director Peter Wrenn-Meleck, now Production Manager at the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts and our recent production of Prometheus/Redux) and Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble (with Jerry Stropnicky directing, who later went on to write Prometheus/Redux for Festival UnBound). It was at this point I’d left Touchstone to explore the challenge of honestly representing the sacred on stage, and Bridget George was Touchstone’s Producing Artistic Director. Now, Bridget is a collaborator par excellence, and with these partnerships Touchstone’s creative powers were leveraged to greater accomplishment through sharing of resources and artistic vision. Not an easy thing to do, at least not for me, early in Touchstone’s career, but for Bridget, as a producer first and not an actual writer or theatre creator, she was as interested in the gifts of Jerry (BTE), Peter (PSC), AND Touchstone and how they might ALL be fulfilled.

Thirty years later– well, 29– we are still working together.

This production, too, in my mind, was magical (I have a tendency not to share those that were more problematic). Such love in the air, on stage, and Jerry’s direction was strong, sensitive, enlightened and felt safe to engage in the subtle ensemble work. This production features Eric Beatty, Susan Chase, Jason Hale, Jeanne Hansell, Jane Wellington, and myself.

Dylan Thomas was quite the lover, and it oh, so showed in the lyricism of this production.  Jane and Eric, not too long after married.

— Bill George

From the Archives – “The Soldier’s Tale”

April 30, 2020

Urged on by Jerry Bidlack, Professor of Music at Lehigh University, we decided to stage Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, circa 1984, and asked Ronlin Foreman to design, choreograph and direct. What a bear it was getting up this show, particularly for Ronlin who was sewing costumes and prepping props even after we’d opened. (I remember Ronlin crawling back behind the curtain to hand me a piece for my costume literally seconds before I entered as that character, whispering: “Wear this!”) We rehearsed at Lehigh as this was a “sabbatical project” Jerry had masterminded. He conducted. (The music in this touring version, video documented at Dance Theatre Workshop in New York, is recorded.) Jerry’s no longer with us that I might consult him about the details of the original production, but it was such a delight to work with him and the seven-person orchestra in Lamberton Hall. Live music is untouchably magical.

L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) is a theatrical work “to be read, played, and danced” by three actors and one or several dancers, accompanied by a septet of instruments. Conceived by Igor Stravinsky and Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz, the piece was based on a Russian folk tale drawn from the collection of Alexander Afanasyev called The Runaway Soldier and the Devil.

For us, it was again a chance to brush up against a terrific piece of work that spoke to us, stretched us technically, as would Shipwrecked, and was a good fit for our small ensemble. Mark McKenna plays the Soldier; Jennie Gilrain, Susan Chase and Bill George, the Chorus. You can see how the movement skills of the company are growing; the pantomime, the simple design elements that still stay with us from our “street” roots yet now speak with dignity and flare in a concert setting. Ronlin’s work was brilliant, and we did our best to execute. Ronlin was always so unorthodox, anti-authoritarian. I remember he wanted to take Stravinsky’s opening musical sequence and put it at the end—not such a radical thought for a theatre person, but for Jerry, accustomed to the sacredness of the composer’s work, impossible!

– Bill George

From the Archives – Whoopsi Kerplonk

April 23, 2020

For about twenty years, Touchstone earned much if not the bulk of its income creating original theatre for children. It was a natural progression: the company grew from our street theatre experiments on the playgrounds of Bethlehem, our audiences there were primarily children, so we created work to serve their interests and needs. Every summer we’d end the season with one or more children’s pieces (we usually did two productions a summer, but sometimes as many as three), and it was simply a waste of time and hard work to throw them away, and we had no way to store them long term.  So, we began approaching the schools to see if they’d like to hire us as part of their arts programming for the school year.  Before long, touring to the schools had become more of an income stream than the street theatre program itself.

One of our most successful children’s pieces was Whoopsi Kerplonk, created through improvisation by Lorraine Zeller and myself around an idea by Bridget George. Two innocents, children– one mischievous and needy, the other generous and a bit of a “goody two-shoes”– live in large, letter-block houses and come to understand: to play with each other, they must learn to share. Set and costumes were designed by Gail Saraceno of Saraceno & Sayre Design. Whoopsi was successful because it really connected with audiences, could be set up or taken down in fifteen minutes, and provided a wonderful structure for spontaneous play – it gave power over the performance to the performers. Whoopsi Kerplonk (Whoopsi and Kerplonk were the two characters) went through three different casts and was toured for about five years, and was charming, a delight to perform, and morally instructive in an honest way. Maybe it’ll come back again. I remember performing it for Paul Curtis, and his comment was:  “It’s like a piece of cloth; you can just unroll it by the yard.”

From the Archives – Shipwrecked!

April 16, 2020

This was such a sweet little production – Shipwrecked!: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself).

(I’m jumping ahead a bit on the time line since there are some earlier pieces I’d like to share, but they’re in Touchstone’s video archives, not mine, and I’m staying at home as much as possible.)

Vicki Haller Graff, Jp Jordan, and I did this with Margie Anich directing in 2008. Margie came to the table with the script as I remember, written by the Pulitzer Prize winning Donald Margulies, and it was such a perfect fit for our ensemble—physical theatre, actors playing multiple characters, presentational, whimsical, life-affirming. The set was based on an idea developed by Saraceno & Sayre design during the nineteen eighties for our street theatre production, Yellow Moon Jamboree. Seldom have we ever seen a script so perfectly crafted for the kind of work that was natural for us to produce. We couldn’t resist.

— Bill George