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From the Archives – “School Alley”

July 28, 2020

Directed by Augustine Ripa, written by Gary Webster (Touchstone’s Managing  Director at the time), and featuring Touchstone’s ensemble (a shout-out to Billie Lindo who later moved back to the Chicago area, we miss her). I won’t list names as I don’t have everyone’s, but it was a memorable production for a number of different reasons. For one, it was a play! No ands, ifs, or buts. It felt like a play, read like a play; straight up acting, character work. It felt quite strange to me, but that was what Gary had wanted to do, and he wrote a terrific script. May 1992. I did my best to remember how naturalistic acting worked. Looking at the video footage now I think I should have sported a Pennsylvania Dutch accent along with my moustache, but things are always clearer in hindsight. I recently told Gus (Augustine Ripa) I thought the opening of this production was one of the cleanest and sweetest little pieces of stage work we’ve ever done. I love the opening sound tapestry.

Lehigh University President Peter Likins came to the production with his family.  Said his favorite thing was Billie Lindo’s performance. Of course I was jealous.

— Bill George

From the Intern’s Desk – The Show Must Go On!

July 27, 2020

Bryanna Pye Headshot (2)“The show must go on.” If you’ve ever been involved in theatre, you may have heard the this phrase used. Whether you’re the high school actor making his first stage debut, the musician practicing to play in the pit, or the theatre parent that’s been recruited to help built sets, you know what this means. Essentially, the show will go on, regardless of what may happen. So what happens when theatre itself is stopped? Living in the current circumstances, it feels like the arts world has taken a major hit with no immediate answers to the future. However, artists and creators rise back up again and regroup. Armed with creativity, ingenuity, and persistence, they emerge into the fray of the unknown to trailblaze new forms of spreading the arts. Why? Because the show must go on.

The Touchstone ensemble proved to continue this ideas as I was introduced to the creative ensemble and team. After unexpectedly packing up to complete my semester at home, it was refreshing to connect with individuals that had the same passion as I do. There’s something about the theater community, where you can instantaneously click with those around you. The Touchstone ensemble kindly welcomed me in and gave me a sense of purpose as we currently drift through a time of uncertainty. Through Zoom, I have been able to develop my creative collaboration and administrative skills, while getting a peak into the process of how a theatre is run.

The main project I’ve been tackling this summer revolves around research and dramaturgy work (collecting background research for a play). Christopher Shorr and I explored Puerto Rican culture through the lens performance, specifically the holiday tradition of parranda. I got to explore the origins of this Christmas tradition that involves individuals singing holiday hymns to surprise friends and family in an exchange for food and drinks. The goal is to be able to incorporate parranda into the upcoming season of Christmas City Follies, in either a small or large scale. While there was so much rich and fascinating history in the roots of this tradition, the largest take away was the aspect of giving and building community. The holiday tradition is the spirit of Puerto Rico, giving of one’s time to strengthen and build relationships with family and community.

I find this pearl of wisdom crucial to how we handle ourselves today, especially in the tumultuous landscape we continue to navigate. Show kindness to everyone you meet and support others to make them feel heard. Humans were meant for connection; this concept seemingly amplified in theatre as people build relationships on numerous levels. Finding that spark to keep us going allows us to turn out work, even in the darkest of times. Working with the ensemble has been such a blessing as they put their energies into creating accessible programming and events for the community. Theatre may be in a current rest period, but it’s certainly far from over. The stories, relationships, and community cultivated through theatre are powerful, perhaps powerful enough to develop new ways to thrive. For now, it’s intermission, but just wait until the second act. The show will go on.

— Bryanna Pye


From the Archives – “How Far to Bethlehem?”

July 24, 2020

Touchstone produced How Far to Bethlehem? in 1989. Thirty-one years ago. It featured three women— Black, White, Latino— which is still pretty remarkable. Written by Bridget George and directed by Jennie Gilrain, the piece premiered at Touchstone in December, as our Holiday piece. It wasn’t as raucously “feel good” as some had wished for our holiday fare, but a piece of which I am never the less very proud.

How Far to Bethlehem asked the question: where is Christmas? Where are home, family, community, amid the irony of celebrating Christ’s 2000 year old birth in a manger as five lonely characters struggle to find a moment of Christmas joy on the streets of Bethlehem.  It didn’t shy away from the shadows of racism, poverty, and alienation that crowd the Christmas light.

Three of the characters were played by Touchstone’s ensemble: Eric Beatty as Ricky, a young man who is slightly intellectually challenged; Mark McKenna as Joe, a former employee of Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s open hearth, and Sara Zielinska Capwell as Megan, an Englishwoman who has lived in Bethlehem for three years.

One of the main motifs of the play is the Puerto Rican parranda (explained here in this clip), something we’re hoping to connect to this year’s Christmas City Follies.

— Bill George

From the Archives – “Rootabaga Stories”

July 9, 2020

Just sent off copies of Carl Sandberg’s Rootabaga Stories to my children, Sam and Anisa, for their children, Emma, Rowan, and Ruya.

In 1991, Bridget had the idea of casting our entire family in a street theatre adaptation of Sandberg’s classic children’s book—a classic I admit that is not that widely read (compared to say, Winnie the Pooh or Wind in the Willows) because the language is particularly entangled and pointedly playful to a ponderous degree.  Poetry! Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Madeleine Ramsey of the Pennsylvania Youth Theatre directed, and Rosemary Geseck designed.

As young theatre artists, Bridget and I didn’t have much wealth, fancy things, or even secure futures for our children. We didn’t have much to give them in the usual ways of thinking about these things, but as they faced the beginning of adolescence, we wanted to hold onto being a family and to pass on what we cared about – creativity, beauty, hard work, being a reliable partner for each other, service to our community. Performing Rootabaga Stories (and I believe we did as many as forty-five performances that summer, traveling as far as Washington, DC to perform) was a way of palpably passing on to our children what we considered important.

It was hard work. Street theatre is not for the faint of heart. In Washington we performed to audiences of several hundreds at nine o’clock in the morning (two or three performances in a row) in blistering humidity and heat. It required an almost brutal discipline.

I’m sure Sam and Anisa will have mixed feelings when they receive their gifts, but I think I can fairly say, the memory is something that goes deep, unites us in a powerful way, and will forever be a treasured accomplishment.

— Bill George

From the Archives – “Never Done”

June 26, 2020

Never Done performed in March/April of 2000 in Touchstone’s intimate theatre – the same season we created Steelbound. Never Done was a collective creation by the three women, Peggy Pettit, Haydee Cornfield, and Cora Hook, directed by Jennie Gilrain. As they say, “A man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is…” As far as I know, this wonderful, insightful, and in its gentle way, “revolutionary” evening of storytelling, movement, and singing performed just three weeks and was never seen again. It will always redound to Touchstone’s honor to have been the place where such works could be born. Please watch this if you have the few minutes; Peggy’s work in this excerpt can’t help but touch your heart deeply.

— Bill George

From the Archives – “Daedalus in the Belly of the Beast”

June 18, 2020

Daedalus in the Belly of the Beast (1992)
A collaboration with Teatro La Memoria, Chile.

It was a long and winding road from the Street Theatre back in 1976, and our first bilingual production, The Runaway, in 1977, to this remarkable creation. A co-production of Touchstone Theatre and Teatro La Memoria of Chile — it encompasses both a child’s sensibility and the ominous quality of ancient myth. There’s a lot that could be said about this production that will have to remain unsaid for now, but it was an honor to be in the circle of artists who put it together. Rodrigo Perez’s Daedalus was dressed as a clown, wearing baggy clothes and white face. But as soon as we meet Daedalus’ son, Icarus, it’s clear this is no show for children. Pablo Schwarz’s kinky Icarus wears a tiny red skirt, and his bare chest is decorated with body paint. As King Minos’ daughters, Pauline Urrutia and Amparo Noguera wear tutus over girdles with garters and stockings. And like their mother, Pasiphae (Susan Chase), their left hands are green.

We performed in Bethlehem, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City and represented the U.S.A. at the International Theatre Festival in Santiago, Chile.  Written by Chilean playwright Marco Antonio De La Parra and directed by Alfredo Castro, the production, as one character bluntly puts it: “…is blood and it’s sex”. Designed by Curtis Dretsch of Muhlenberg college.

— Bill George

From the Archives – “Angie’s Aching Heart”

June 11, 2020

Angie’s Aching Heart, October 1988. We produced this our second season, I think it was, after we moved into the firehouse. It’s about an interracial marriage 20 years later, when passion and courage have gradually ebbed into routine and there’s little left but the dull hope that there will be life after the children pass through adolescence. Jay Lowman and Sara (Zielinska) Capwell played Pop and Mom. Jenny Gilrain is their troubled daughter Angie, and Will Alexander their cool-cat son, Junior. Jimmy Lawrence played Grandpa and Mark McKenna plays Bingo, the dog.  (And there were, as usual, many other wonderful actors and artists involved.)

In this scene, Jimmy (Grandpa) has passed away and sings from heaven. We all miss Jimmy and his powerful tenor voice. Styve Homnick is leader of the fantastic funk band (with Tom Walz on guitar).

It was a huge stretch for us – not just with the interracial material, but also with the dance steps of putting a musical theatre piece together. We’d had success with Canterbury Tales, so starting the season with another musical seem to make sense.  Written by Janet Ruhe Schoen, and directed by the ever-fabulous Larry Leon Hamlin; though I wish we’d had more time to work on the piece in any number of ways, I’m really proud of it.

— Bill George

From the Archives – “Another River Flows”

June 5, 2020

In the early 2000s, James Jackson came to Mark McKenna at Touchstone to ask if we’d help dramatize some work that he and the NAACP had been working on… the story of the Black immigration into the Valley and the struggle for justice— which turned out to be a gathering and performance in memory of the 4th Street Removal Project. In 2008, as the culmination of the Lehigh Valley Black African Heritage History Project, Another River Flows performed in Easton, Bethlehem, and Allentown. The performance below took place at the Bethlehem Ice House on Sand Island and features treasured performers too numerous to name, but I recognize Winston Alozie, James Jackson, Peggy Pettit, Phyllis Alexander, Margarita Gonzales, Grace Adele, Ella Hook — many, many wonderful performers and cherished friends.

Frankly, yes, we at Touchstone have put forward this excerpt now because of what is happening now in our communities, in our hearts. For so, so long this has gone on – the oppression of our Black brothers and sisters. Words fail. Memory fails. But the struggle must succeed, and the trace of the memory of this beautiful, loving, righteous production gives me hope.

— Bill George

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