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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!

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