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From Mary – Tales from the Tour – Freedom

September 24, 2018

Meet Olaf.

He was one of a dozen of wonderful young adults that we had the privilege of working with as part of the Human Mosaic Festival we attended in Poland.

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We arrived 10 days before the festival started and began working with the 3 community groups assigned to us. Our assignment: create and direct an original piece of theatre on the theme of “Freedom” incorporating the following local community groups: a local rock band, a group of young recovering addicts, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts. It was suggested that we incorporate some of the Polish rock songs made famous during the 80’s and the Solidarity movement.

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Of course, there was a language barrier, but luckily one of the young adults, Paulina, was fluent in both Polish and English. She was our main translator each day. But one day she was absent and so Olaf stepped up and acted as translator. We could see the wheels turning as he tried to figure out concepts and words to explain, to capture what was being said. At one point he stopped mid-sentence, his brain clearly overwhelmed, and simply said, “W-o-a-h!”

Indeed.

I think we all felt that sense of “woah” at times.

“Woah” … that rock band is incredibly good and has one of the most famous guitar players in all of Poland in it.

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“Woah”…these young people are incredibly responsible and trusting and willing to be honest and vulnerable with us. They were quite honest on what it felt like to fight an addiction.

“Woah” … we have an incredible opportunity to do some of the kind of work Touchstone does best: creating original theatre that helps give voice to folks who are sometimes overlooked.

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Because of the theme, we focused our activities in our workshops on what “freedom” meant to these young adults. “You are the experts because you are fighting for your freedom every day,” we told them.

They created tableaus with themes like “Freedom,” “Oppression,” “Happiness,” “Division.”

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They drew monsters that represented their addiction.

They imagined their internal struggles as an external force of nature, and had to help each other move through the space fighting that force of nature.

We taught them to sing “Children of the Revolution.”

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And as we worked with them, the idea for a performance piece emerged. It emerged using the very same techniques we use so often in our work with Young Playwright’s Lab and Building Bridges, and it was exciting to see the way our years of experience, our strengths as teaching artists and collaborators all worked together so easily. We’d adapt a story I often tell. We’d use the broken bike parts Jp and Christopher had found dumped near the half-way house. We made bird wings out of $1.00 plastic table-clothes that Emma packed and brought with her. We’d have Jp tell the story, Emma would sing. Jason would rock-out with the band. Christopher and I would perform with the kids. Lisa would act as stage-manager extraordinaire. We incorporated their dance moves, the songs, spoken word, storytelling, movement, and even the motorcycles.

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On the night of the performance, I got to dance with those wonderful young people from Babigoszcz, all of us like beautiful freedom birds as the famous rock band played and the audience joined in singing and dancing with us all.

And at the end, during the curtain call, the audience started a chant. It was not the name of the rock band. It was not the name of Touchstone. It was “Babigoszcz”: their name. The name of their group: “Babigoszcz” Over and over again. Those young people were the stars of the show.

We had made art that makes a difference. It wasn’t just the kids who had been changed. We all were.

W-o-a-h.

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From Christopher – Tales from the Tour – Building Bridges

September 22, 2018

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We live in strange times. On the one hand, the world is getting smaller, and global impact and global perspectives are increasingly part of our conversations… And on the other hand, there’s a great deal of focus on borders and walls, and people seem increasingly isolated in daily life. (I’m thinking of the hyper-connection/hyper-isolation symptom of our iPhone/Facebook condition.)

In many ways, Theatre is the perfect antidote to the increasing isolation I see. The creative process in theatre is collaborative: people work together, face-to-face. And in performance, it is communal: people come together and share a collective experience. It is not “virtual.” It is real. immediate. live. human.

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And for the other problem—the borders and walls? For that, we have the international festival—a fundamentally “bridge-building” kind of event. Typically, I attend at least one international theater festival each year. In recent years, I’ve gone to festivals in Romania, Czechia, Italy, Chile, Morocco and The Netherlands. It’s something I look forward to. It’s an opportunity to immerse myself in the art form I practice, and also a break from my daily routine – a forced encounter with new experiences that shakes me out of my comfort zone and wakes me up.

I’ve seen no better example of a bridge-building theater festival than the recent “Human Mosaic” festival in which we participated last month in Poland. The theme of the festival was “tolerance.” The theme was chosen because of the LACK of tolerance identified in the community. What does that look like in Goleniów, Poland? Well, leading up to the festival there was a scathing editorial in the local newspaper (ultra-conservative, ultra-catholic) condemning the host theatre company for a planned “drag-queen-make-up workshop,” and coinciding with the opening of the festival the newspaper ran a photo of two men holding the hands of a young boy, rainbow flag flying in the background, with the headline “STOP PEDAPHILES.” That’s an example of what intolerance looks like there. The opening event of the festival was a live theatrically-staged performance of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. What a poignant statement in a community divided. During the performance, the actors build a literal wall made of large cardboard boxes right through the middle of the audience. The audience remained divided through most of the show. Then, during the final number, to the collective chant “TEAR DOWN THE WALL!” the wall was dismantled, allowing the audience to once again become whole.

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Renowned composer Frans Winther, of Odin Teatret in Denmark, wrote a song for that festival—an anthem performed on the first day and the last. The lyrics state: “I am human; you are human too. We are different but the same.” So simple. How it is it so often a bridge too far?

At these international festivals, we meet people from across the globe. We share our work, our perspectives, our stories. No matter how different we are from one another, and no matter how foreign our practices may be, without fail, we find common ground. We connect. When we leave, and return to our respective communities, we are different. The interaction has left an impression. We have changed, and our idea of places previously left to the imagination—impressions formed by headlines and clichés, all in the abstract—are now concrete, tied to the human beings we have met that live there. Finland is where Vilja is from. India is where my friend Chintan lives. Nepal is the home of the children I met who communicated through dance and through song.

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This is a peace-building process. With every festival, with every new connection, we affirm the simple thought: “I am human; you are human too. We are different but the same.” We affirm this for our audiences, and for ourselves. In this time of technology-induced isolation, we find human connection; in this time of tightening borders, we build bridges.

So go ahead, governments of the world: build your walls. The artists are here. And we’re going to tear them down.

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From Emma – Tales from the Tour – Musical Festival Musical Chairs

September 19, 2018

DSC04310bIt’s impossible to pick out a favorite part of an experience as massive and eclectic as our trip to Poland for Teatr Brama’s Human Mosaic Festival, but if I had to try and narrow it down, I’d say it was probably the music.

And boy, was there a lot of music. Music of all shapes and sizes and genres, solo voices to four part harmonies, a capella to orchestra and rock band backed. There was traditional folk music, classic rock, heavy metal, twangy, clangy, harmonic, dissonant, melodic, percussive, anything you could possibly look for in a soundscape. Here’s the speed tour of some of the music that Touchstone helped make while we were over in Goleniów.DSC04893

The festival kicked off with an insanely epic production of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Besides the staging (which seriously, if you get a chance, check out the video of the whole performance – video won’t do the experience justice, but it’ll give you a sense of how utterly bananas the production values were), I was struck by the strength of the music and the musicians, a mix of students and professionals, international artists and hometown talent. I had the pleasure of playing flute in the orchestra, which had me right next to the band and right behind some of the singers – a great place to enjoy some classic tunes and really killer guitar work. Jp, Jason, and I got to jump in for some vocal solos (Christopher, Jason, and Mary also performed as actors for “In the Flesh” and “Run Like Hell”). I’d been passingly familiar with The Wall before, but somehow, it took a trip halfway around the world before I really met the music. DSC06966

Our debut as the Touchstone Cowpokes was also a favorite musical memory. Ahead of the trip, we’d been informed that we’d be able to share something for “America Night” – each of the countries with a substantial number of representative artists was invited to take the stage for a cultural exchange, most of which manifested through song and dance. We broke out something approximating cowboy costumes (the sequined cowboy hat that Christopher wore was a particular favorite) and serenaded the group with American country classics from Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and John Denver. By the end of the night, we had a mob of audience members line dancing to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “American Pie,” and we genuinely felt like rock stars. DSC08067

One round of international night wasn’t enough, of course! On Italian Night, Jason and I got to jump in with our good friends of Teatro Potlach (you might remember them from when they came to Touchstone in 2015 with The Last 100 Years of Edith Piaf; we visited them with Bhudoo the following summer for their international festival, FLIPT) to play accompaniment on some Italian classics from the early 20th century; and Jp and Christopher helped close out Spanish Night with an unforgettable, rousing chorus of “Bésame Mucho”. Very serious business. DSC08300

The original performance entitled Freedom that Touchstone directed for the festival, created in collaboration with a number of Goleniów community groups, was saturated with music— beautiful music of protest, revolution, peace, love, and rock ’n roll. We shared the stage with the Night Crawlers, a fantastic local band that we got to work with for the weeks leading up to the festival. And we got to hear our beautiful cast belting out the chorus of “Keep On Rocking in the Free World” with the kind of enthusiasm and joy that is impossible to fake. DSC03097

And this is just a highlights reel – I’ve not even mentioned singing out the tunes of Dictators 4 Dummies in its international debut; or our new favorite post-pop rap-rock fusion lady duo Two Times Twice; or the aliens music jam (yes, for real); or headbanging to the Night Crawlers’ penultimate-night-of-the-festival concert; or the beautiful voices of the Corsican throat singers; or the great big “Ciao Bella” singalong by all the Italians at the festival (there were about a zillion of them); or the effortlessly gorgeous vocal harmonies that everyone in the Teatr Brama company seemed to be able to produce at the drop of a hat.

There was so, so much more music. And it was wonderful to be able to add our voices to this big international symphony.

From Lisa – Tales from the Tour – “Amazing and Exhausting”

September 14, 2018

We’ve been home for roughly a week now from Poland and our residency at Teatr Brama, but I’ve still not figured out how to answer the question, “How was it?” It’s difficult to express the intense three weeks we spent together in the small town of Goleniow with hundreds of artists from around the world creating, performing, breaking bread, and toasting to the power of art. The best I’ve managed is: “It was equal parts amazing and exhausting,” which while accurate, could be applied to many things.

I’ll try a little harder and get help from a visual aid! Here’s a short video of Stefan, a new friend from Denmark (who coincidentally has a connection to Sandglass Theatre, a puppet company in Vermont, Touchstone has presented many times). This is his first attempt at testing his rigging to scale the elementary school where a remounting of Pink Floyd’s The Wall would take place as part of the Human Mosaic Festival’s opening ceremony.

Stefan would be playing a member of the SWAT team in one of three songs Touchstone directed, once we were on the ground in Poland. In the show, this moment happened at the start of the song “Run Like Hell” with Mary, Christopher, and Jason are all playing dictators who have just called in the police to control the crowd. If you’re curious as to how it all played out, there was live stream video taken of the full performance, which also features Jp, Emma, and Jason as vocalists and musicians. Video here.

But, I digress; back to the video of Stefan and the task of scaling a three-story elementary school. For me, this moment encapsulates the whole experience. It’s a this-would-never-happen-in-the-US kind of dangerous, a little crazy, totally thrilling, physically and mentally exhausting, and thankfully all ended well with a great sense of pride and accomplishment.

For us, the task abroad was to represent ourselves, Touchstone, and ultimately the US, given the international scope of the Festival. It was something we did as best as we could through the theatre we performed and created with the community, and through daily interactions in the rehearsal room, at the bar, at the dinner table, or passing on the street. I think we did well. We did, after all, get everyone up and line dancing (yes, you read that correctly) as part of America Night (see photos below). While we didn’t help matters by dressing like cowboys, it was endlessly amusing to me to see that this is how they think we all dance!

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Stay tuned for more musings on the residency in Poland from the rest of the “Americans” as we were often referred to. Dziękuję! (pronounced, roughly: gin coo-yeh) Thank you!

From the Intern’s Desk

July 26, 2018

My name is Hannah, and I am a 20- year old community college student studying in Schnecksville. I’m an administrative intern at Touchstone this summer.

DSC09377I’ve lived in the Lehigh Valley my entire life. I got into theatre when I saw the Civic Theatre School production of High School Musical when I was 10 years old, and I was instantly hooked by the idea of pretending to be a different person. I then signed up to take classes at Civic Theatre school that fall, which would change my life. I gained many friendships over the course of the next four years at Civic Theatre School.

Then after I graduated from middle school, I went to Notre Dame High School, where I discovered their theatre company. This is where I would grow in my acting and make friendships that I still treasure. Even though I was cast in the ensemble for many of the shows I had already been in, it was still fun to create a character from scratch like I did for Sweeney Todd and The Music Man. It made me even more interested in what I could do with my characters.

Also around this time, I started to get more into social media and connecting with my favorite broadway actors. Through social media, I have had the opportunity to become close friends with many current Broadway stars including Christy Altomare. Christy has shown me immense kindness over the four years we have been friends. She is Anya in Anastasia on Broadway, and she told one of my other friends who saw the show, that if it wasn’t for me promoting her on social media, she would not have gotten the role of Anya at all. That honestly made me smile, because you never know the impact you can leave on someone’s life. It’s honestly pretty crazy to see someone I know so well getting so much attention nowadays, but it still makes me so happy to know she is making so many others happy.

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My sister Maggie and I after our family saw “Anastasia” on Broadway. My friend Christy who plays Anya took us backstage. It was a very cool experience!

After my sophomore year at Notre Dame, I got more involved in Pennsylvania Youth Theatre, where I got to play the roles of Maurice in Beauty and the Beast and Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory during the summer. This encouraged me to start taking classes at PYT during the school year, which allowed me to not only start performing in their mainstage shows during the year but also to get more lead roles which helped me become more confident in myself. This allowed me to make even more friends at PYT. Many of my friends from PYT are still some of my closest friends to this day. PYT ultimately gave me the confidence to not be as shy with people and be more open.

After my junior year at Notre Dame, I transferred to Emmaus High School, where I got involved in their theatre department. I wasn’t involved onstage in any shows, but for their production of Romeo and Juliet, I helped out with run crew, which helped me gain new friends. This also helped me gain a respect for people who work behind the scenes. I also participated in their choir, where I really made memories that still stick with me. When I graduated, I felt pretty proud of myself for getting through high school.

Even though I am not participating in shows that often, I still love seeing shows. I love Lehigh Valley theatre, because there is so much talent and such a variety of different material. You can not only see Shakespeare in the summer, you can also see musicals that tug at your soul such as Ragtime at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at Muhlenberg which can make you laugh. These shows also bring very big names to the Valley and can bring many people not from around here. I think at the end of the day, the Lehigh Valley is a very diverse theatre area.

I hope you liked getting to know me, and I cannot wait to see what’s in store for me at Touchstone!

From Bill – Remembering Barbara

July 20, 2018
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Bill and Barbara in “Petrushka,” Godfrey Daniels, 1977. Directed & Choreographed by Barbara Pearson

To the Touchstone family,

Allow us a moment, here at Touchstone, to grieve, please.

We lost Barbara Pearson this last week.  As you may know, Barbara was the widow of Professor John Pearson, the inspiration for much of the work that started us off back in the early 70’s and still inspires us here at 321 E. 4th Street (you walk under John’s name whenever you go into our little studio theatre).  After John’s passing in 1976, she was a founder of People’s Theatre Company, the precursor to Touchstone, and at a time when she was still pregnant with her third child (Mary), having just lost her adored husband to a sudden heart attack, she selflessly supported Bridget and myself and the very difficult work that led to the formation of Touchstone Theatre. Those of you who were there to watch know of what I speak.  Her brilliant, funny, creative fire, extraordinary compassion, unrelenting work ethic, and indomitable spirit held us up in those early years, protected us, guided us, challenged us; and today, 42 years later, at her passing, it feels like an impossibly great loss.

There are so many, many memories from all those years until now, full of that dual pain and joy that comes from having loved and lived passionately.

In Barbara’s last days… it was very difficult, certainly for her family as well.  Neighbors circled around to support her and her dear Victor and Mary.  I did not visit but wrote some words we asked Mary to read to her.  A few of those I can share:

My dear and darling Barbara…  know you live inside us … in our hearts and minds.  Your fierce, no nonsense love.  Your passionate burning imagination.  Your courage.

 

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Barbara’s obituary here.

 

From Jp – Goleniów Bound (thank you, TCG!)

July 9, 2018

In June of 2017, in preparation for our soon-to-be-announced community-focused festival, Christopher Shorr and I traveled to Holstebro, Denmark to observe Odin Teatret’s “Holstebro Festuge”, a weeklong festival exploring the intersection of community and art.  For those not in the know – Odin Teatret is considered by many to be a key shared ancestor in the linage of many independent American theatres, including Touchstone’s.

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Holstebro Festuge

While in attendance, Touchstone had the opportunity to meet with members of Caravan Next, a European Union funded delegation of some of Europe’s top community-based theatre practitioners and academics. Amongst the Caravan Next member organizations was the Goleniów, Poland-based company Teatr Brama. It quickly became apparent that Touchstone and Brama shared a passion for community-based work, and many of our aesthetic leanings were in line too, e.g. traveling performances, spectacle-driven work, and the integration of music.

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Parade held by Teatr Brama

In August of 2017, I briefly visited Brama to discuss how a relationship might grow between the two companies. It was agreed then that an excellent first step would be for Touchstone to come to “Bramat” (Brama’s community festival – August 2018) for an exchange of methodologies and an opportunity to work alongside Brama’s artists by building performances with their community that would be featured in “Bramat”.  It is imagined that this first step would lead to a core understanding of each other’s methodologies and (if successful in the first phase of our collaboration) in August of 2019, Teatr Brama would come to Bethlehem, PA and reverse the experience in our community.

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Me at Brama with Artistic Director Daniel Jacewicz and Company Member Jenny Crissey

We live in an increasingly smaller world, and it is the belief of the artists at Touchstone that in order to operate at our most empathetic capacity, we need to look both locally and globally. For the last seven years, Touchstone Ensemble Members have attended at least one international festival a year. We engage with the international theatre community to experience the world from new points of view, to scout talent to present at our home theatre, as well as to present our own work abroad. When we are able to bring international companies to Touchstone for a residency, these intense periods of time overflow with workshops, practice sharing, and inevitably brainstorming about potential future collaborations.

Luckily, we are not the only ones who hold the importance of international artistic sharing dear. Touchstone is lucky to have received a very competitive grant from the Theater Communication Group (TCG) to fulfill its work in Goleniów! The TCG Global Connections grant (funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) is meant “to foster new relationships with international colleagues that will inspire each other’s work and aesthetics by creating opportunities for cultural exchange.” We could not feel more honored to receive this grant! Thank you to TCG, and to all of the Touchstone community for your ongoing support.

Stayed tuned to our e-newsletter and social media outlets to stay up-to-date on next month’s adventure!