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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

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


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.