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From Bill – Finding (un)Bound

April 4, 2017

High five, everybody! Stuff is goin’ down here at Touchstone! You may or may not be aware that we’re gearing up for a major Festival in October of 2019 (just around the corner), and we’ve been working for months building the foundation of what it will look like.

October 2019

A Festival Exploring The Future of Bethlehem
commemorating twenty years of change since Steelbound: Art of an Industry.

…in which Touchstone Theatre will,
with its Community, National, and International Partners,
forge a vision—through art—for our future.

Steelbound 1In 1998, after an almost 150 year history building this nation, Bethlehem Steel finally shut down steel-making here in Bethlehem. It was a traumatic event, and Touchstone, to help the community work its way through it, created and assembled several works of art and cultural projects into a festival called Steelbound: The Art of an Industry. Now, as 2019 approaches and the 20th anniversary since that extraordinary event, we face a challenge of a different and perhaps more daunting nature. Who are we, now that the Steel is gone? What are the challenges ahead, and what are the values that will hold the community together as we face the task of shaping our future?

After months of work, the Festival is evolving into five major “areas” of investigation so far, framed by Opening and Closing Ceremonies (and these labels aren’t exactly perfect by any account): Work. Gender. Emerging Diversity. Youth. Health, Environment and Community. We are looking at a Festival that spans two weekends. As imagined now, each arena of investigation would have one to several events as part of it, and a Panel Discussion to actively deconstruct the art into more left brain (logic, rational) form, possible conclusions and actions.

Work: We are considering the possibility of looking at work–technological change, effects on how we look at education, gender defining work roles–through the prism of Just Born. Just Born is a second-generation manufacturing family business that has, at the heart of it, a family of course, and a long tradition of community service. The tensions between family “culture” and business demands are splendidly positioned to be a way-in for this arena of investigation.

Gender: The diaries of the single women who lived in the Single Sisters house in Historic Bethlehem are rich material for drama. And the drama around this, The Sifting Time, provides fecund resources and story for the male side as well. We hope to work with the LGBTQ community, women leaders, and men’s groups to advance a dialogue about the changing roles of men and women in our society. And if possible, how this fits into our spiritual heritage.

14711035_10153981422963225_256279391726590060_oEmerging Diversity: This festival is called (un)Bound, and it often strikes me as particularly appropriate for the stories of minority people’s in Bethlehem. The struggle to be unbound for them is profoundly dramatic. Whether it is the present agonies over immigration or the heritage of slavery and racism or the stories of our transgender community members–the knowledge to shape our future in a positive way seems, if anywhere, at the center of what has kept these folks down. This is a particularly difficult piece to find the right voice and form for.

Youth: Youth must be at the center of what we do. We have a possible THEATRE PERFORMANCE emerging out of the High Schools, an ART EVENT out of the Elementary Schools, a lovely possible DANCE CONCERT from the private and public schools in the region. I think we all know that the Youth, as with the Minority Communities, must lead the charge, and though we have several possible pieces by and for and about youth, we’ve still a long way to go to put youth leadership of the Festival into place.

Health, Environment, and Community: Alright, it’s a catch all, but one of the interesting developments in our work of meeting the community has been The Lodge, here on 4th Street. The Lodge is a “transition” facility aimed at getting people with mental difficulties able to work in society. Housing is at the center of that, but work as well, and art and social service. One of the key elements of the Lodge’s holistic approach to helping individuals is the importance given to each person being responsible for their own healing. It’s a great metaphor for the heart of our (un)Bound challenge—how to ensure the health and integrity of the individual while being responsible to the ever more persuasive reality that we’re all “connected”.

The general shape of the festival is unfolding. It might just look like this–with the opening Ceremony where everyone is together and then breaking into streams–youth, gender, diversity, work, health, etc–and then coming together again for a final collective, musical, dancing, joyous ceremony.

This is what’s been going on. If you’d like to get on the list of bi-monthly updates, email — and I’ll put you on.


The emerging festival structure. Kinda looks like a spider, doesn’t it?


A final note:

The Festival is a lovely vision that is coming into focus, and, of course, there are many challenges ahead. First and foremost, I would say, is that there has been a profound change in Washington that threatens much of the funding that would be necessary to make it a reality. We here at Touchstone are not daunted, but we also must acknowledge, be frank with all of us who’ve begun to shape this vision, that it is a challenging one, even in good times. Please contact your National Representatives and Senators to keep the NEA and the NEH budgets from being cut. Do it, please.

From Emma – Backstage Buddies

December 12, 2016

It’s Christmas City Follies time at Touchstone, which means the annual return of old favorites– The Old Guy, Little Red, the Shopping Carts. Every year, we have fun re-inventing what these protagonists of the ongoing Follies epic will undertake, and every year, returning audiences get to follow the story of characters that many of them have come to view as old friends and Christmas traditions.

But backstage, we also spend a lot of time inhabiting the peripheral characters– non-speaking megafauna, dancing toys, characters with brief cameos, and noble souls who have a brief shtick to cover a transition. With some of these characters, we’ll be sitting in their costumes for half of intermission, waiting to get our places call, and so, being serious, professional actor-creator types, we start acting out whole new sketches backstage, fleshing out the peripheral characters until they have ridiculous plot arcs of their own.

I’d like to introduce you to a few of this year’s:

NAME: Johanna
SPECIES: Overgrown cat/jaguar/panther hybrid
PLAYED BY: Mary Wright
SECRET WISH: To be a Vegas showgirl

NAME: Phil
SPECIES: Brown bear/grizzly bear hybrid
PLAYED BY: Bill George
FAVORITE DESSERT: Fire-toasted brownies with walnuts and white powdered sugar – yum!

NAME: Bernerd
SPECIES: Bunny rabbit
PLAYED BY: Ashley Tait Weller
SECRET WISH: To be an overgrown cat/jaguar/panther hybrid
FAVORITE FOOD: Cupcakes (so much better than carrots)

NAME: Tiberious
SPECIES: Homo sapien, primus pilus
PLAYED BY: Dan Maher
FAVORITE COOKIE: Almond kiffles

NAME: ShamWanda (the “m” is silent)
SPECIES: Polar bear
PLAYED BY: Emma Ackerman
DEEPEST FEAR: Zombiepocalypse

NAME: Oedipus
SPECIES: Tyrannosaurus Rex
PLAYED BY: Christopher Michael Morris
FAVORITE TV SHOW: Netflix’s Chef’s Table

NAME: Petruchio
SPECIES: Penguin
PLAYED BY: Sabrina DeWeerdt
REPUTATION: Voted “Most Likely to Show Up Overdressed” in high school

NAME: Rudolph
SPECIES: Reindeer
PLAYED BY: Joseph Ferraro
REPUTATION: Did marching band in high school

NAME: Sugar Cookie
SPECIES: Christmas Elf
PLAYED BY: Sarah Vogelgesang
DIETARY RESTRICTIONS: Allergic to sugar cookies

NAME: Little Sammy Cottrell
SPECIES: Homo sapien, ukulelecus minor
PLAYED BY: Alexander Vogelgesang
OCCUPATION: Ukulele prodigy
DEEPEST SECRET: Doesn’t actually play ukulele

NAME: Panda
PLAYED BY: Bridget Broskey

We’re fond of our little backstage menagerie; the particulars of their epic stories may never make it onstage, but we have a lot of fun with them while we’re waiting in the wings.

So next time you’re at Follies, enjoying coffee at intermission, just imagine us backstage, enacting zombie Petruchio’s slow chase of ShamWanda and Oedipus while Johanna takes a tap solo in the background…

From Lisa – A Quote for Every Occasion

November 2, 2016

At Touchstone, we love quotes! When I first started here, I had a daily calendar with a quote on it, a little something inspirational or clever to get you thinking or laughing first thing in the morning. I’d save the best ones and read one at each company meeting. At some point I stopped doing that; can’t remember now why or when, but the quoting lives on in a few ways…

In my office, I saved my favorite daily calendar quotes and have them up on a corkboard, though now most are covered with other papers at this point. BUT I know they are there if I ever need a little inspiration! My favorite quote is by Rabbi Tarfon. I can’t remember how I discovered it, but as soon as I did I wrote it down in a small notebook and left it on my desk right next to my computer. It’s been there so long it faded and I actually just rewrote over it so I wouldn’t lose it.


Another way we honor “the quote” is at meetings. Emma, who takes minutes for both Company and Ensemble meeting, has a knack for capturing the perfect quote. The added benefit to the quote capturing is it’s an incentive to actually read through the minutes because she cleverly puts the quote at the end. Here are a couple fun ones that show the bookends of our meetings:

We start meetings with announcements, and they can range from the personal, like the one below, to the practical, like it’s a recycling week.
BILL: And I’ll be running a marathon Sunday morning, assuming my legs hold together.
LISA: Bring gaff tape!
(For the non-theatre folk, gaff is a magical tape that fixes all problems.)

And we end with last calls for business, which can dissolve into nonsense…
EMMA: Any final words?
JP: Hot wings are overpriced!

We also capture quotes at rehearsals; a tradition that Emma began and is passed on to all Touchstone stage managers. After each rehearsal, notes get distributed to the director, actors, playwrights, designers, etc. and at the end of the rehearsal notes, just like the meeting notes, are the quotes. A fun way to capture the playfulness in the room, here’s one of my favorites from last season:

Jp talking through a musical number in “Follies”…
JP: As the piano starts to tinkle…
MARY: No tinkling onstage!

Then, at the end of the run, a list of all the quotes from the production – rehearsals through performances – gets circulated. The quote list becomes a kind of blooper reel/time capsule of the show.

Touchstone’s environment is fairly conducive to “quote culture”, but I challenge folks at their jobs or homes to gather quotes and see what comes of it. Don’t quote me on this (collective reader eye roll), but it might be the perfect way to remember something inspirational said off the cuff or a funny moment that captures your work community or home life.

From Jp – The Punch is Back

October 5, 2016

Last February, I wrote about a new band that was forming to play at The Lesson Center’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Society benefit, which featured some of Touchstone’s closest friends and family. Now, seven months later, Jakopa’s Punch once again enters the rehearsal studio, this time to build a first of its kind musical puppet processional to grace the South Side Greenway in July of 2017.  If you missed us on the band’s first outing, we covered three songs by the legendary David Bowie (seen here and here).

This time around, our mission is to write a brand new hour-long composition that will be the background score for said processional, but before getting to that, we’ve decided that it’d be best if we held a little concert for y’all. Nothing builds a band better than getting a few cover songs under your belt, so on February 18, one night only at Bethlehem’s Ice House, we will unveil some of our new material and treat you to some favorite classics of the band.

Amongst the cover tunes we’re currently throwing together for the event…

Let’s Go Crazy
Windmills of your Mind
Tears of a Clown
Town without Pity
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
Sugar Shack
The Throne Room (Star Wars)
One Night in Bangkok

and the Overture from Cats the musical

We’ve unfortunately lost our viola player Anna Russell, who is too busy with other awesomeness to commit to the rehearsal schedule, but in turn we picked up Silagh White on Bassoon (!) and Jeff Roberts on all things stringed (!) who will add to the already eclectic lineup of Jakopa’s Punch:


Emma Chong – flute, uke, backing vocals
Erick Black – percussion, backing vocals
Dan Leathersich – guitar, backing vocals
Jason Hedrington – accordion, backing vocals
Steven Barnett – horns, guitars, backing vocals
Christopher Shorr – theremin, backing vocals
Jp Jordan – lead vocals, trumpet


Throughout this process, I hope to include all of you as well. As musical themes are generated, or story fragments and ideas start to grow,  I’ll be finding a means (probably Facebook) for you all to give feedback on what you’re hearing and offer your own suggestion of where the story or the music might go. 

We’re all looking forward to making some beautiful music with you! 13925786_1049873295081349_6661160438379242434_o

From Bill – The Edge

September 20, 2016

As a theatre artist, I’ve got “issues” with other people. Or maybe it’s just “as a person”—who doesn’t? One of the reasons I went into the arts was because I couldn’t stand the world as it was, didn’t trust people or institutions. It was the 60’s, early 70’s—for those of you who were there, you remember: we were going to change the world, right? Love! Freedom! Peace! Justice! …and also, unfortunately, Drugs! and a lot of irresponsible and self-absorbed behavior.

On my little blue stage in the garage behind 908 E. 5th Street, I tried to work it all out. The basic problem for me was clear: I didn’t fit in. For the most part, I didn’t like what was going on all around me or what I was expected to do in order to get along. How could I take the truth of that, who I was and the way I saw the world, and still be “useful”? Build some kind of a life. I was escaping as well, of course, throwing myself into my work in a sort of addictive trance of creation in order to avoid “reality”. I’ve still a lot of issues dealing with people in large groups, traversing the edge between me and others, but I’ve learned a few things over the years—that working to cross that edge is crucial to growth and success; that creativity isn’t just for artists; that people are, for the most part, doing the best they can to get by—they’re scared too, they’re lonely too; that we’re all better off if we can push back those forces that make us want to shut down and hide, and instead make the effort to connect, work together. I think that’s something we all know, but it’s easier to know than to do.

Let me not just pontificate; I’ll tell you a story. When we moved to Little Pond in ’96, the arts retreat my wife, Bridget, and I founded now, 20 years ago, we went around to all the neighbors with flowers to say hello, sit down and talk. Tried to ease their fears about what craziness they might imagine we were up to. Our nearest neighbor up in the corner of the property, Mr. and Mrs. Brooks (we’ll say), were very nice. Over the years that followed, we didn’t have much reason to visit again.

A couple years back, I’d heard that Mr. Brooks had died, his wife moved to a retirement home, and their son, an “unstable Vietnam Vet” I was told, had taken over the property. Not long after, I got a phone call in the middle of the night from someone who didn’t identify himself– “Do you have a rifle?” he asked me in a muffled voice. And after I replied vaguely, he hung up. Later, there was an altercation with a guest, Susan, on our property as she ran the pathways of its perimeter; she’d gotten into a yelling match with the son. There was a volleyball game where the ball went across into the property and he yelled at them to get off his property.  There were stories, when having a campfire at the top of the hill, of a strange figure sneaking up on the group, hiding in the shadows. Music began to come from up in that corner of the Little Pond property, keeping our guests awake at night—strange garbled radio music, golden oldies.  Then heavy metal– so loud I had to close the windows in our bedroom, over a half mile away, so Bridget and I didn’t have to listen to it all night. “Reality” was getting harder to ignore.

I was afraid to do nothing–things might get worse, but it wasn’t right to let my neighbor offend me unanswered. Still, I knew the folks who used Little Pond made noise quite often.  Perhaps he was just saying, “If you make loud noise till 10 p.m. and be a bother, so can I!” I’d have a hard time arguing with that. Maybe, like a spoiled child, all he wanted was attention, and I don’t like giving a spoiled child attention; it only reinforces the bad behavior.  I didn’t want to call the police unless it was really necessary.

Finally, I felt overwhelmed–just a general feeling of incompetence at dealing with the problem. “Screw it!” I thought –and started heading up to the edge of the property, the house on the hill where he lives, determined to do “something”, but I didn’t know what.  Well, there’s a tent there, in the woods between his property and mine, and I’d heard he actually spends all his time in the tent.

Up the hill I walked. What was I going to do?  He might shoot me. I’d be on his property; it would be his right if he felt threatened.  I don’t want to make a mess of this. “Well, O.K. then, he’ll shoot me,” I thought, “but this has got to be done. I’m not calling the police.”

“Hello!” I called on arriving at the edge of the Little Pond property. I was barefoot, in jeans and a t-shirt. “Hello?” No answer. No answer from the tent in the woods. I gingerly picked my way across the wood and small trees that had been pushed up and stacked to make a clear, dividing edge between his property and ours. I wasn’t in my own territory anymore. Slowly I walked up to the house, thinking to myself how much I didn’t want to be there. Beat up, scrawny, stray cats peeped out from under bushes and around corners. I made it to the porch and knocked. Rang the doorbell. I think it actually worked. I heard his voice. He mumbled something loudly. I said, “O.K.!” just to let him know, at least, that I’d heard and then backed away from the door. If he had a gun I wanted to be able to run.  There seemed to be a garden, and everything was growing unhindered for the most part by the human hand. I heard him banging around in the garage. The garage door clanged as if it were going to open. I thought he was getting his gun; why else would he go in there?  And then I heard his voice around the side of the property. He wasn’t coming out the front door…

I peeked around the corner of the building, and there he was.  About my age, long hair, cigarette in one hand, limping–it was clear his leg was really messed up.

S:  Wha’da’ya want?
B:  Hi, I’m Bill George, I live just over the way…
S:  Wha’da’ya want?
B:  …and what’s your name?
S:  Maybe I don’t have one.
B:  O.K., well, I’m your neighbor and I just wanted to make sure everything was O.K. between us. Can we talk?
S:  (pause)  Ah… yeah… let me get a chair.

He pulls a plastic chair up and another one for me.  And slowly, we talk.

I’m not going to take you any further into this story but to say this. It turns out he did have a name… which I won’t share here to help preserve his privacy. And it turns out it’s us at Little Pond who scare him, when we come running by his property. He’s alone up there. And he’s jealous, he says, when lots of folks are having a good time… he wishes he had friends, could be with us. I learn his knee is swollen, constantly painful, but he won’t go to the hospital because he doesn’t trust them doctors—and who would take care of the cats?  He says he’s lonely.

So I ask him to come to dinner.  And he comes, and we talk some more about movies and the internet. And as he leaves he says: “No one ever invited me to nothing before. I had to come. Wouldn’t have been polite to say no. I’ll keep that music down. Thanks for askin’ me.” And I say: “No, thank you. I just don’t know why it took me so long to ask.”


little pond.jpg

It used to be I had issues about “other people”; I still do, but I’ve learned a few things along the way about that wall between me and others, the “edge”; we need help– all of us, not just we sensitive artsy types– to cross it, to get outside of ourselves, our fears, our projections. And when we do get across it, successfully, we grow; we become more; our lives take on greater meaning and beauty, and, dare I say it, our art does too. How could it not?

From Emma – Making Room for the Art

September 20, 2016

[Re-posted from August, due to internet monkeys]

We’re coming down from a whirlwind and wonderful summer that started with our adventures in Europe and finished with a great month of summer education programming, with a lot of planning for the future in between. Now, it’s officially the second half of August, and we’re most of the way through our transitioning-into-the-season season, and maybe it’s the lack of gelato from earlier this summer, but it feels like a strange transition this year.


The view from Budapest, Hungary. Mmm, gelato…

The entire trip was great, and Hungary was a great experience (good friends, good food, entirely too much beautiful architecture), but our time in Italy in particular was an incredible gift. During the bulk of the year, there’s so much split attention between this administrative task and that rehearsal, this education work and that development work, and it’s hard to be truly present; but when we were hanging out with our good friends from Teatro Potlach for twelve days… well, it wasn’t any less divided, and it was still hard to be fully present, but the focus was entirely on our work as artists. We would sweat it out in workshops all day, listen (via interpreter, who was a godsend) to presentations by our peers, watch shows (ranging from comedy to melodrama) each night, and further personal and professional dialogue amongst the members of our international theatre artist family (including a 3am jam session that I won’t soon forget). To be able to focus solely on that work – the work of the artist, in all of its many forms – was a luxury and a dream.


The view from Fara Sabina, Italy. There was also gelato.

We have awesome plans for the coming year (and beyond – stay tuned later this season for the unveiling of our next community-based work, which will premiere in 2019) that we’re all eagerly anticipating. Jp’s vision for the company is strong, lucid, and exciting, and we’ll be sinking our teeth into some rich artistic material in a very satisfying way. But we’ve definitely woken up from the dream and are back in the land of graphic design, website maintenance, corporate development, curriculum development, combing through schedules, long strings of emails, and going home each day feeling slightly fuzzy-brained with all of the details.


The view from Bethlehem, PA, USA – messy desk and no gelato in sight.

So how do you balance it? How do you make sure that there’s still room for the art? How do you support the “real work” you’re doing while not losing sight of that “real work”? (Musical theatre nerd moment – Sondheim does a great job playing with some of this in song form with “Putting It Together” from Sunday in the Park with George) There’s no good answer, of course, except to keep that question present in our minds and hope that remembering to ask the question is enough to keep life in balance.

At any rate, we’re in variable states of vacation for the next week or two, after which we’ll be heading full tilt back into the melée of busy season. There will be periods where we’re swamped with logistics and meetings, and glorious moments where we get to “just do art”. Both are crucial to making the theatre run. Check out the new season details listed on the website (and keep an eye out for brochures next week) – we’re honored and grateful for the opportunity to do this work, bumps and all, and the opportunity to share it with you.

From Lisa – The Weird Things I Do for My Job

June 7, 2016

IMAG0707The Background: We leave for the Bhudoo tour in one week. As we prepare to pack everything– personal and production-related– and divide it up between the folks traveling, it’s clear we need a hard-shelled suitcase for the three ukuleles. No one in the company has one, so it needs to be purchased.

The Weird Thing: I went to Marshall’s with an empty uke box, both airline luggage dimensions, and a tape measure. In the process I had almost a dozen suitcases down testing if they fit three ukes and then measuring them (why are the measurements not clearly on the luggage label?!). Definitely received some looks, but ultimately this is not that weird of a thing to do… or maybe I’ve just done worse? 1501237_750041211691215_669276988_o

In the name of art, I’ve gone into Home Depot and, in an aisle, put pieces of pvc together to make sure I could create a large enough circle with them that was the size of a human and could roll easily (cannot remember what show I did that for…); I’ve been asked, “What are you doing?” in a fairly accusatory tone, when I was in a higher end clothing store taking pictures of outfits (I like to walk around stores and get ideas first, whether it’s a full costume look or just checking out materials in arts & crafts stores before I attempt to create something, like the Bhudoo flower power holster); I’ve used the phrase: “This may be a weird question, but I work for a theatre and wondered if…” many times, most recently when I asked the pharmacist at CVS if I could have an empty pill bottle for a Bhudoo prop; I’ve bought multiple sizes and colors of a similar article of clothing because I wasn’t sure which would work best and then returned all but one, and I’ve also bought the same exact article of clothing in multiple sizes to fit each cast member (both of these were, on numerous occasions, for Follies).

Not to mention my “weird” online presence; Etsy still thinks I love large costume fish heads because I bought one almost two years ago for Follies and weekly sends me links to new fish heads to buy and related fishy items like scale leggings or fish jewelry. Amazon is very confused by my and Jp’s profile, which, after the Young Playwrights’ Festival and Bhudoo, ranges from costume sunflower heads to Hawaiian leis to a kids leprechaun costume to uke stands – the “featured recommendations” and “recently viewed items” are pretty hilarious to view.Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 3.26.09 PM

We’ll be off in two foreign countries soon with the Bhudoo tour, so at least if I need to do any of these (or other) weird things overseas, chances are very slim I’ll ever run into the same people again!