So, a question. You see the photo above – Thermos, food, computer, boxes of various levels to stand on or put stuff on, paper and chairs, etc. If you were writing a play, what do you think is the most useful thing in the room, the most important?
Touchstone Associate and Moravian College professor Christopher Shorr and I are charged with writing the new play for the Journey from the East project, part II. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s work! It’s a battle against the empty page, and in the photo you can see how we’ve gathered our “weapons”. Let’s take a look, and you tell me what you think:
1) A wall you can hang stuff on to make notes. See all the scribbles? Those are basic values we want to show up in the play, dualities between East and West, characters and transformations they might go through, and then simple action, plot, scenario. The play is being informed by an interesting “coincidence” – the original Journey to the West was published about 1599, the same year that scholars think Shakespeare’s Hamlet was produced. Some scholars believe that a few years after these performances, elements of Hamlet found their way into the episodic tale of the Monkey King, in a few chapters that were inserted into the Journey to the West novel. From these chapters, we are fashioning a new theatrical extravaganza that brings East and West together in the same way, some believe, 400 years ago, Hamlet and The Monkey King crossed paths.
2) A computer. It’s remarkable how we ever got by without internet search only a decade or so ago. And these days, all the writing is in the cloud, so designers, director, and interested parties can see it come to life and comment in real time. Collaboration is becoming ever more possible and desirable.
3) Food. I’m a eat-while-I-work kinda guy. I don’t really stop for meals. And never underestimate the power of a large bag of fresh cherries to keep the ideas rolling on.
4) Chairs to rest our butts. Writing sessions usually go four hours, and we have to pace ourselves.
5) A large room, so we can get up and wander around, act things out. It’s so wonderful watching Christopher pretend to be the Monkey King, or Pigsy, or The President (Roy). A lot of writing is not just putting down lines, dialogue – it’s imagining the physicality of a piece and how that informs the writing. Sequences might be in a dream, and then we’d be writing non-verbal action. Do we imagine it with mask or puppets? What’s the rhythm of this or that moment? All this is acted out in space. And all this is proposed to our director and team of designers, composers, for them to then adjust as they see fit. Still, we have to see/feel how it’d work.
6) A large stick. Always useful to lean on, wave around when your idea isn’t really very strong (but it feels stronger if you’re pointing a big stick) or when your partner is insisting on having his own way. And…
7) A great partner, the terrific collaborator, Christopher Shorr. Generally speaking I don’t find co-writing to be much fun, not if the stakes are high – too many communication issues, struggles over the feel of a scene or a vision for where the play is going. I need to be left alone to allow ideas to make it to their feet before sharing with someone else; but the work with Christopher (so far, I must quickly add) has been such a delight. Christopher is a terrific and patient listener. He’s also damn smart, and that makes for a great partner. A lot of the work in this play is just the exhausting effort of holding all the relevant pieces together in your head while you figure out what to do next – which ain’t easy. Chinese characters that have alternate dream versions of themselves and alternate Western versions of themselves. Two plot lines that are running simultaneously. Stylistic sophistications that require understanding Western naturalism vs. Asian folk styles and how those might tastefully come together or play off of each other.
When working on my own, I often hit “quiet spots” where I don’t know what to do next, but virtually never when working with Christopher. I might run through a riff of actions, ideas, and as soon as I pause for a breath, he takes the ball and runs with it down the field. Often we’re looking at three or more different possible solutions to a particular problem. And then, we have to decide which route we’ll take. In that, Christopher’s great about pointing out what he feels are weak spots in ideas I’ve proposed without making me feel like an idiot, and he’s great at taking my clumsy, insensitive criticism without being offended. That’s a great partner. But what touches me the most is when he’s gone down a route towards a lovely idea he’s enamored of, and I have little more than an intimation of wanting to do something else; he pulls back and listens, even gets enthusiastic, until my (and I hesitate to use the word “my”) idea is fully expressed and we can properly compare ideas. That’s a great partner.
So, what do you think?
Right. Absolutely. The most important thing in the room: a great partner. Mr. Christopher Shorr.
Technology today is a crazy, crazy thing (and I’m saying this as a theatre techie who has only just joined the world of smartphones).
Video chat in particular is noteworthy for its futuristic-feeling appeal – between Skype and Google Hangouts and Facetime, it’s a vaguely Star Trekkish existence we have. The technology is still evolving and still has a ways to go before the kinks are worked out, but the potential that exists is remarkable. I can group chat with college friends scattered over the US, and it’s like no time has passed. I can catch up with my sister in Israel and see that, despite the scary news reports, she’s okay. The Touchstone Ensemble even took advantage of Google Hangouts during the white-out snow storms of this past winter and held snow day meetings from home (there may have been virtual funny hats involved).
And, in another dizzying technological turn of events, next season will see Jp and myself working towards a Masters Degree in Performance (Theatre Collectives) from the University of Chichester, via distance learning.
We had our first Skype meet-up with an instructor a couple weeks ago. It was peppered with your garden variety sprinkling of video freezes and audio-video-not-synching-up and whatnot. And yet, even the ability to have that conversation was remarkable. The fact that Jp and I get to work on this course of study as part of our job, the fact that we can do this during the busy season without having to take a year off from Touchstone, live in England for a year— it’s mind-boggling to me. It feels like we’re just inches away from Skynet take-over or Cylons rebelling or Holodeck simulations running amok (yes, I’m letting my geek flag fly).
I was a compulsive scribbler and note-taker in college, and I still am one. I’m happy to use technology, am the frequent typist/note taker at meetings, but my impulse is (usually) still to reach for pencil and paper. That part of my mind is leery of approaching these studies via video chat. How will this compare to the immediacy of in-person conversation? How replaceable is the participant classroom or lecture hall or laboratory experience?
I’m not sure what this coming season’s studies are going to hold for us – besides a lot of reading and a lot of video chats – but I know that just being able to learn in this way, just having this opportunity, is an incredible privilege, one that we’re both thrilled to have.
Wish us luck! We’re off to hit the books and pray to the Skype gods for a stable connection.
I recently had the honor of being an invited guest of Teatro Potlach at their Intercultural Festival Laboratory of Theatre Practices in Fara Sabina, Italy. Each day a guest was given an hour time slot in which they were to tell the gathered international community about the work they do, myself included. It was amazing to see how our brothers and sisters around the globe use theatre as a vehicle for social betterment. Added to this sense of intercultural exchange was a rigorous physical training regimen from 9am till 5pm and a nightly theatrical offering that all attended. This is the kind of perspective-changing professional development that any artist would hope for. But eventually, all good things come to an end and we are left with the question: How does one hold on to such a transformative experience as the one Potlach offered to us?
It’s so easy to fall back into a routine, when the place you came from is exactly the same upon returning home. It’s so easy to let the magic just experienced slip away when the day-to-day administration duties of a company become the main focus. Days filled with hands-on learning and in-depth cultural exchange, replaced by budgetary discussions and staffing issues.
It’s been two weeks since returning home, and the energy and refocusing that spending time with the Potlach family offered me hasn’t faded. Shortly after arriving in Fara Sabina, I realized I needed to consider the time I was spending as my own personal Artistic Director’s retreat, one where I was largely removed from my home influences and able to break free of the thinking that may or may not have been holding a prescribed course of action that has been guiding Touchstone. Two years ago, I began leading the Touchstone Ensemble on an investigation of rediscovering its roots in the world of the actor-creator. Since then, we have come a long way, developing an in-house vocabulary amongst the ensemble that I believe has set us up for our next major hurdle, which is more rigorous actor training.
Getting to spend time in the morning sessions of Potlach training could not have come at a more apropos time. We’ve been watching the videos I took during the training and are putting together a regimen loosely based on those videos, our recent Grotowski investigation, and the already-spoken language of our actors. While it’s hard to find the time to move into this work, it’s clear that it’s a necessity. I’ve managed to carve a couple mornings out of the week for an hour here or an hour there to begin pushing the actors past what has now become comfortable. The time spent witnessing the Potlach actors’ stamina, precision, and creativity has become my own personal motivation for making this happen. Whether in their productions of 20,000 Leagues or Fellini, every choice was so beautifully crafted and every movement precisely executed. Teatro Potlach are truly masters of their craft.
So off we go… Starting in September, I’ll gather with Bill and Emma, our yearly apprentices, Ensemble Associate Mary Wright, and Ensemble Affiliate Josh Neth and for a few short hours each week, we will push ourselves past the point of exhaustion to find in ourselves what Grotowski calls the “holy actor”. How do you hold on to the transformation? You institutionalize it, you own it, you fight for it like a Spartan; you sit at the banquet, and you feast on it, even if that means the feeding frenzy has to be done in the early morning hours or between a marketing meeting and an educational program.
Eat hearty Touchstone – eat hearty!
The apprenticeship has come to an end.
For me this year has mostly been liberating to being a “real” true theatre artist and performer. I’ve spent the last several years trying to figure out how I want to live and work in the theatre. While I was in Houston, I discovered what it was like to be a teaching artist at Main Street Theatre; I learned what it was like to work wardrobe at a big theatre; 8 shows a week at the Alley Theatre; I created a tiny theatre company and production with 2 fellow performers; and I moved to Connecticut and continued those jobs in a new setting. I really wanted to perform more than anything else. I tried to get into grad school, and I got into Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre’s Professional Training Program. Since studying physical theatre in Europe, I knew it was something I liked, but being in California at Dell’arte is where I really started to feel like I found my niche. When I found Touchstone, I was excited to test out my theory. “Let’s try doing original theatre in ‘real’ world setting.” “Is devising theatre is where I belong?”
And I would have to answer yes. In the past year, I’ve come to realize that I actually am a good collaborator and performer; it’s not just something I love, but it’s something I can do. I’m still figuring out how to communicate my art and what I want to say, but that’s also part of the journey of the artist. I’ve learned how to listen and believe in myself and not worry too much about what others think.
My two fellow apprenti, Mallory and Jordan, may not know it, but they’ve really helped me grow, especially in being a more confident human being. Mallory and Jordan are similar to me when I was their ages. We may all be different types of creators, but we have very similar, laid-back personalities, and by being with them, I somehow can see how much I have grown from 19 to 23 and now 27; what a rare and unique gift. I often just want to just tell them, it’s all going to be alright, you’re great, believe in yourself, keep working hard, don’t give up, don’t get sucked into negativity. But they’ve had their own journeys and discoveries to go through. We’re all at different stages of “what the hell do I want to do with my life,” figuring out how life works, seeing what we want with life, and realizing that life is never going to be easy.
Bill made a comment in one of our classes that I struck a cord with me, something I’ve known deep down but didn’t know how to communicate; he said it so simply and truthfully. “Things are always going to get in the way of your art.” So you have to learn how to fight that; you have to learn how to not let yourself get defeated by mundane and not-so-mundane obstacles in life. “I’m tired, I’m lonely, I’m overwhelmed, I’m confused, I’m poor;” if you want to be an artist you have to learn how to break through those obstacles and not let them get in your way.
Touchstone is a small but mighty theatre with many obstacles, including a small ensemble that doubles as artists and administrators with each 1 person doing at least 2 people’s jobs. They work tirelessly to keep the organization running as smoothly as it does, and I can tell that this gets in the way of their art sometimes, but boy, do they know how to break through those obstacles to produce their art. And they do it with so much truth and passion.
Touchstone has shown me what it means to break through the obstacles of life to be a creative theatre artist. This will be a partnership I’ll never forget.
It’s that time of year again – graduation! For Touchstone, sometime between end of May and the end of July is when our annual apprentice class “graduates”. Unlike typical graduations, it doesn’t involve walking down an aisle or cap and gowns, though it does, of course, involve a stage.
The 2013-14 Apprentices began their journey with us last year on September 3rd with an Orientation Day, followed by the start of classes and helping out with Vegfest the rest of that week. The above picture was taken in their new office space – “The Apprenti Corner”. Those three smiling, eager-to-begin faces are Jordan, Cathy, and Mallory. It’s hard to believe that was ten months ago!
Over the course of the year, we get to know them and they us through the classes the Ensemble teaches the apprentices (pic above is from Bill’s class), in the rehearsal room creating theatre, in the classroom teaching arts-in-educations programs, and everywhere in between. The energy the apprentices as a group bring into the company is real and affects our working environment more than they probably realize. A hardworking, calm, funny, thoughtful, creative group like this one is a HUGE part of the success of this year.
The picture above is them rehearsing for their Fresh Voices ensemble piece, which premiered last weekend. If you were lucky enough to see it, you probably felt how well these three worked together, onstage and off. Jordan, the youngest and only male, incredibly open to learning everything he possible can, and one of the most pleasant (and often accidently hilarious) people you’ll ever work with during stress-free and stressful times (that smile is no joke); Mallory, the singer, the dancer, the knower-of-all things-nerdy, who brought with her an intelligence and powerful theatrical range; and finally, Cathy, the clown, an independent creative thinker, who’s no slouch when it comes to challenging herself and audiences.
This week marks the last one of the 2013-14 Apprenticeship. We are fortunate to have spent the last ten months with them and can’t wait to see what they create, teach, make, do, and contribute to the world of theatre next – Happy Graduation!
My wife, Bridget, and I hang out on a small farm just West of Nazareth that we call Little Pond. First day we arrived there, our children Sam and Anisa in tow, we walked past the little spring and the name was born. It’s a lovely spot, and on its thin, narrow edge, we planted two Dawn Redwoods that now tower some thirty, forty feet in the sky above. Look into the waters, and it’s a muck, kinda primordial, where the frogs and toads do their mysterious transformations, singing and croaking in secret code, and laying infinite numbers of eggs—a living assault on the forces of annihilation. Dragonflies and a few tiny snakes. We don’t plant things, for the most part at Little Pond, and we don’t groom it much, just a few narrow paths to take us ‘round the 32 acres. We’re letting it grow back from the farmland it once was—hilly pasture sprinkled with wild cherry, mulberry and pear trees, and a few old apple trees from what was once an orchard. It’ll take a lifetime to see the wildness return fully.
Thoreau once wrote an essay called Wild Apples:
“Every wild-apple shrub excites our expectation thus, somewhat as every wild child. It is, perhaps, a prince in disguise. What a lesson to man! So are human beings, referred to the highest standard, the celestial fruit which they suggest and aspire to bear, browsed on by fate; and only the most persistent and strongest genius defends itself and prevails, sends a tender scion upward at last, and drops its perfect fruit on the ungrateful earth. Poets and philosophers and statesmen thus spring up in the country pastures, and outlast the hosts of unoriginal men.
Such is always the pursuit of knowledge. The celestial fruits, the golden apples of the Hesperides, are ever guarded by a hundred-headed dragon which never sleeps, so that it is an herculean labor to pluck them.”
I noticed this morning, a Wild Iris, or as Bridget calls it a “Yellow Flag,” growing at the center of the pond. Alone it stood in the midst of all the green, a mystery. How’d it get there? Where did it come from? It stood chaste and elegant yet with a refined and aristocratic beauty that was delicate, voluptuous and (to my eyes) profoundly feminine. I yelled out loud when I saw her and then ducked my head a bit afraid that perhaps I’d been too rude, that I might have disturbed her reverie. What was she doing in the middle of our little pond? And how could anything be more profoundly magical?
To me, that tired and world-weary little Iris is a message of hope and truth; it’s what I try to make my work/my life all about. Unbidden, it peeps forth to shed its color and beauty in the world, and soon it will be gone. Because that’s what it does, that’s who it is.
I love the arts organizations on the South Side – like Godfrey Daniels, Pennsylvania Youth Theatre, The Bach Choir, The South Side Film Festival, Mock Turtle Marionette and others, that have miraculously grown up in our community like that Yellow Flag. Unbidden. Wild, really. I can never say enough how lucky we are that these arts organizations are still alive and productive. In these days of Factory Farming, Mono-Culture, Manufactured Food, Pesticides, Fracking, Casino Profiteering, Noisy Marketing, and Digital Invasions that allow those with the most money to manipulate our every choice, the call to preserve the small original voice, the independent mind, the diversity that makes a democracy truly powerful—is more important than it has ever been.
Touchstone is that Wild Iris. As Thoreau says: “It is, perhaps, a prince in disguise.” The “celestial fruit we aspire to bear”, the culture we are attempting to build, is hard to fully appreciate, as it is hard to fully appreciate any individual at a single moment in time, let alone the artists we’ve got here in Bethlehem and here at 321 E. 4th. Street.
Now, in June, winding up our 2013-14 Season which was so engrossing and exciting, I tip my hat to them—particularly to Lisa, Jp, and Emma—my dear co-creators; to Kyle, Mary, and Christopher; to Mallory, Jordan, and Catherine; to all who’ve helped carry on Touchstone’s mission of advancing this effort, “browsed on by fate”. “Only the most persistent and strongest genius defends itself and prevails…”
The tests are never over. It’ll take a lifetime. Stay with us; next year will be even more beautiful.
As we continue through our post-Young Playwrights’ Festival (YPF) mode, it’s nearing the end of the school year, which means another class of high school seniors graduating. And while we treasure all of our actors who participate in the Festival, we’re particularly grateful for those from the Charter Arts High School. This year’s graduating class is rife with friends of Touchstone, and it’s hard to believe we’ll be doing next year’s Festival without them in the cast!
So, let’s give a shout-out to some of our senior superstars who’ve been a particular blessing to Touchstone productions these last few years:
- As seen in – Luna the Star (YPF 2014) – The Princess (YPF 2013) – What Happens in the Club Stays in the Club (YPF 2012) – A Resting Place (2012) – The Adventurous Girl (YPF 2011)
Beautiful and brilliant. Four years in YPF, and four years in plays directed by Mr. Bill George. You could say favoritism, but they just make such wonderful plays together that it’s hard to complain.
- As seen in – The Street Fighter Story (YPF 2014) – The Science Experiment that Went Wrong (YPF 2012) – A Resting Place (2012) – Friends 4 Life (YPF 2011)
Equally effective in a leading role, a support character, or a dedicated ensemble member who is still acting her heart out – Felicity does gymnastics, speaks Japanese, and just plain rocks.
- As seen in – Ghost Grandma (YPF 2014) – The Princess (YPF 2013) – The Sad Story of Mrs. Donut Person (YPF 2012) – Friends 4 Life (YPF 2011)
Gifted comedienne and darling as a donut person. Kynnedi is a delight for being able to embody big, bold, ridiculous characters, while being completely sweet and genuine as a human being.
- As seen in – The Battle (YPF 2014) – Time Travel (YPF 2013) – The Sad Story of Mrs. Donut Person (YPF 2012) – A Resting Place (2012)
Another actress unafraid to hold down the fort as a support character when she’s not in the spotlight – great presence onstage even when she doesn’t have any lines and always willing to help out.
- As seen in – The Battle (YPF 2014) – Volcano Beauty (YPF 2013) – Inseparable (YPF 2012) – A Resting Place (2012) – The Crazy Secretary and the Love of Her Dreams (YPF 2011)
We met Pierce as a lanky young teen who could do a good Rod Serling impression. Now he’s… well, a lanky older teen, who can probably still do a good Rod Serling Impression. Dry wit and extraordinarily funny.
- As seen in – Luna the Star (YPF 2014) – The Devil Has His Ways (YPF 2013) – Man’s Best Friend (YPF 2012) – A Resting Place (2012) – Killer (YPF 2011)
I am going to miss her so, so, so much. Consummate actress, good team player, great artistic eye, a natural mover/dancer/gymnast/graceful person, and pretty much just the best ever. If I have one regret, it’s that I only got to direct her twice. Did I mention that I’m going to miss her?
- As seen in – Journey of Two (YPF 2014) – Time Travel (YPF 2013) – What Happens in the Club Stays in the Club (YPF 2012)
James’ first role in a Young Playwrights’ Festival was as a creepy, evil stalker. And he still came back to us. Quick thinker, swishy swordfighter, and remarkably good at both drama and comedy.
- As seen in – The Devil Has His Ways (YPF 2013) – Ulysses Dreams (2013) – The Sad Story of Mrs. Donut Person (YPF 2012) – Baby Bobby and Alex (YPF 2011) – PLUS serving as a stage hand for Christmas City Follies
A skill for playing ridiculous characters like you wouldn’t believe. And besides his delightful onstage persona, we will be forever grateful to Teague as one of our Follies stage crew buddies.
- As seen in – The Battle / The Street Fighter Story (YPF 2014) – Volcano Beauty (YPF 2013) – A Resting Place (2012) – Into the Dark (2011) – PLUS helping with Camp Touchstone (counselor) and YPF (stagehand), and her mother is a Gala committee member/frequent volunteer
Savannah is an absolute gem – funny, smart, dedicated, willing to play, passionate about Shakespeare, and able to think on her feet. We cast her as the creepy little girl in Into the Dark (despite her being taller than me…), and she has been a whole-hearted member of the Touchstone family since.
- As seen in – Ghost Grandma (YPF 2014) – The Princess (YPF 2013) – The Sad Story of Mrs. Donut Person (YPF 2012) – A Resting Place (2012) – Friends 4 Life (YPF 2011) – Medieval Mice (YPF 2010) – Friendship Ballon Fire (YPF 2009) – PLUS helping with Camp Touchstone (counselor), and his mother is our board president
(We would say nice things about Aidan even if his mother weren’t our board president) Aidan is drama and comedy, awkward and smooth, dedicated and ridiculous, and we’ve so enjoyed watching him grow as a performer over the years.
- As seen in – The Broken Charger (YPF 2014) – Journey: Dream of the Red Pavilion (2014) – Christmas City Follies XIV (2013) – The Genie (YPF 2013) – The Sad Story of Mrs. Donut Person (YPF 2012) – A Tricky Story (YPF 2011) – What’s the Holiday? (YPF 2009) – Awful and Gruesome Battles of Triumph and Fate (YPF 2008) – PLUS attending Camp Touchstone and then helping out as a camp counselor (and probably other things that I’m forgetting as well), and her mother is a board and Gala committee member
Megan is probably our longest running Young Playwrights’ Festival alum – not just from Charter Arts, but ever, period – which makes her near and dear to our hearts. But on top of that, she stepped it up this year to perform and hold her own in featured roles in two Touchstone mainstage productions this season. She is funny like an episode of classic SNL and clever like something clever. And she takes a lot of good-natured heckling from Kyle, Jordan, and Josh without snapping, which is no mean feat.
Please join us in wishing “our” seniors well – we’ll miss them an awful lot but can’t wait to see what amazing work they continue to do!