Last Thursday, Touchstone finished up four arts-in-education residencies – two Building Bridges programs and two Young Playwrights’ Programs. Building Bridges Theatre culminated with 16 students performing theatre games, mask work, and original scenes for a gymnasium full of classmates, teachers, administrators, and family. Building Bridges Media found 10 students listening to songs they’d written produced by Artistic Director Jp and watching the newscast film they and their teachers starred in edited by Apprentice Mallory deForest. The two Young Playwrights’ Lab (YPL) sessions closed with teaching artists performing all the student-written plays over the course of the residency for the students, teachers, administrators, and family.
It’s rare that we all finish on one day, but the stars aligned! And the energy in the office between 2:30 & 3pm on Thursday was electric – that’s the transition time between Bridges (the in-school program) and YPL (the after-school program). The sound of the photocopier working overtime as the last scripts and certificates were printed, alongside the shouts of a favorite play or play titles like “The Best Play Ever” or “Great Friends and Great Times, or Fun is because of Friends” intermixed with stories of favorite Building Bridges moments and quotes like the title above “Art is great and so should we be”. It was a fun half hour, a bonding time for us all as we shared the successes of the day and anticipation for the afternoon.
As soon as I heard the quote above, I fell in love with it. Grammatically not the best sentence, but the sentiment is perfect. Art IS great. It can do powerful things on stage and certainly in the classroom as we often witness. And so should we be. I see the Touchstone team continually try to BE GREAT and often times excel through the success of a student. A story I heard the next day from Kyle demonstrated this: a YPL student’s parents came to see the play reading the day before and were shocked to see that their child, whose second language is English, had written a play, was interacting with his peers, and had excelled in the program.
I love stories like this and all the ones I experienced myself or hear throughout the office. It makes the days when you think you’ve made no progress or are really behind on office work and could use the time to finish up GREAT and totally worth it.
There is a color-copied image that still hangs on an office wall at Touchstone that I put up more than ten years ago. It is an enlarged image of what in reality was a fairly small puppet of a child holding a flute. At the time I was the marketing person for Touchstone, along with several other hats (that is always the way at small non-profits). The original came in a press packet from a small puppet theater in Vermont that we were presenting that season.
I was entranced by the photo, so I enlarged it and hung a copy by my desk. I’ve done some puppet theater myself (hand-puppets and marionettes in particular) where the puppeteer hides behind screens and pretends s/he doesn’t exist. I’d never seen a puppet quite like the one in the photo. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t ever seen a theater company quite like the one about to perform on our stage.
That puppet theater company was Sandglass.
The play was The Pig Act and had a circus theme. It was a play about the risks we take and the acts we are willing to perform for our soul’s survival. It was funny. It was frightening. It was compelling. It was gorgeous. What I remember most from the performance I saw was being spellbound by the artistry, the writing, and the amazingly glorious artistic precision required to create the kind of performances we saw from both puppet and puppeteer. Long before The Lion King and War Horse made puppetry in theater “cool” on a grand scale, Sandglass Theater was doing its thing. And doing it with simple, stunning beauty.
A few years later I left Touchstone for a while. When I returned to the fold five years later I was amused to find the image of the little creature from The Pig Act still hanging in its pride of place by the desk where I had sat. Amused… but not surprised. Things of transcendent beauty have a tendency of lasting long after the people have left.
I can’t wait to see what Sandglass has in store for us this time. And I wonder which image will be left on our office walls and in our imaginations for years to come.
In January 2015, a little over a year from now, The Charter Arts High School for the Arts is planning on moving to a new facility at 321 E. 3rd St., one block from Touchstone. With them come close to 450 students in the arts and 70-some faculty members, AND two new theatre spaces – one a small black box, another an approximately 375-seat, beautiful auditorium. If you’ll note the map above, they’re moving into the center of an area that is already full of arts institutions – Touchstone, Godfrey’s, Zoellner, Pennsylvania Youth Theatre at The Banana Factory, Mock Turtle just across the river at the Ice House, and the Bach Festival at Packer Chapel. There’s no doubt that the temperature is about to be turned up on the arts/culture stew over here on the South Side. Things look to cook. The students at the Charter Arts High School have a terrific attitude of curiosity and service, and I find them performing or just plain helping out everywhere! This is not only excellent for their education, it’s excellent for the health of the arts and life here in the Valley.
Still, it is very difficult for an individual artist to earn a living here in the Valley. There’s simply not enough paid work. Many of the artists that Zoellner, Touchstone, and Godfrey’s bring to the stage come from outside the Valley. What is going to happen to these talented youth when they graduate only to leave for the big cities, where there is a bigger arts marketplace? And what can we do about it?
Anyone out there with an answer or answers? How can we keep them here? These youth are our most precious resource; they carry with them a sense of belonging and rootedness that is essential to building an authentic local culture. In the arts, we find answers to who we are and how to move forward as a community facing ever more complex challenges – IF our artists reflect the local culture and aren’t simply entertainment machines. And through creative education, we build a work force that has what it takes to deal with all the inventiveness required for ever evolving manufacturing and business entrepreneurship. This is our challenge.
So, I have an idea, a hunch, a way forward, and it involves rethinking, even further, the role of art in our lives.
It appears to me, if we step back and look at the huge cultural changes we’re going through, that there’s a trend towards, we’ll say, “democratization” of the arts, and just about everything, actually. I’m not going to try to prove this, but for me, when I look at Reality TV and how it seems to acknowledge that all our lives are essentially dramatic, or YouTube videos being as open to a teenager as a TV mogul, or the dissemination of news through Twitter and Facebook and the teetering of media powerhouses like NBC or the Philadelphia Inquirer – what I see is the decentralization of not only media power but “the center” itself. The “center” is getting spread out among us all. And I suspect that this change is in our favor- that we can have some of “the center” here, here in Bethlehem, the Lehigh Valley; no need for young people to run off to find it. It’s not as important to be in Philly or New York as it once was. Certainly online education and work at home trends support this. But how do we need to change to encourage this trend? To help it along?
Stay tuned. More to come, and comments are very welcome.
We have a whole cadre of Lehigh students that have been frequenting the theatre, Chinese-American students who are helping us with translation and story-gathering. On their first meeting, I’m passing through and Mary introduces me to the class. “This is Emma Chong,” she says.
When she says my last name, I swear you can see ears prick up.
This is part of something that has been going, more or less, since the first Pan Show, when I got (almost accidentally) cast as Dynatite. Dynatite was supposed to be exotic, foreign. I’m kind of vaguely like that.
I asked my dad what the break-down was, recently, of his parents’ racial background. I am one eighth Chinese, one eighth Cuban, one quarter Korean from my dad’s side, and half Russian/Jewish from my mom’s side. Three-eighths Asian (37.5%), one eighth of that Chinese (12.5%); that’s it. In my eyes, I don’t look Chinese enough to be obviously Chinese, but I suppose it depends on who you’re standing me next to.
Although even without that, the last name is a bit of a give-away, I guess.
Chinese heritage has never been a part of my upbringing; with the mixed ancestry of my paternal grandparents, their common language was English, so that was what they taught their children. No Chinese, no Korean, no Spanish– just English. They were American kids. I’ve always regretted not learning a second language growing up, not knowing more about Chinese than what I like on a take-out menu. I know more Hebrew than Chinese.
My best friend in middle and high school, Sophie, was first-generation Chinese– has traveled since childhood, speaks English without any trace of accent, but when she talks with her parents, she slips back and forth between languages without thinking twice. I remember listening to her and her family converse in Chinese– the first time, eighth time, twelfth time– and not even being able to identify words, phonemes, anything that I could grab linguistically. Surely I should have been able to identify something, right? Nope.
(This has improved a little. My Chinese vocabulary now includes “Ni hao,” “Xiè Xiè,” “Mèimei,” and “Shi.” This is in part due to reinforcement through story gathering experience but mostly due to watching Firefly)
And now we’re neck-deep into Journey from the East – gathering stories, conducting interviews, reading Chinese folktales, looking for inspiration at home and abroad. Where do I fit in to all of this?
In gathering stories for the project, I got to speak with a lovely man named Tim; after the interview, we got to talking about me, and was I Chinese (the last name was a bit of a give-away), and did I speak Mandarin (alas, no)?
He told me an interesting story. His American-born Chinese daughter– despite his best efforts– had no interest in learning to speak Chinese. Why would she need to? Her friends didn’t speak it, after all. Playing with her toys one day, she asked Daddy to get her Cinderella doll from upstairs. “Honey,” he gently prompted her “you have to speak Chinese to Daddy, for me to go upstairs and get toys for you.”
Tim imitated his daughter’s response for me– a much put-upon sigh and little girl’s eye-roll– and said that she walked away. She would rather not have her Cinderella than speak Chinese.
“I feel it’s fine,” he added. “I think that what’s more important is her character, the way of her thinking. Different languages are just different tools.”
Tim’s cousin, Lulu, is also highly westernized. Like many her age, she learned English in school, but her first steps away from traditional Chinese upbringing were when she was thirteen and attended church services for the first time. She told me how moved she was, by the story of the crucifixion, by the idea of Jesus’ love. “I was shocked that someone could love me this much,” she said.
She mentioned Jesus and God’s love a lot, during our interview. She also wanted to make sure she wasn’t being pushy with me, about her religious views. She wasn’t at all. I didn’t mention that I had been raised Jewish.
And then there are the Lehigh students that we’re working with. Many of them hold onto their heritage as best they can, friends grouping together based on their capacity for the same language, going out for bubble tea together, cooking their own meals rather than braving American-Chinese restaurants. Others seem to have totally embraced their secondary identity as Americans. Their clothes are mildly hipster, and they aren’t afraid to be a little sassy. It’s fun to watch them all together.
The more work we do on this project, the more we dig, the more avenues open up. I am so happy just to be a part of it all, getting to talk to Chinese Bethlehemites about why they love the Lehigh Valley and what they miss about home and how China has changed over the years. This project– the story is good, and the impact on the community is real, and I’m sure we’ll have two great years of excellent performances out of it– but there’s something personal I get out of it that I never expected.
So where do I fit into all this? I’m still not sure. But a couple of weeks ago, I came to the bemused realization that maybe, in a small way, the story that we’re exploring through Journey from the East is part of my own story. Not much– maybe only 12.5%– but that 12.5% is mine.
I had this idea for a blog post a couple months ago, when I walked into AC Moore, saw a large bag of fake rose petals, and immediately thought of Katy, an apprentice from the 2011-12 season. Why? Well, because we needed hundreds of rose petals for a
scene in A Resting Place. Since Katy was charged with props, it was her duty to figure this out, and they were really hard to find. Ultimately we ended up going with real rose petals, donated by Patti’s Petals (thanks, neighbor!), but before that, she was on the hunt and not having much luck. So, seeing those petals made me stop and think, “Oh, Katy! Here are some… a year too late, but I found them!”
Isn’t it funny how we come to associate something particular with a person? I wonder if the things I associate with people are a little bit odder, given my line of work; take a look below, and decide for yourself!
Mariel and Anne, apprentices from 2010-11, will always be on my mind when I see tiny furniture. For Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog there were five miniature versions of the five life-size sets, and they were a pain in the butt to create – fun, too, but time consuming with A LOT of detail work. Mini washing machines were incredibly difficult to come by, and since a key location was a laundromat, they were essential. Now every time I see one or mini chairs, since we used a couple dozen, I remember (now with some distance) fondly the late nights building these set pieces.
Whenever I’m stuck waiting at the train tracks on the North Side that parallel Conestoga Road, it always reminds me of Cathleen, former Ensemble Member. In the October show Into the Dark from the 2011-12 season, her character was inspired by a train wreck that happened on those tracks in the late 1800′s/early 1900′s. I remember when she first found the story and began researching more about the accident, I was stuck sitting at those tracks and recorded the sound for her – the whistle was truly eerie, perfect for a show around Halloween.
Exceptional “metrosexual hair” always reminds me of Zach, apprentice from 2009-10. It also always needs to be documented, because Daphnis from The Pan Show must look very good, very hip and, of course, over the top. I’ve definitely secretly taken pictures of someone’s hair to use as inspiration for Daphnis’ mane.
Shopping carts! Every once in a while, I’m waiting in line at the grocery store and think of Margie, former Ensemble Member, and Justine from Follies, Margie’s ridiculously un-PC creation. Justine was unabashed and hilarious – favorite moment “Justine’s Holiday Work Out”. Too busy to exercise during the holidays? She gave us tips on how to use our time in the grocery store line to our advantage. I’ve not been bold enough to try, but I do giggle to myself when I think of it.
Now, I’m more a bagel person than a donut person, but a really well-decorated donut will catch my eye after the Young Playwrights’ Festival from 2012. Meggan, an apprentice from the 2011-12 season, and I created life-size donuts for the play I directed. And they were pretty darn delicious looking, if I do say so myself!
Finally, and perhaps the most ridiculous, coolots (which I think don’t even exist anymore) remind me of Vicki, former Ensemble Member. It was our first costume design together back in 2006 and for some reason, we decided coolots were the way to go. In case anyone doesn’t know what they are, they’re those weird pants that look like a skirt, but surprise(!) they’re really pants. A rare find nowadays but when I do see them I remember The Talisman and Vicki.
If you haven’t already heard of him, allow me to introduce you to Yeong-Ung Yang. I had the pleasure of meeting Yeong last week at a bakery in Flushing, New York – the community which has been the focus of his recent photo journalism project which focuses on the “Bus-kkun”.
Yeong defines the Bus-kkun:
“Bus-kkun is the Korean term for a jobless, homeless person who rides a round-trip casino bus more than twice a day. The story is about a number of middle-aged Asian who take round trip buses from Flushing, Queens to the Sands Casino in Pennsylvania. There they receive game vouchers, which they secretly sell to gamblers as means of survival. More than 50 buses depart from Flushing, and hundreds of bus-kkuns take advantage of the journey. Bus-kkuns often suffer from health issues and no family support. They are trapped in this endless ride. Some gamble after collecting profits made from exchanging vouchers, but eventually ride the bus for compensating for the lose of money.”
As you all probably know, elements of Touchstone’s current Journey from the East project were initially inspired by the influx of Asian transients that have been seen around the city as a result of the Flushing buses. Having an artist working on the other end of this bus trip has given us here at Touchstone an amazing insight that we didn’t have before.
I want to thank Yeong for his inspiration as an artist and for his compassion as a human. Please visit Yeong’s website and check out all of his work on the “bus-kkun”. Be sure to check out the video he has put together as part of his ongoing exploration.
…Okay, not really THE beginning, but a beginning of sorts– early to mid-seventies, and a handful of folks inspired by the idealism of the time bubbled up here in Bethlehem and began revolutionary initiatives: arts organizations. I’m thinking of Dave Fry who, with Cindy Dinsmore, started Godfrey Daniels; Doug Roysdon, who with his wife, Christy, began Mock Turtle Marionettes; Madeleine Ramsey, who was crazy enough to begin the Pennsylvania Youth Theatre; Bridget George (who is now at the Bach Choir– perhaps where it all really began) and myself with Touchstone Theatre; Gene Mater at Gene Mater Studio.
It only took a handful of folks, partnering with a few key individuals and business persons– Joan Moran, John Saraceno, Tommy Mohr, Steve Goldner, Ollie Foucek… I’m going to stop trying to name names; y’all know who you are. There are too many to acknowledge here, but it wasn’t that many in the greater scheme of things.
From this idealism and commitment to “a new community” based on hard work, creativity, and collaboration, Bethlehem saw a light that helped it find its way forward through very difficult economic times. The South Side was relatively dead, and some of the buildings were rotting away in 1976, but from these different and unique creative efforts, a renaissance of sorts was conjured. Largely woven from the threads of these original and daring initiatives, Jeff Parks was capable of unfolding his tapestry, starting up a Musikfest that made national attention and has eventually become the entertainment conglomerate called ArtsQuest, now lodged down at the old Steel Site.
Bravo to Musikfest, and bravo to Bethlehem, but let’s take a moment to look back at the values that started this all off “in the beginning”. Let’s take a moment to check in on these aging entrepreneurs. Are we still holding true to our original vision, and what was that vision in the first place? Certainly it wasn’t monolithic, and unless we were to all sit down and hash it out– after all, much of it was unconscious; we were working as the “spirit” called us– it’d probably sound like a little of this, and a little of that. Maybe nothing held us together at all.
Still, I think it’s worth it to look at this performance of Dave Fry at Musikfest, so raggedly videoed by myself, from just a few weeks ago.
As you watch, you can see that yes, Dave is getting older; we all are. It wasn’t that long ago that there was an extraordinary concert to raise money for Dave’s health needs. This is what happens when the vision achieves its ultimate effect: a community of caring.
It’s not a surprise that Dave’s performing a children’s song. He didn’t always work such material, but he got involved with Touchstone along the way, and his endlessly witty and roguish persona found its way into music for children. This is what happens when the vision follows its own unpredictable path: everyone is served, the strong and the weak. Local artists work together and learn from each other.
Note that the children are dancing, that instruments have been set aside in the nearby pavilion so they can participate. This is what happens when the vision serves: the work is inclusive, participatory, lives inside us. The art belongs to us all.
Note Dina Hall accompanying Dave; the next generation is being fostered. Our creative work, our culture, can find sustainable approaches. It’s the old, “give a man a fish today, and he’ll still need another tomorrow; teach a man to fish, and he’s fed forever.” Dina is President of the Board at Godfrey’s now, helping to guide it into a future without Dave. This is what happens when the vision creates the future: institutions and relationships are formed that link generation to generation.
It matters that the performance is taking place at the Sun Inn Courtyard. Place is important, context is meaning– not just because it brings patrons to the small businesses on Main Street and stimulates the wider economy, but because the Bethlehem community is connected to its most cherished history at this site. This is a place that has deep roots into the Bethlehem identity for anyone who understands the spirit of this community. This is what happens when the vision finds a home: it looks to priorities beyond money and expediency and settles where it can best serve one and all beautifully, and if I may say so, spiritually.
This is a vision that is still, as yet, unrealized in its fullest possible expression. This is my reason to keep working, keep trying, keep believing the future can be better, much, much better.
There’s still plenty of time. Let’s see what we can do.