Journey from the East (2014 & 2015)
In the tradition of Steelbound, Don Quixote of Bethlehem, and A Resting Place, Touchstone embarked on its most recent epic community undertaking with Journey from the East, a two-year project inspired by the influx of Chinese population in Bethlehem, PA.
In the 2013-2014 season, stories from the native Bethlehem community as well as from our Asian guests were gathered and transformed into a script written and directed by Touchstone Ensemble Associate and storyteller Mary Wright. Wright’s script, Journey: Dream of the Red Pavilion, blended these unique perspectives into the first of two productions, examining the “East meets West” exchange happening in our own backyard.
Part local history, part social commentary, and part fanciful dreamscrape, Dream of the Red Pavilion investigated the history of Chinese immigration in the Lehigh Valley and the community’s continuing reaction to “the other.” The production debuted in April 2014 to enthusiastic feedback from critics and community members alike. Paul Willistein of the Lehigh Valley Press called it “an uplifting work that should be seen by theatre-goers and civic-minded folks,” and awarded it an ABE for Best Original Play. Kathy Lauer-Williams of the Morning Call said, “Part visual theatre and part meditation… the musings are both humorous and touching,” and featured it in the 2014 Year in Review: Top Ten of Arts and Entertainment. A community member whose family shared their story with Touchstone enthused, “We can hear our daughter’s voice in the play. It was a well-balanced piece with many thought-provoking themes. Thank you for treating a delicate topic with respect and professionalism.” Another interviewee said, “The storyline and performance were captivating. I am grateful that we have a theatre that creates original stories in the Lehigh Valley such as Touchstone Theatre.”
In the 2014-2015 season, Touchstone finished work on a second script, merging the stories of the Chinese journey to Bethlehem with traditional Chinese folklore. This large-scale outdoor production took place at Lehigh University’s recently constructed Chinese Harmony Pavilion on the South Side Greenway, and featured local talent from the Touchstone Ensemble, Moravian College, Lehigh University, and the Lehigh Valley community, as well as international talent from visiting guest artists, the Utopia Group of China.
This second production, Journey from the East, was co-written by Touchstone founder Bill George and Touchstone Ensemble Associate and Moravian College Director of Theatre Christopher Shorr. The play examined themes of national identity and attitude by exploring two different cultural mythologies: for America, the mythic Old West and the cowboy, and for China, the epic novel Journey to the West and the Monkey King. Co-produced by Moravian College and under the direction of Touchstone Artistic Director Jp Jordan, this second installment debuted in April 2015.
Each performance weekend held special auxiliary events, including a Panel Discussion on the American Western as our cultural mythology and a guest lecture by Victor H. Mair, an internationally known Chinese scholar from the University of Pennsylvania. The lecture, titled “Bridging Epic Traditions: the Cross-cultural Significance of the Chinese Journey to the West,” was sponsored by Lehigh University’s Religion Studies Department. The project concluded with a Chinese-style Spring Festival and a close-proximity pyrotechnic display by Celebration Fireworks after the closing performance.
Nationally, the Journey from the East project was supported in part by the Henry Luce Foundation, which seeks to bring important ideas to the center of American life, strengthen international understanding, and foster innovation and leadership in academic, policy, religious, and art communities, and by the National Endowment for the Arts – Art Works, which supports the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence and the strengthening of communities through the arts. Locally, the project was supported by Bethlehem Fine Arts Commission, Keystone Savings Foundation, and Lehigh University’s Department of Community and Regional Affairs. Touchstone’s 2014-15 Season sponsors were First Generation, an integrated marketing communications company, and RCN. WDIY provided media sponsorship and Working Dog Press provided print sponsorship. The Shubert Foundation and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts supported Touchstone’s yearlong programming.
You can read the blog that chronicled the project here.