Touchstone 'Journey' inspired by Bethlehem Asian heritage
The journey to Touchstone Theatre's "Journey From The East" began nearly two years ago at a party at the home of Mary Wright.
Dr. Norman J. Girardot, recently retired University Distinguished Professor, Lehigh University Department of Religion Studies, and Jp Jordan, Touchstone artistic director, were chatting about the newly-finished the Lehigh-Bethlehem Harmony Pavilion along the South Side Greenway, Bethlehem. Girardot was instrumental in the pavilion project.
"'Wouldn't it be cool to have some big production there?' they agreed," Wright recalls.
Inspired by the influx of Asians tourists in Bethlehem since the 2009 opening of the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, Touchstone gathered stories from Bethlehem natives and tourists, restaurant owners and city officials, Asians and Caucasians.
The "Journey From The East" project investigates the history of Chinese immigration in the Lehigh Valley.
Mary Wright, Touchstone ensemble associate-Young Playwrights' Lab Coordinator, wrote and directed the project's first play, "Journey: Dream of the Red Pavilion," which has its world premiere, 8 p.m. April 3 and continues 8 p.m. Thursdays - Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through April 13, Touchstone Theatre, 321 E 4th St, Bethlehem.
Touchstone co-founder Bill George and Touchstone ensemble affiliate Christopher Shorr are co-writing the project's second play, a large-scale outdoor production to be presented next year at the Lehigh-Bethlehem Harmony Pavilion.
Collaborating with Touchstone on the second production are Deng Dafei and He Hai of the Utopia Group. They are expected to attend the 2 p.m. April 6 "Dream of the Red Pavilion" performance.
"Dream of the Red Pavilion" focuses on an American with Chinese heritage, a young American girl adopted from China, and a Chinese woman living in America.
"The play is dreamlike and in this dream the different worlds collide. There's the world of the storytellers, who are there telling the traditional stories as well as the personal stories. And there's the world of the Bethlehemites," Wright explains.
The four women are simply called Storyteller 1, 2, 3 and 4. Each addresses the audience and also performs traditional Chinese stories.
Emma Chong, Touchstone ensemble member-general manager, plays a storyteller who is a young adult.
Liana Irvine, a Liberty High School junior and Pennsylvania Youth Theatre actor, plays a storyteller who is a high school student.
Qiyi Zhu-Stoffey, a Lehigh University graduate and AT&T engineer, makes her stage debut as a storyteller who is a mature woman.
Dong Ning Wang, a Lehigh University graduate and East Asian Studies Program teacher, also makes her stage debut as a storyteller who is a mature woman.
Other characters in "Dream of the Red Pavilion" include: The Do Gooder (Cathy Restivo, Touchstone apprentice), The Innocent (Mallory deForest, Touchstone apprentice), The Official (Bill George), Junior Official (Jordan Orth, Touchstone apprentice), The Ex-Pat as tour guide (Megan Schadler, Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts senior and Touchstone intern) and The Expert (Kyle Lewis, Ensemble journeyman).
There are cameo appearances by Chinese-speaking Lehigh students (four per night, 12 in total).
Bill Newman, a Hellertown area resident, taught the cast Tai Chi.
"I wanted to incorporate Tai Chi movement as part of the movement vocabulary we use in the show," says Wright.
Music is recordings by Lu Lu He, playing the guzheng. Five paintings on bamboo shades by Hong Tatt Foo are incorporating into the set.
It's estimated 1,000 mostly Chinese take buses daily from New York City to the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem. The Asian tourists frequent the Greenway and other areas of Bethlehem.
"The folks we talked to on the Greenway repeatedly told us that the reason they come here is because it's so beautiful," says Wright.
Beginning last summer, students in Ning's in story-gathering class at Lehigh, co-taught by Jordan, assisted Wright and Chong in the story-gathering.
"The students who spoke Chinese went out with us on the Greenway and helped us gather those stories."
"As I read through 100 hours of interviews, trying to figure out which were the truths that resonated through all of the stories, the ones that really seemed to resonate were the issues of identify and of otherness, as well as the issues of how a community handled change. Those themes are woven very strongly throughout this place," Wright says.
"South Bethlehem, in particular, historically has always been the place where the latest waves of immigrants have ended up," Wright says, noting the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. south side plant.
It took Wright nine months to complete the one-act, 75-min. "Dream of the Red Pavilion."
"It's like giving birth. This is my baby," says Wright.
Tickets: touchstone.org, 610-867-1689