On February 25th, I spent the early afternoon with Emma Ackerman (née Chong), the playwright and sole performer of “The Complete and Authoritative Tour of Holy Stuff.” The play, which ran from March 2nd through March 12th at the Touchstone Theatre, explores what we consider holy in our lives. Emma elaborates on this conception, explaining that what feels holy to us could be “going to church, meditating in the woods, or obsessing over Star Trek.” In many ways, this play is the product of Emma’s academic background. At Gettysburg College, her double major in English and Theatre Arts allowed her to explore two complementary realms of art. The play also marks Emma’s progression from a student to a true thespian, since it began as a graduate school project with a fellow graduate student, J.P. Jordan.
A Play is Born
“We had a grad school professor who was really interested in turns of phrase and the slippage of language,” Emma recalls. “Then there’s also Grotowski’s idea of the ‘holy actor,’ one who is at the height of his physical and mental clarity. The idea of the actor as a holy devotion, almost. Our professor questioned what it would mean to be an ‘unholy actor,’ then. So, that bastardization of holiness. That was the spark.”
“The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Holy Stuff” will also explore how we associate travel and those things we consider sacred. It seems that the play will bridge the gap between these discordant topics by posing travel as the vehicle through which we understand the world around us. That is, travel enables us to find what we eventually consider holy.
Touchstone in the Community
Emma’s roles at Touchstone certainly run the full gamut. “Everyone here at Touchstone wears a lot of different hats. We do a little of everything. This is definitely different from anything I’ve created before,” she said. Emma began as an apprentice at the theater nine years ago, upon the recommendation of a friend. Stage-managing then led to various other projects, including her involvement with the Young Playwrights’ Lab.
“We begin with the Young Playwrights’ Lab residency in the schools, where we play theatre games with the kids and get them excited about everything. Eventually, they’re shushing you while they write their first plays. On the night of the actual performances, we choose 4-6 students to have their work featured on stage at Zoellner Arts Center,” Emma said. “It’s a great dynamic. We have high schoolers who plan to pursue careers in acting, alongside students who have never acted before.”
Community Outreach Begets Thriving Art Scene
Emma believes we find strength in our connections and this has been supported by her work with the Young Playwrights’ Lab. In working with the program, she consistently sees the arts reaching unlikely corners of the community.
“On the night the students perform, their parents get to come in and see what their kids have been working on. There’s really a great diversity reflected in that night. There are lots of opportunities for dialogue. The arts scene is just so much part of Bethlehem’s identity right now. There are both these small, homegrown groups like us, Godfrey Daniels, and then Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre across the river. But, there are also the big names, like ArtsQuest.”
Emma’s appreciation for South Bethlehem’s brand of rich, cultural community shines through when she discusses “The Complete and Authoritative Tour of Holy Stuff.” Her inspirations are a conglomerate of pieces from our technological age, fused with classic religious ideals. Reminiscent of South Side’s eclectic mix of personalities, Emma’s play looks into the wide-ranging assortment of things we view as holy.
“It’s such a heady, esoteric sort of thing. I don’t want to say ‘oh yeah I’m doing this comparative analysis between religious studies and Dr. Who, it’s gonna be great, guys!’ But, it’s interesting to me, looking at this stuff,” she explained.
As an imaginative reflection on the diverse atmosphere the South Bethlehem community, “The Complete and Authoritative Tour of Holy Stuff” provides a fresh look into what we revere in life. The play ran from March 2nd-12th at Touchstone Theater. Because of its success, Southsider staff look forward eagerly to her future work.