Artist Spotlight: Bill George

A towering tree—lush and fruit-bearing—grows out of asphalt. The tree’s fruit is, ostensibly, art in its many forms. This is the image painted on the back of Touchstone Theater. As embodied by the tree mural, Touchstone grew organically out of the Bethlehem arts culture. A co-founder of Touchstone, actor Bill George sat down with me on April 25th to discuss the origins of the theater and his visions going forward.

Bill George as Captain Cat in Under Milkwood; with Susan Chase.

AJB: So, I wanted to get started by discussing how you began Touchstone and what your vision for the theater looked like back then.

BG: Touchstone grew out of a relationship I had with a professor at Lehigh. His name was John Pearson. If you look at the theater downstairs [in Touchstone], you can see that it’s called the John Pearson Studio Theater. It was during the Vietnam War and I had come back from Japan, and my education was not really in sync with American [education]. I had been going to a Canadian school… and, I had had no guidance. I ended up at Lehigh because I had a good chemistry teacher. Subsequently, I got good chemistry SAT scores. My father and brother were both engineers. Also, when I was living in Switzerland, I had fallen in love with English boarding schools. Now, there’s nothing to love about English boarding schools! But, I was in 4th or 5th grade. Lehigh was all-male [at the time]. So, it made me think of an English boarding school. 

All of these things: not having any guidance, feelings about schools that came from when I was a child, having to go to college to avoid the draft even though I wasn’t really ready—just a lot of junky things came together—not all of them junky, I guess—to my choosing Lehigh. In all honesty, I didn’t know what I was doing. The primary thing I loved about Lehigh was the hill…, the trees, the buildings, you know, I just thought it was beautiful. I loved Bethlehem. I had lived around in many different countries and cities, and I love the way Bethlehem is just this miniature, perfect community, with the churches, the great ethnic diversity, the sense of nature being close by, the Steel—everything was there.

AJB: Absolutely. It all fits together perfectly.

BG: It was everything that I needed to be myself, to be completely, fully challenged. So, long story short, I floundered around a lot, and finally ended up in theater. I don’t know why I’m drawn to theater. Some of it has to do with wanting to rebuild my family around me, and my co-workers are kind of like my family. But, if I’m playing tennis, for instance, I’m not as interested in winning the game as I am in the movement and the shapes we make while playing it, the dynamics, the rhythms. That’s just where my head is. My family was full of storytellers.

I came under the influence of the charismatic Professor John Pearson. I had been really at sea, lost. He had a dominating but compassionate personality and he told me I should “do theater.” And I said okay. Later, we talked about building a theater at Lehigh. He did most of the talking and the visioning, but I thought his ideas were great. I’m not really a show-biz kind of a guy. John and I had done hours and hours of improvisation—not comedy or sketch improvisation, but free-form improvisation where you might do four hours of rolling on the floor, pretending to be a policeman, pretending to get married or have an abortion—who knows what you’re going to pretend to be doing next. It’s free-flowing like a dream. Once you let go of the shore, God knows where the boat’s going to take you. John sent me off to get my MFA and to study with Paul Baker, who was his mentor in Texas. [Paul] is this brilliant guru of a theater artist, who was a pillar of American theater at the early stages of establishing the regional movement here in the United States. This country is really young, you know, in, say, comparison to England, France, Italy. It was only like 1964 that the National Endowment for the Arts was founded, came into existence. At that time, there were maybe 18 major regional theaters in the US. Now there are over 1,800. That’s in, like, 50 years! An amazing explosion of theaters all across the country, harvesting diverse cultural perspectives of thousands of dramatic stories and presentations.

The stylistic movement we were particularly interested in and that we wanted to start at Lehigh was a whole different way of looking at theater. We were inspired by the Iowa Theater Lab, which was a very Europeanized, we’ll say, approach to theater creation. So, I was studying in Dallas with Paul Baker and John and I were talking about building a movement lab theater like that at Lehigh. I would get my MFA, come back, and be the lead actor. We would build this company. So, I came back in 1976, and when I got back, we were doing street theater as a collaboration with the city of Bethlehem, which was a very radical, unusual thing to do then. John was directing a piece and I was staying at his house—no money, so he put me up. And, we opened a show, and it was a disaster. It was not a successful opening, to say the least. We were talking about it the next morning, about how we were going to fix it, and he fell over with an aneurysm of the heart. He died. He was 39 years old.

AJB: That’s unreal. I’m so sorry to hear that.

BG: Yeah. So, here I am, a newly minted actor, entirely depending on my mentor, John, and he…dies. Everything collapses underneath me. It was extremely emotional—that’s not even the right word—an extremely traumatic time. Barbara Pearson, John’s wife, was pregnant with their third child. John was more than an ordinary person. He was extremely charismatic, and there was a deep kind of spiritual loss. This was more profound than any experience I had had up to that point in my life, and I had to grow up fast. I felt that I had made a commitment to him to try and build this theater. And, just because he’s gone doesn’t mean that commitment is over, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. So, we formed a not-for-profit with Barbara and Ricardo Viera from the Lehigh U. Art Galleries.

And then, I immediately got married. I knew I needed help. I also knew that this woman I’d been working with all summer, Bridget, was an amazing human being, and I did not want her to leave. Part of the reason I didn’t want her to leave was because I was scared. Part of the reason was that I was smart enough to know that this is a really terrific person, and you don’t want her to walk out of your life. So, we married and started a theater company and called ourselves the People’s Theater Company. It was basically just picking up the pieces of what John had been doing—we finished the street theater, we continued with these workshops in the prisons which John had been setting up with the Lehigh Valley Bail Fund. We would do anything even close to our creative mission that paid. A store at the mall wanted to do a Renaissance thing, so we took the money and did that. I would put white face on and do a little pantomime skit for kindergartners and get, you know, 25 or 50 bucks.

The first major piece we did was a children’s dance version of Petrushka, which was choreographed by Barbara Pearson. Those were the early stages of Touchstone. I reached out to Lehigh, but John wasn’t there. He had been a one-man show, so the whole connection with Lehigh was severed. And, Lehigh was not very good at knowing how to handle the situation either. It was like, “if I could make it on my own, good,” but they weren’t really going to help me. All of the commitments were between John and me on a personal level. I can say that Lehigh is a very different school now than it was 30 years ago though. The fact that you are sitting here and we are having this dialogue, that you and your advisors care enough to think that what we’re doing matters, that attitude didn’t exist 30 years ago, other than in John and a handful of faculty. It’s amazing that, if you live long enough, you really see things begin to change. I don’t know, maybe we’ll go back to that survival-of-the-fittest mentality, but we’ve definitely moved away from it a bit. People want to help each other out and work together. Not everybody, but it’s definitely the trend today. To me, it’s biblical in significance.

Early photo as a mime. Photo by H. Scott Heist.

AJB: How do you see Touchstone as fitting into the greater Southsider culture? I know you only perform original works here now.

BG: Well, focusing on original work makes it possible for Touchstone to be more powerfully a part of this place. Because the work is original, it can come from us, all of us. It can grow out of the community, rather than coming from less relevant or connected sources—it can mean the difference between entertainment and art or even ceremony.

AJB: So, it’s more organically Bethlehem in nature.

BG: Yes, exactly, much more organic. So, the question was “how do we fit in?” Well, really a few different ways. One way is that we’re a catalyst. We start things going.

AJB: On a slightly different note, how did you see the arts scene change after the closing of Bethlehem Steel? Would you say that the arts scene is how people would/should identify Bethlehem, and the South Side in particular? For so long, the identifier was the Steel, and now we’re trying to be established as more of a cultural community. Do you see that being successful?

BG: South Bethlehem is unusually blessed with small and large arts organizations. I mean, Godfrey Daniels is amazing, and we’ve got Mock Turtle hanging out over at the Ice House. We’ve got The Bach Choir, which is one of the most important arts organizations in the nation, if not the world, in regards to Bach culture and music. And you’ve got the SouthSide Film Festival, you’ve got the Banana Factory, SteelStacks, Pennsylvania Youth Theater. I mean, that’s pretty good! At the same time, Dave Fry, Doug Roysdon, and I have been around for a while. And, we’re going to die soon. You know, in 10, 15 years, we’re going to probably be mostly ornamentation at best. What’s going to happen to those institutions? It’s not that Touchstone needs me. It’s pretty much “can we make it from year to year” all the time, since day one.

The fact that we’re still here is due to extreme stubbornness and help from a few key people. We’re here because we refuse to give up, and we’re willing to pay the price. You know, endless 60-hour weeks, living below the poverty line. I earn practically nothing. Most people won’t live like we lived. So, the arts aren’t particularly “robust” here on the SouthSide. They’re not. Relative to places that have nothing, we look pretty good, but, that is a false comparison. And, what is art? There’s a real struggle about over-materialism in Bethlehem and our culture in general. And, what is materialism? Many things. One is when you look at art as being a thing that you can buy and sell. And, it is, but the cool thing is when you realize that it’s more than that. There’s something even sacred about it. There’s something about being a human being that, when you separate your art from you, you’re taking away your humanity. Touchstone Theater literally grew out of the soil of this community. That culture can easily die and “the arts” look like they’re still going—we can turn this into a tourist entertainment operation if we choose.

AJB: I can definitely see that there’s this sort of disjointed nature between the bigger names, like SteelStacks, and then the more homegrown, Bethlehem places like you guys, like Godfrey Daniels. You know, the difference between these more commodified art types and then the “this is who we are, this is what we do” stuff that you guys take part in.

BG: There’s truth to that; if an entertainer comes in, does his gig, and then splits, that’s it. In theater, Grotowski says there are two types of actors: one is a prostitute, one is a saint. These are extremes, right, but you get the idea. The saint reveals, as a way of exalting us together, humanity. The prostitute learns tricks and basically uses their body in front of the person exchanging money for it. “I do the tricks, I entertain you, I take the money, and we go,” but the spiritual connection has been taken away. So, this is something I’m very hyped-up about. And, of course, it’s not a black-or-white situation. I’ve done plenty of commercial gigs where maybe my heart and soul weren’t in it. I definitely think that ArtsQuest or Steel Stacks, under the new leadership, is trying to find a business model that will advance local culture. I think that they will succeed, but it may take 20 years. It requires completely changing the culture. It’s a big and complicated job; it’s not easy.

Bill George as Salinger in George and Co’s production of Holden, along with Scott Sheppard and Jaime Maseda.

AJB: I think that’s one of the important things about the Southsider mission, that we’re trying to showcase these important, homegrown entities in Bethlehem. You know, it’s not “oh, come see these things and then leave,” it’s more “come here, we have a ton to offer!”

BG: The students [at Lehigh] will only be much healthier [by entering the South Side community]. It’s just a much healthier environment when we share, collaborate, care about each other. I want to be clear that, you know, it’s all good, but we need to constantly work to improve our priorities as to the values we put on art, how we use it, how we make it, how we share it.

AJB: There’s some inherent value to it—

BG: Right! We’re not saying any art is “bad.” And, we were saying how Lehigh is starting to come out and join the community a bit more, and there’s a sense of caring growing out of that. It’s healthier. And, subsequently, the work becomes healthier. It’s like growing food. Yeah, you can come in and lay nitrogen on the soil, and it might be cheaper and you might get a bigger, shinier apple, but you know, organic is good, it improves the soil for all kinds of life. It’s more holistic. That’s the overall, driving thrust of the conversation. But, if you gotta use fertilizer in order to get things to grow, well, it’s still an apple. It’ll still feed you.

AJB: Is there anything else you want the South Side community to know about the Touchstone mission or even just the arts scene in general? Maybe where you think it’s heading? Really, just anything you’d like to impart.

BG: I think it’s so great what’s happening at Lehigh—this turning its face outward and stepping off campus. Crossing that boundary, down to 4th and 3rd streets. And, this has just begun. The people in Bethlehem are amazing. You know, I spend a lot of time on the stage, and only recently have I been able to meet people in businesses because of some development work I’ve gotten into.  And what amazes me is how so many people are working with heart and soul to make Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley a better place. I just want to tell the Lehigh friends, welcome, come on down, don’t be shy. It’s just people getting on with their lives, trying to build the dream. You will be welcomed with open arms!

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