Touchstone Theatre Inspires Conversation about Bethlehem

One year after Bethlehem Steel shut down in 1998, Touchstone Theatre hosted Steel Festival: The Art of an Industry, which created and assembled several works of art and cultural projects to help the community cope with the loss. As many in the city worried about the economic future of the city, lost jobs and pensions, and opportunities for children, the Steel Festival gave Bethlehem residents the opportunity to grieve but also to see in each other the strength to move forward into a new century without Bethlehem Steel.

Twenty years later, Touchstone Theatre is again inviting residents of Bethlehem to engage with art that helps us imagine our civic future. With the upcoming ten-day Festival Unbound, artists and community members will reflect upon our civic identity and the kind of city that we want to become in the next decade.

James P. Jordan, the artistic director of the Festival, stated that the Festival will allow our community to ask large questions. He said, “Asking the question, ‘Where are we now?,’ 20 years after the Steel, is huge. An even bigger question is, of course, ‘where do we go from here?’” For Jordan and others at Touchstone Theatre, art and artists can play a significant role in civic life by using theater and other art forms to answer these questions in conversations with community members. 

Touchstone’s 10-day Festival UnBound commemorates the past twenty years of change and looks forward to the best possible future that Bethlehem can shape for itself. From October 4 to October 13, there will be a variety of original art performances. Production Manager Emma Ackerman described the Festival UnBound to Southsider:

“This is going to be a ten-day explosion of art and artistry. We’re lucky to live in a community that’s rich in the arts, and we’re excited to be offering a festival that reflects that. From local performance classes at Pennsylvania Youth Theatre to the beautiful puppets of Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre to the soaring music of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem to the craft of local visual artists from the Banana Factory, all of us will be sharing our visions of Bethlehem’s future, through art, together.”

These events will occur in South Bethlehem and venues throughout the Lehigh Valley. While many artists and events are collaborations with regional artists and residents of Bethlehem, some events are led by visiting regional and international artists. The festival is sponsored by the city of Bethlehem, the National Endowment for the Arts, Northampton County, The Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts, PBS39, Lehigh Valley Public Radio, Air Products, and numerous other local businesses and institutions.

When the organizing for the festival began in the summer of 2016, Touchstone visited numerous community organizations for help in defining the specific challenges that residents of Bethlehem want to discuss. They asked community partners the following questions: “As a community, what changes and challenges are upon us now, and what are those we see coming? What is to hold us together as we move forward? If we were to write the story of our future, what would we want it to be?” Organizers used residents’ answers to these questions as guides for Festival development. Jordan emphasized the importance of reaching out directly to the community because the Festival is meant to be a community project in which we examine our past and imagine our future together.

Community partners and residents of Bethlehem answered Touchstone’s questions and revealed three important themes that have preoccupied citizens. The community is focused on the promise and challenges of diversity, health and the interconnectedness of all things, and the importance of youth. These guiding themes are the core of the festival and have allowed Touchstone to evolve and organize events that will incite further conversation and a vision for the future. 

Managing Director Lisa Jordan is especially hoping to bridge the gap between Lehigh University and the Southside community. She stated, “Lehigh University is an important part of our Bethlehem community. We encourage everyone on campus to follow along on social media pre-festival and to join us for the 20+ events of Festival UnBound.  If folks are interested in getting more involved, we’re still looking for volunteers to usher, support arts and crafts activities, and more.” I look forward to the potential, positive changes that Bethlehem can undergo following the festival and hope that those visions come to life.

As a student at Lehigh who has been part of the Bethlehem community for three years, I am excited to attend the events and see a more collaborative and lively civic identity be formed through art and reflection. This festival can stimulate important dialogue between different social groups, from townspeople to students, and downtown business owners to city officials.

*Feature photo credit: Aidan Gilrain-McKenna*

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