Conrad Bishop as Lear and Elizabeth Fuller as the Fool perform in Touchstone Theatre's recent production of King Lear. (Courtesy of S.N. Jacobson)

Touchstone Theatre brings ‘King Lear’ to Bethlehem


Touchstone Theatre is a not-for-profit theater on Fourth Street in South Bethlehem dedicated to the creation of original work.

The theater occasionally brings in third-party theater companies to host their own original productions. This past weekend, The Independent Eye, a professional theater company, put on four performances of its adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller founded The Independent Eye in 1974. The couple, who have been married for nearly 55 years, has done theater together for as long as they have known each other. This season, they are touring across the country living out of their Toyota Prius on a budget of $187 with their entire “King Lear” set-piece in the back.

“Every next step is a step into the unknown,” Fuller said.

Twenty minutes before the play started, Fuller was in full costume and character greeting everyone in a raspy, witch-like voice that set the tone for the dark, Shakespearean tragedy. Twenty minutes later, Bishop and Fuller performed a two-person, clay-modeled puppet show that used music, voice-overs and lighting to engage the audience with the insanity that befalls King Lear, as well as the quirks and quips of other characters. After the play, audience members lined up to thank Bishop and Fuller for the performance.

Beyond its entertainment value, the theater brings people together.

“What I love about theater is the ability to swim in this ocean of what binds us all together over all these ages whether it’s an old text like (“King Lear”) or something we wrote last year,” Fuller said. “It’s something that connects people instead of dividing them.”

Watching The Independent Eye’s adaptation of “King Lear” resembled more of a dream than reality. After the play, Bishop remarked about the uniqueness of Touchstone because of its goal to sell an experience rather than a product. He said not every theater would do a play like theirs.

“I’ve felt Touchstone really has a history of being all over the map,” he said. “They do every kind of thing.”

This variety of productions include original shows, which begin their lives as ideas written on sticky notes.

In Touchstone’s rehearsal room, groups of these sticky notes cover the walls. Unlike a typical theater, Touchstone has a more multilateral philosophy. The actors, writers and directors have a relatively equal portion of creative control for their original works.

Not only does Touchstone house its own original productions, but it focuses on community engagement such as its Young Playwrights’ Lab, which teaches children playwriting and theater instruction.

Touchstone grew out of People’s Theatre Company, which originated as a project from Lehigh. In 1972, John Pearson, the newly named head of Lehigh’s speech and drama division, had a vision that drama was a tool for people’s lives. He initiated a street theater program that used academic learning and community service to bring his vision of theater to low-income areas in Bethlehem. His program was important for Lehigh to earn the Community Relations Program of the Year Award from the Council of Advancement and Support of Education.

Pearson’s career at Lehigh and in theater ended early, when he died of a heart attack at age 39 in 1976.

“When John died, the connection (with Lehigh) was cut,” said Bill George, a Touchstone co-founder. “There was no one there who would officially bring the theater into the university.”

Managing Director Lisa Jordan said that a disconnect like this is not uncommon when someone leaves or passes for any reason. Someone has to be fighting for the relationship on both sides. But even though connection no longer looks like the one they had imagined originally, it still exists.

“It was Lehigh University people that gave birth to and nurtured this theater into existence,” George said.

George said when the university and students have an attitude of looking at the entire community, it has a profound effect on how things grow. It is part of what created the theater company, he said.

Today, Pearson’s legacy with Touchstone continues with the community outreach programs and outdoor plays for the community. While the Lehigh connection might not be as strong as it once was, there is still a partnership with Zoellner Arts Center, and, just last month, George had a Gallery Talk at Zoellner titled, “Bill George – A Reflection on Revisiting South Bethlehem”.

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