Touchstone Theatre has had to find creative ways to entertain the Bethlehem community during the ongoing pandemic.
Their latest production is a new science fiction story told through a series of weekly mailed packages called “Letters from Far,” written by Emma Ackerman. Audience members signed up to receive weekly letters and packages from Feb. 16 to March 15 that tell a story in increments.
“Letters from Far” is about a fictional Rosensweig Expedition, set in February 2032. The letters depict an expedition full of scientists, artists and journalists who explore a rift in the American Midwest.
They wind up never returning home and the only things that remain from the journey are letters, notes, pictures and artifacts.
“So while they never made it back home, their final words did,” Ackerman said.
Ackerman, an ensemble member and Touchtone’s general manager, started out as a Touchstone apprentice after college, doing a myriad of jobs, and has remained there ever since.
She said her first inspiration for “Letters from Far” came from The Mysterious Package Company, an online service that creates puzzles and other packages for customers to solve. But, she was also inspired on a more personal level.
The main goal was to create entertaining content while also ensuring safety, Ackerman said.
“This year, and in the last couple of years in particular, people are just living different truths, seemingly in different worlds and on a sort of secondary level,” Ackerman said. “So part of what this piece is about is how do you communicate with someone?”
Edward Gallagher, a former professor emeritus of English at Lehigh and long-time resident of Bethlehem, has always been interested in the local arts. He has been following Touchstone for its entire 40 year existence.
“What you want is an outlet for originality and creativity and those are the kinds of things that have been the hallmark of Touchstone over the years,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher said he bought tickets to “Letters from Far” because he was interested in how Touchstone is responding during COVID-19. As a retired English professor, Gallagher was also struck by the idea of a mail-based performance, which he connected to the epistolary genre — a genre in which stories are told through the medium of letters.
James P. Jordan, ensemble member and artistic director, has been at Touchstone for roughly 15 years. Jordan previously worked at Zoellner Arts Center.
“For those that don’t know what’s coming, that’s awesome,” Jordan said. “For those that do know what’s coming, then it’s going to live up to every expectation they have.”
Jordan said the theater has been a staple of the community since its founding in 1981 by giving a voice to local concerns and by providing educational programs. Since the onset of COVID-19, Touchstone has honored healthcare workers and worked on social justice initiatives.
“How can we figure out ways to share the beauty of life together in a not hopeless way and just keep moving forward?” Jordan asked. “That’s really, for me, what we’re geared toward.”
Touchstone held a livestream Zoom production in May; outdoor, socially distant events from July to October and a movie version of Christmas City Follies in December. They also hosted some of their annual traditions virtually.
The theatre also partnered with local restaurants that were struggling to deliver outdoor dining and entertainment experiences.
“You feel like you’re in service to something greater than yourself in serving that community,” Jordan said. “ I think that feeling doesn’t get old.”
Gallagher said he encourages Lehigh students and community members to take advantage of the local entertainment venues and creative outlets.
“We all know how much we’ve been isolated and we know how much the last year has affected us both individually and communally,”Ackerman said. “Having a space that centers community is more important now than ever.”