There are not many places where you will find: a clown and her talking puppet, an immersive audio tour of Zion National Park, a drama therapy program for adults with developmental disabilities and a theatrical production in self-introspection, all in one place. In fact, the only place you are sure to find all of these projects is at the Spring of New Works Festival at Touchstone Theatre in South Bethlehem.
The Touchstone Theatre, in partnership with Moravian University, offers a Master of Fine Arts degree in which artists are able to create their own performances and execute their artistic visions.
This spring, four MFA candidates cultivated individual thesis projects stemming from their own passions in conjunction with artistic principles to create final works for the program.
MFA candidate Jessica Boothe finalized her thesis project, called “Rehearsal For Life.” The endeavor uses theater techniques, games and activities to improve social and emotional skills for young adults and adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities.
Boothe said she incorporated two principles: drama therapy, which uses theater techniques to promote catharsis; and play-based therapy, which is the idea that people learn when they play games.
“When we’re kids, we play house and we make fake food in play kitchens,” Boothe said. “Then you grow up, and you make food in real kitchens and you know where the water turns on and how to turn on a stove. That same idea translates to these emotional and social skills. So, if we’re playing a game that requires eye contact or loud speaking volumes, you’re playing a game, but you’re practicing those skills that you can use in everyday life.”
Boothe’s passion for this project came from her love for arts education. She said she hopes to develop the project for other places in need of similar programming as she has found that once individuals leave high school, there are fewer programs available to address the various needs and desires of those with developmental or intellectual disabilities.
MFA candidate Abbie-Jean Litman also had a passion to advocate for a particular group of people. For her project, she wanted to explore advocacy and prevention of domestic violence and learning boundaries from a young age.
Using a three-part series, Litman visits local preschools dressed as Knick-Knack the Clown, with her trusty sidekick Paddy-Whack the puppet.
“One of those parts is a film that is shown in the schools and the other two parts are two in-person sessions, where I bring in the puppet and I’m in full costume and character,” Litman said. “I talk to the children through song, dance and games about how we can create these boundaries with our peers and our class.”
Similarly, Litman hopes to grow the program, which aims to teach children ages 5-7 about platonic consent between people. She said she has already done six programs in the Bethlehem Area School District and hopes to see it grow in the long term with local partnerships and by creating scholarships to allow for wider program reach.
Performance restrictions resulting from the pandemic have challenged the artists to think outside of the box. This inspired MFA candidate Sara Group to create an experience accessible to anyone.
Group said she used her thesis project budget not for performance equipment, but for a flight to Zion National Park. Using audio, she created a 20-track audio experience to immerse listeners into her journeys through the scenic terrain, all narrated in second person.
She said that she wanted the listener to be able to experience a place far from home and to experience its vastness and beauty.
“How do I create this world in just audio to make you feel like you have been there?” Group said. “What do you see, what do you hear, what do you feel, what are all of the things based on the senses that you can experience?”
The last of the four MFA candidates, Matt Prideaux, decided to go the performance route for his thesis project. He said he wanted to focus on a phenomenon that has been exacerbated by the pandemic: parasocial relationships.
Prideaux said these relationships formed on a digital medium between influencers and their audience allows the audience to form an intimate and intense relationship where they feel as if they actually know the celebrity. However, in reality, this person has no idea who this audience is and has no attachment to them.
“As it went along, it kind of delved deeper into an exploration of who I am and how I perform, my idea of myself to the world and how that changes based off of the people that I’m around and this idea of what does it mean to try to change the performance of yourself,” Prideaux said.
His project manifested in an interactive theatrical performance, exploring ideas of identity, sexuality, mental health and even featured slime.
All four MFA candidates said the Touchstone/Moravian program allowed them to utilize a blank slate for their work and to pursue their passion projects.
“I love acting, directing and writing shows and working in design,” Prideaux said. “Touchstone was really the only program out there that really lets you make your own path and work between all of these different aspects of performance and theater and combine them into whatever performances you want to make.”