Mary Wright is an ensemble member, education director and the Festival UnBound coordinator at Touchstone Theatre. She moved to Bethlehem in 1997.
I remember the years I was a student well — and how I realized too late that while I was there at college, I took the city it was in for granted. I missed out on a lot and was too young and naive to realize that as a student, I was actually a member of the community.
I want to make sure others don’t make the same mistake I did. And for all the South Side locals, I hope this reminds you just how special our side of the river is.
The South Side of Bethlehem is one of the most dynamic parts of the city. Much of this is due to years ago, before the South Side was “cool,” when artists were settling in and sinking deep roots into the community.
Two Lehigh University graduates, Bill George and Dave Fry, fell in love with the South Side and decided over 40 years ago to make art here. And thus, two nationally and internationally acclaimed art institutions were born: Touchstone Theatre and Godfrey Daniels Coffee House, both on East Fourth Street.
And we’re still going strong.
Pennsylvania Youth Theatre started up at the same time, giving kids across the valley a chance to better express themselves. Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre was born.
When art is deeply rooted in a place, it springs from that place, which means it speaks to and about that place in a unique and wonderful way. If you really want to get to know a place, listen to its artists.
I moved to Bethlehem in the late 90s, just as Bethlehem Steel was shutting down for good. It was an interesting time to arrive in a city whose identity was so closely tied to its industry.
South Bethlehem had a lot of shuttered buildings, a few restaurants and a lot of concern. “The Steel” was one of the most defining things about the South Side. What was going to happen?
What happened was the arts stepped up. Artists are trained to see possibility and potential — in a building, in a city, in a person, in an idea — and the arts stepped in to do just that. Touchstone Theatre, Godfrey Daniels, Pennsylvania Youth Theatre and Mock Turtle Marionette dug in deeper. Other artists and organizations began to see the possibilities and joined them. Artists helped to build up the sense of community.
As a storyteller and theater artist new to the community, I asked “Who’s doing the cool theater?” by which I meant, “Who’s doing theater that makes a real difference?” Everyone pointed me to Touchstone Theatre.
This space was born on the immediate streets and neighborhoods surrounding Lehigh. Beginning in the late 70s as “The People’s Theater,” with Lehigh professor John Pearson and a motley crew of students and locals, it performed in parks, street corners and anywhere folks would gather.
Now it is housed in the oldest firehouse in Bethlehem. Converted into a funky little theater space that artists in New York City envy, Touchstone is the only professional theater company in the Lehigh Valley, creating original theater made up of an ensemble of resident artists. I’m fortunate to be among them.
What I love about Touchstone is while it is a professional theater, it invites the community to be part of the process, part of the story and part of the art.
For places like Touchstone and Godfrey Daniels, art is not just about entertainment. It’s about connection. Creative connection. It’s about shared experience. It’s about reflecting to the community the stories we hear and live each day.
Theater, in particular, has a way of creating an opportunity for folks to know each other, and themselves, better — that’s its hidden power. And it’s about giving the community (all of the community, locals and students, alike) an opportunity to raise its voice and have that voice be heard.
And that voice can be a great party. On April 29, Touchstone is hosting its annual Fiesta Latina on its outdoor Barrio Stage with music, dancing, food and a chance to join your neighbors in celebration.
Local youth have an opportunity in July to be part of summer camps that allow them to create their own material and perform. You may see them practicing along the Greenway, so please, say “Hi!”
Festival UnBound, running from Sept. 27 to Oct. 1, is a community-wide celebration that asks us to come together to imagine a future we would all like to share. There are plays, dance concerts, a block party like no other, workshops, art exhibits, a “Hidden Bethlehem” scavenger hunt, a “story-crawl” and much more. All of these are meant to help us get to know each other better as neighbors.
Let’s not take each other for granted. Each of us helps make this the vibrant and exciting place that it is. Join in and help make a difference. I hope to see you around on our side of the river.
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