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Arts & Culture

‘Building community:' Touchstone Theatre's Festival UnBound tackles big issues through art

Touchstone Theatre
Dancers from Ukraine and Mexico will teach traditional dances at a workshop on Saturday as part of Touchstone Theatre's Festival UnBound.

  • Festival UnBound's five-day celebration takes a look at the housing crisis while showcasing homegrown talent
  • There will also be several poetry, songwriting and dance workshops
  • The mostly free festival runs from Wednesday, Sept. 27 through Sunday, Oct. 1

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — An interactive zoo-like performance that addresses the housing crisis is just one of many big issues presented at this year's Festival UnBound.
Two productions of "The Most Beautiful Home...Maybe" are part of this year's celebration of the arts that will run Wednesday, Sept. 27 through Sunday, Oct. 1.

The five-day festival, organized by Touchstone Theatre, includes performances by the ensemble theatre, local artists and organizers, and acclaimed guest artists from the tri-state, including singer-songwriter Jesse Ruben.

Most events are free; some events require a ticket purchase.

Home sweet home?

"The Most Beautiful Home...Maybe" is modeled after the interactive show created by Los Angeles-based theater directors, Mark Valdez and Ashley Sparks.

Through game playing and audience participation, it tackles the issues of affordable housing and housing policy — both in the Lehigh Valley and in the U.S.

The production's main characters are a group of zany zebras who are dealing with their own crises — which helps the audience participate in an engaging and fun way, said Mary Wright, director of Festival UnBound.

The cast includes Touchstone's co-founder Bill George (Zebdrix), Angela Bey (Zebra), Thalia Eddy (Zendra), Ms. Latrice/Distinctly Unique (Ze-Nae) and Dominque Shelby (Zeb).

The event is free and will take place at 7 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Ice House, 56 River St.

UnBound is now in its fifth year. Organizers expect an uptick in attendance — similar to pre-pandemic numbers.

"We are at a beautiful moment right now. Artists are so hungry for a chance to have audience and to get their artwork out and audiences are really hungry for feeling a sense of reconnection," Mary Wright said. "We are trying really hard to provide an opportunity for that to happen."

Straight from space

Touchstone Theatre
Festival UnBound will feature a dance performance that examines how we talk about race at the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts.

Bethlehem Mayor J. Williams Reynolds will be among the guest speakers at the festival's opening ceremony (7 p.m. Wednesday) at Payrow Plaza, 10 E. Church Street.

During the scripted press conference, Reynolds will discuss the city's recent alien sightings, and introduce some of his new extra-terrestrial friends.

"Bethlehem is going to help them build their spaceship because they just want to go home, they love where they live," Wright said. "But while they are here, the mayor will ask them what they love about Bethlehem."

The event is part of this year's "home and community" theme, which organizers began planning last year.

"Part of this whole festival is trying to get people talking about what is it that we love about where we live," Wright said. "What is it that we love and that we want to maintain, and what is it that love about it that maybe needs to change, so we can continue to love it."

Block party, cultural celebrations

On Thursday, learn about the "everyday spaces" on the South Side during an architect-led walking tour.

The tour is free and leaves at 10 a.m., noon and 5:30.

To reserve a spot, click here.

For some livelier fun with an even deeper message, the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts (321 E. Third St.) will host a Changing the Race dance to examine how we talk about race.

Tickets are $15.

On Friday, Venture X Bethlehem (306 S. New St.) will host a free exhibit of Alexander Khimushin's "The World in Faces" from 4 to 7 p.m.

Khimushin's stunning photographs examine the beauty, culture and traditions of Indigenous People from 84 countries across the world.

The exhibit will also be open from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturday and 5 to 7 p.m. on Sunday.

Also on Friday: Gather around for the festival's annual block party (7 to 10 p.m.) at the theatre's barrio stage (321 E. Fourth St.)

The party will feature live music from We're from Antarctica, plus an unveiling by muralist Monica Salazar and an appearance by wrestlers from the Lehigh Valley Athletic Council.

Attendance is free.

"We are at a beautiful moment right now. Artists are so hungry for a chance to have audience and to get their artwork out and audiences are really hungry for feeling a sense of reconnection."
Mary Wright, Director Festival UnBound

Free workshops

The festival will also offer several free educational workshops on Saturday.

"Seeds and Stories from the Land of the Lenape" will combine paper and poetry with stories by Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania's Chief Language Officer Shelley De Paul.

Participants will meet at 9:45 a.m. at the Northampton Community College (NCC) Fowler Family Southside Center, on 511 E 3rd Street, and be shuttled to NCC's Green Pond campus.

Additionally, Basement Poetry's Chloe Cole Wilson will teach a writing and paper workshop at Touchstone's Theatre Café (321 E. Fourth St.) at 10 a.m.

Attendees will fold paper sunflowers while sharing poetry, short stories and monologues created for story slam.

Also at 10 a.m., local dance instructors will teach three traditional dance moves from Mexico, Ukraine and the Middle East.

The event is at the Northampton Community College's Fowler Family Center.

At 11 a.m., the Bethlehem Area Public Library (11 W. Church St.) will host a Story Soup for kids with storyteller Ingrid Bohn. The event is recommended for children in grades second through fifth.

In need of some faith?

Several religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities will come together to present prayers and share music during a devotional gathering at 1:30 p.m. at the Ice House.

Songwriting, live concert

JEssie Ruben.jpeg
Touchstone Theatre
Songwriter Jesse Ruben will perform at this year's Festival UnBound.

This year's artist-in-residence, Jesse Ruben, will present a songwriting workshop at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday at the Godfrey Daniels Coffee House, 7 E. Fourth St.

Ruben, a Philadelphia native now based in New York City, is most known for the song "We Can" which he wrote to to motivate others to begin running.

The song became a hit in schools in Canada and the States to build the self-esteem of students (as part of his residency he'll speak to students in the Valley).

His concert will take place at 7 p.m. in the coffee house.

Tickets are $19.50

Closing ceremony

The festival ends with a 30-minute meditation session where organizers will reflect on the meaning of home and the community.

Attendees can participate in person or virtually.

As with previous celebrations, grab an orange reflection star at the front of the house table and follow the provided instructions.

"The closing is a chance for people to make a pledge for the coming year of something they want to do to help the community," Wright said. "The festival doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is part of a year-long process. Building community takes time and it takes personal commitment."

The event takes place in front of the ice house at Centennial Park on 56 River St.

For more info, click here.