Ted Swartz documents life after loss of creative partner

Internationally recognized performer brings vulnerability to trademark comedy

January 16, 2013 | Artbeat | Number 2
MennoMedia

Playwright and actor Ted Swartz has scripted his most personal work yet, this time in autobiographical form.

Detailing his life growing up in the Mennonite church, working in the family butcher shop, attending seminary and his rise in acting, as well as the tragic suicide of his creative partner and confidant Lee Eshleman, Laughter is Sacred Space: The Not-So Typical Journey of a Mennonite Actor (Herald Press, September 2012) is a mix of tragedy and comedy that will have readers shaking with laughter and wiping away tears.

Written in classic five-act structure, with a foreword written by Brian McLaren, Laughter is Sacred Space offers a glimpse into the journey of Swartz, a rare blend of actor, Mennonite and seminary graduate. Comedic soul mates Swartz and Eshleman joined forces in 1987 on a chance encounter, eventually writing and performing faith-based, tongue-in-cheek plays seen all around the world.

“We knew we had something different within the field of faith-based theatre using comedy to find deeper meaning within a familiar story,” Swartz writes. Delivering onstage chemistry rare for such a new duo, it became apparent that despite the humour that flowed so freely onstage, Eshleman was struggling with a demon far greater, named clinical depression.

“[I] discovered what it was like to relate to a person with a bipolar illness,” Swartz remembers, “to witness clinical depression up close. It became a cruel and ultimate irony. This brilliant comedic actor, this caring, gentle man—who so easily made me laugh, who made me feel good about being alive—had profound doubts about his own worth.”

Nearly twenty years after their friendship began, it came to a tragic halt when Eshleman succumbed to depression one Thursday afternoon. The loss affected Swartz intensely. “There were moments when I didn’t recognize this person I had become,” Swartz notes. “I was angry with myself—that Lee’s death had altered me so much.”

Slowly, Swartz began exploring the joys of theatre again, ever-aware of the hole that Eshleman left, but noting that the very thing that had brought them together was also the road to healing.

“I don’t know if I can truly claim healing,” Swartz confesses, “(but) I do know that without writing and acting, to work by sheer, naive persistence—I can’t envision any type of healing. It has meant . . . doing the only thing I felt equipped to do: write and act.”

Yet where there was Swartz, there was Eshleman, and his absence rings loudly still. “To this day, I have no desire to acquire a steady acting, writing or business partner. I have enjoyed growing as an artist with all the actors and writers I have worked with since 2007, but it feels untenable to ‘replace’ Lee,” Swartz writes.

And so with the poise of a professional actor and the love of a brother, Swartz demonstrates that the show must, indeed, go on.

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