Names: Alison Brookins and Ted Swartz
Roles: Collaborators on the new play, Discovery: A Comic Lament
Interview conducted by Hannah Heinzekehr.
1. Alison, you’re a seminary student and Ted, you’re a veteran actor and playwright. How did the two of you meet?
Alison: I tell the story this way. I saw a show of Ted’s two years before I came to seminary. I had just quit school, I was living in Madison and I was completely lost. I saw Ted’s show and talked to him afterwards. It was probably an awkward convo because I was 22. But life went on and I went to seminary.
At some point, I realized I had to do an internship. I wanted to find ways to use theater to talk about things that matter in creative ways. And I thought, “What was that guy’s name? Ted something?” Then I found out you were famous. My seminary supervisor, David Miller, knew Ted and sent him an email. Ted never responded. And I never heard back. I knew Ted was busy and I was getting the feeling that he was famous.
Later on, I was in Kansas City [at the Mennonite Church USA convention] and I ran into Tim Nafziger, who said he was waiting for Ted. I told Tim, “I wanted to do an internship with him but he never e-mailed me back.” So when Ted gets there, Tim goes, “Ted, this is Alison. She wanted to intern with you and you never e-mailed her back.” And then Ted said yes to an internship out of guilt.
Ted: That’s not a bad story except for all the famous stuff. Two years previously I had an intern who was almost exactly the same age as Alison, Jenn Scarr. She was also a second year seminary student with the Church of the Brethren. She saw me at a conference after she finished college in Ohio. She was one of those hundreds of kids who talks to you after a convention and you sign something and then you never hear from them. But she wrote me this long e-mail about how to work in ministry and theater and wondering about a conversation. And I saved that great e-mail on my desktop, meaning to write back one day, but I never did.
Later she wrote to me after seminary and said, “Remember me?” The way she tells the story is that I sent her a single word e-mail back and I apparently just said, “Yes,” probably out of a tremendous amount of guilt. I had not had an intern of any substance, but it was really a good experience for us. If I didn’t have Jen’s experience, I might not have said yes once again out of guilt.
Alison: AMBS [Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary] was wonderful about being like, “Yes, absolutely you can do this super creative internship.” They were really interested in finding a way to make it work.
2. This play focuses on the Doctrine of Discovery, a religious and legal framework that justified the enslavement and displacement of indigenous people. Tell me about the genesis of this particular play and how you chose this theme to write about.
Alison: I had to design my program. I wanted to go into the internship with really set goals. I knew what I wanted to do was write sketches and other things around topics that are very important to me. I was having a casual convo with my friend, Katerina Friesen, and I was telling her about this program, and she suggested writing about the Doctrine of Discovery. The way I describe the DoD is that it’s the theological and legal framework that justifies the oppression of indigenous people and the theft of land from first contacts until today. Katerina recommended that theme.
At that time we were in a class on the Christian history of Latin America. We had just read this document called “The Requirement.” It was from 1513 and coming out of the Spanish empire. It was inherently absurd. It was written to indigenous people from the Spanish crown. It basically said, “Hi, this is who we are, this is who the king and queen are, here’s how authority works. This is your place and we’re here to take your land. If you convert to Christianity, you can be a part of our land. If you don’t, we’re going to make you slaves and take your land.”
This document was in Latin and often read with no translation and pronounced from a boat to an empty shoreline. Katerina had been working on this for years. I was aware of indigenous-settler relationships, but naming it the Doctrine of Discovery really came out of this conversation.
“The Requirement” popped into my head as a sketch and I thought, That sounds like a really useful thing to write about. I went with the intention of writing two sketches, but it just went really, really well.
Hannah: What did you think of this topic, Ted?
Ted: I think I was like Alison initially. I had known the phrase because of some conferences I had been at and heard a number of speakers really elevate the Doctrine of Discovery. This is at the root of patriarchy and racism. If we can’t do this, we’re not going to get to the root of anything else. I had never seen “The Requirement” until Alison brought it to my attention. It really does read like a painfully true comedy sketch. It’s like watching the news today.
3. So you had your theme. Can you describe the writing process you went through?
A: I started out by just taking the text from “The Requirement” and putting it in dialogue form. That’s the one I took the most drafts of to my writing group. In the first draft, the language was just too convoluted and antiquated. That was a learning process for me. People in the group were saying, “I know you think this works and you think it’s clever, but it’s not working.” I really learned to trust that group. They did not humor me, but when I finally got it right, they laughed and affirmed it.
T: The first time we met as a writing group, you brought the Hosea sketch. We talked about it for awhile.
A: Ted and I were going to do a worship service together at the end of the summer and we were going to write all of the material. I looked at the lectionary wrong (embarrassing, for a seminary student) and found a text from Hosea that I decided to use as an inspiration for a sketch.
T: I’ve seen many, many sketches. People sometimes send me things that I don’t usually respond to. What was different on this occasion was that we talked about what might work and what doesn’t work. And she came back after talking about it and it was a brand new sketch. That was the moment where I thought, OK, this is going to be fun. I loved Alison’s sense of humor before that and she is one of the gang of theater nerds that I have a commonality with to start with, but if you can write, I knew this was going to be something special. She wanted to finish two sketches and by the end of the summer she had a 40-minute show. By the end of the summer I thought this could be something that the company produces.
4. You mentioned that you used a writing group to give you feedback as this project was developing. How was this group important in shaping the final play? Did you draw in indigenous voices to give feedback as well?
A: The writing group originally formed for me, but they are still meeting. What I discovered was this constant negotiation between me doing my academic work on the topic, and then coming to a writing group and being accountable to them. They’d say, “OK, you have this activist passion, but that’s not funny. You need to work at this until it’s both communicating what you want it to and being funny.” I also had an activist reference group. They’d often ask, “Sure that’s funny, but is what you’re writing really true to the topic?” So there were two groups: one keeping me accountable to activist principles and one to writing. I needed both.
T: Alison said she needed a writing group, so I called some people form Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg. Jennifer Murch was the energy source and leader of the group. I had never done this before. The group included Shirley Showalter, Jim Clemens (who you can find in your hymnal), Jennifer Murch, myself and Valerie Serrels. Everybody had a project that they were working on.
A: Accountability in the writing process was something that we struggled with and insisted upon. We went to Newton [Kansas] for a meeting with the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition and that was a really important part of the process. This was our access to relationships with indigenous activists. We knew that if they think this is off, then it’s off. And if there’s something off about this, we need to call the production off and work on it. We took the financial and energy risk to say, Let’s go ahead and work and start doing production work and then take it to the coalition. We were keeping open to the possibility that they would say, “No. We think this is not ok. This is not a good use of our time or energy.” We went to that meeting with a lot at stake and a lot of vulnerability. It was really scary.
T: It also illustrates that you are at an interesting place of privilege that that’s the biggest anxiety we have: anxiety about feedback and not our own experience. It’s a little bit like hoping that your African-American friends like you. Like Dave Chappelle said, “You still get to be white. If I got to trade, $50 million or the chance to be you?”
A: When I talk about being vulnerable and wanting to be accountable, this is exactly what we talked about. It was good, in the end.
T: But still. There was a lot of anti-perspirant that weekend. But we were hoping for an endorsement and they decided they wanted to partner. They financially supported Alison to write the play.
A: They completely supported it with really good critical feedback that I was able to incorporate and make the play stronger.
5. How did you navigate the tension of talking about such appalling practices and history in humorous ways? How do you help people to both laugh and also get the seriousness of what they are seeing?
A: Truthfully, I had stress dreams.
T: If you make them laugh first, the laughter opens you up in a way that you can hear and accept and feel things in a different way. That physical and emotional action allows you to hear truth differently, so that when you do hear the truth and say, “Oh shit, that’s appalling,” it hits differently and harder and hopefully does what Alison wants the piece to do, which is to not incapacitate you but to energize you for some sort of action.
A: The play is called Discovery: A Comic Lament. The aim I’ve had since the beginning is that this is a play for white settler people. That’s the audience. This is us doing our work and me wanting this piece to do some of this first level introductory work for other settlers, partly so that indigenous people don’t have to do that for us. It’s through comedy and laughing and opening yourself up that the audience can be encouraged to look long enough without looking away.
The Bible has a lot to say about the need to lament. I wrote a sermon in undergrad for a “Native Americans in the Media” class. I used the biblical book of Lamentations and indigenous stories in tandem, reading them back and forth. I hope this play is not encouraging a jump straight into what do I do, which is what Mennonites are really good at, but focuses on sitting in the ashes for awhile. Once you’re there, you have more access to voices that are showing a way forward.
6. You’re taking the show on tour for the first time this summer. What are your hopes for this tour?
T: The show will get rehearsed and produced in June. We have a tidy six-stop tour planned, ending in
Orlando at the Mennonite convention. What we hope to do as a company and where it’s a really valuable thing for me is that it’s another product that Ted & Company can offer. People can book this show. Click here! Many, many times!
The show is really, really good. It’s going to be well-acted, well-written and well-produced. This has the benefit of being new and completely eye opening for many, many people who are well-intended and ill-informed. We want to book this show for as long and as many times as we can over the next years.
A: One of the things that energizes me and other activists about dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery is that it’s very foundational. It relates to all the other microcosms of oppression. That makes it more horrible and also a place that you can dig into without burning out as much.
T: The other piece the coalition helped Alison and I see was that the play has the ability to morph, change, grow and react as an art form. A film doesn’t have that ability.
A: Theater is a great activist medium because it’s very responsive. It’s not like a documentary. It’s a lot more flexible.
7. Will you all continue to collaborate in the future?
A: I’m hoping to have time in my schedule to continue working with Ted. I will insist upon continuing to find ways to write and work with Ted, in my evening hours if I must. I want to continue on with my biblical prophets sketches and make a lectionary calendar for churches with one sketch a month. Putting it out so churches can do fully staged readings or reader’s theater.
T: I like to think of it as theater people reading.
A: Writing with Ted trained me into only being able to write to a certain point and then needing someone else to see it. I need an action and reflection cycle.
T: I would see us moving forward in three ways: Alison’s work, my work and maybe a collaborative piece. Right now the Discovery show sits in the middle somewhere. I spent the last three or four years in collaboration with some consultants. I’ve been asking myself, What do I do as I zoom past 60 and think about the next 10 years? What does that feel like? I’ve been thinking about the legacy project or what comes behind?
The idea that someone would come in and write with me and I would help them do their writing was new and it feels attainable. I feel like I can give more in that kind of setting than I can in other settings. It feels more authentic and sustained to help someone find their voice and do their writing so that 40 years from now, they can make a similar decision to pass it on.
And also, it goes both ways. I asked someone from the writing group about continuing to partner with Alison and they said, “If there’s a way for someone to help you write more, then you should do it, because we need more from you.” Maybe it can become this symbiotic relationship.
8. Ted, you are well respected across Mennonite Church USA and beyond, but I know you’ve talked in the past about the difficulty of finding funding for productions and actual financial support for the arts. Has this shifted at all over time?
T: I feel like there’s pockets of people who understand enough about the importance of theater and they have pockets with money. It’s still not a church or denomination-wide embracing of it, but there are enough people who say that they want this to continue. It’s been a 25-year process of trying to convince people of not just the importance of art, but also laughter. I don’t know that it would have been possible without simply the accumulation of years.
If I can say, “I think I’ve tried to help us learn this” and then say, “Oh and by the way, this is someone else you need to listen to, too,” and then hopefully Alison doesn’t have to spend 25 years forging her way. One of my goals was to introduce Alison to all the cool people I know. That’s what I think older people can do for younger people. I don’t want them to go through this unnecessary process. Yes, you need to go through the process of realizing that nobody gets to be a writer just by saying they want to be a writer. But let’s not go through the whole process of debating whether this has value.
A: I’ve been ridiculously lucky to get to jump on that brand. I’ve found that if I meet people who do not know Ted & Company and you say church theater, a whole slew of things come to mind for them.
T: Not many of them good.
A: It’s an incredible shortcut for me in the valuing of what I do in my world, simply by association, because Ted has a brand and it’s a good one. Ted is awesome.
T: Alison is awesome. What’s nice is that we really do laugh a lot.
A: Can we tell the glasses story?
T: You tell it.
A: It was two weeks into our time together. We did not know each other before the internship and we had talked for a grand total of 2 hours. I was star-struck a little bit. And we didn’t know how to work together. We were in Pennsylvania. I was driving a friend’s car and gave Ted a ride somewhere, and he left his reading glasses in my car. I was like, This is a golden opportunity. I found a polo shirt in my friend’s closet and drew a goatee and wrinkles.
T: And chest hair.
A: Yes I drew chest hair. And I took a whole series of pictures with the glasses on, doing my best Ted impressions. And I put the pictures on Facebook and tagged Ted. I felt like it surprised him. This was my sense of humor, and Ted liked it. It felt like a shift.
T: Part of it was affirming on one level. You don’t want to discount that someone thinks you are worth copying. But it was a great commitment to silly. One of the things that Lee [Ted’s former theater partner] and I tried to emulate was a Monty Python trait: a full commitment to silly with an intellectual side to it. When you combine those things, it’s pretty special.
For more information about the upcoming tour of this show, visit www.tedandcompany.com/shows/discovery-comic-lament/.