Mennonite actor-playwright Ted Swartz has overcome loss.
The stage is bare, and he’s standing there, emptiness all around. That’s how actor-playwright Ted Swartz has felt many times in the nearly three years after suffering a major personal, professional and financial loss.
From 1987 to 2007, Ted and his creative partner, Lee Eshleman, the duo popularly known as Ted & Lee, had captivated upward to one-quarter million people across the United States and into Canada, Kenya and Japan with their trademark quirky, dramatic takes on everyday life—through imaginative monologues, sketches and full-length productions, many on biblical themes and always liberally laced with wholesome humor.
The relationships Ted & Lee explored in their theatrical pieces usually took a different bent—the human responding to the Divine, prompting unpredictable yet profound responses both from actors and audiences.
They became household names, first in Mennonite circles and then spilling across denominational lines as more people came to experience their delightful on-stage presence and performances. Their careers accelerated after gaining entrée to the Staley Christian Lecture Series circuit and performing at national youth events, including the late Mike Yaconelli’s Youth Specialties ministries.
It wasn’t without struggles, personally, professionally and especially economically. Keeping the specter of the starving artist at bay was all too real for the duo.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Ted & Lee were scheduled to perform “Live at Jacob’s Ladder,” a musical they had written with composer Ken Medema, May 18-19, 2007, at Eastern Mennonite High School (EMHS) in Harrisonburg, Va. The show didn’t go on.
Late afternoon of May 17, Lee, 45, lost a long struggle with depression and took his life at his Harrisonburg home, leaving his wife, Reagan, and children Nicolas, Sarah and Gabe, extended family members and countless friends and fans around the world.
“To say it was devastating is putting it mildly,” Ted says. “I lost my business associate, my long-time creative partner and my best friend—all at once.
“Lee loved wrapping laughter around magical moments of God’s grace and presence,” Ted said at the memorial service attended by more than 800 people in Harrisonburg. “He was gifted greatly, flawed greatly, he was greatly human, and he was greatly loved by God and by so many in the world.”
But the 53-year-old Harrisonburg artist has moved forward, determined that the curtain will open, the spotlights come up and the interaction between actor or actors and audience continue.
He simply wishes at the moment for more patrons at the box office.
New Looks at the Old Old Story
Ted speaks passionately of his “calling” to a theatrical career, even though he didn’t sense that as a hormone-laden teenager at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, Lansdale, Pa., who married his high school sweetheart, Sue Althouse, at age 19 and worked in his father’s meat-cutting business in Spring City, Pa., for 12 years.
“That experience taught me a lot about people,” Ted says, but as time passed he grew restless behind the counter, the business eventually closed and members at Plains Mennonite Church in Lansdale encouraged him to continue his education beyond a year of community college.
In 1987, at age 30, Ted and Sue and sons Eliot, Derek and Ian moved to Harrisonburg to enroll at Eastern Mennonite University. He got involved in EMU theater productions and “fell in love” with the greasepaint and the stage, earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts in 1989.
Ted went on to graduate in 1992 with a master of arts in church leadership degree from Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a sense of ministry that would involve a different kind of pulpit to communicate the story of God’s love affair with creation.
An inauspicious beginning
The dramatic duo’s coming together began at Spruce Lake Retreat in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Ted, then a student at EMU, had prepared a series of comedy sketches for a youth leaders gathering at the Franconia Mennonite Conference-sponsored camp. The material was written for two people, but at the last minute his partner backed out.
Then EMU president Joseph L. Lapp introduced Ted to Lee, a 1986 art graduate of the university who worked part-time in the school’s print shop and did graphic design work for EMU.
Lee agreed to accompany Ted to Spruce Lake, where their performances met with enthusiastic response. “You guys must have worked together for a long time,” many commented afterward. A friendship formed in the fall of 1987 and evolved into a dramatic partnership, Ted and Lee TheaterWorks. Their comedy sketches expanded to a full-length production, “The Armadillo Tour.”
Their repertoire broadened to longer original works based on biblical characters and events, including “Fish-Eyes,” a dramatic portrayal of two of Christ’s disciples, Peter and Andrew, and “Creation Chronicles,” a fresh look at stories in the Old Testament. They teamed up with actress Ingrid De Sanctis on a Christmas show she helped write called “DoveTale.” Ingrid estimates that she has done at least 150 performances with Ted over the last 11 years.
“Ted and I have come to a really lovely place as friends and artists working together, like a brother-sister thing at times,” she says. “We have a friendship that is hard earned. We are both sensitive and stubborn and like our own ideas, but that’s what makes it work—we genuinely respect each other.”
Ingrid says she is proud of Ted for moving and pushing and forcing through the loss, that grief. “Artistically, he exploded and created so many new shows and is continuing to redefine himself and the direction of his work. I love directing and working with new plays, and we’ve found a great rhythm in that regard.”
At the time of Lee’s death, the pair was involved in their biggest undertaking to date, “Good God Theater, Pts. 1 and 2,” a 32-episode video and study series for Abingdon Press of the United Methodist Church. Some content was new, some based on earlier material. The project had high production values, according to Ted, and included a substantial investment of personal funds.
“Even though faced with a whole new set of issues and challenges, I still wanted to complete the project, which required recasting and rewriting some material,” Ted says. Video shoots took place in Virginia in September and November of 2007. It wouldn’t have been possible, he says, without the tireless assistance of Sue, Ingrid, who directed, and “a host of loving, giving performers and technicians.”
Unfortunately, by the time the massive project was completed, the economy nationwide was sagging. Prospective audiences evaporated; only about 20 percent of sales projected by Abingdon have materialized to date.
“What I’d hoped would provide much of my retirement pension instead became a major financial setback,” Ted says.
He credits his wife, Sue, a teacher at EMHS, and extended family on both sides with helping him survive, persevere and work at the healing process.
“Amid the grief and pain of recognizing that our lives were forever changed, I think I supported Ted best by taking care of myself,” Sue says. “I read all the cards and notes that came to our house and appreciated visits from family and friends who came to check on us. Our small group and congregation, Community Mennonite Church, opened their ears and arms.”
Sue continues: “You love by listening and showing patience, you put up with crazy schedules, you help with self-produced shows by selling tickets or merchandise, you often take a back seat, you make drastic changes with loss of income, and you trust that God will take what you give and multiply it for others.”
Soon after Lee’s death, Sue visited the Middle East, a trip that had been planned for months. While walking where Jesus walked, she says, “I realized that Ted and Lee’s portrayals of biblical stories were exceptionally well done. I was so grateful for their years of working together. That started my healing of the business loss. After returning, I read books on grief and took a master’s level class at EMU, Self-Care and Renewal of the Teacher.”
Ted and Sue attended a youth conference where, instead of performing, they were invited to come and be, with opportunity to talk and grieve together. A family meeting held at Christmas time with friend and counselor Nancy Good was a significant event in Ted’s journey of healing, he says, as they laughed and cried together.
Several months later, Ted helped Sue direct the senior class play, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” at EMHS. The show was dedicated to Lee, who had played the role of Atticus as a high school senior there.
Following Lee’s death, Ted worked feverishly on new material. He co-wrote four new shows in 2008-09, collaborating with fellow actor-writer-music colleagues, including “Tattered and Worn,” an exploration of losing one’s faith and finding it again with actor-pianist Jeff Raught of Talmage, Pa.; “Excellent Trouble,” co-written with Ingrid De Sanctis, bringing biblical pairs to life with all their human joys and heartaches; and “What Would Lloyd Do?,” drawing on the talents of free-lance actor-musician Trent Wagler of Harrisonburg and teacher-musician Jay Lapp of Ann Arbor, Mich. This show, also dramaturged by Ingrid, premiered at EMU’s homecoming weekend, Oct. 10-11, 2008. Ted also rewrote “Jacob’s Ladder,” which calls on the improvisation talents of musician Ken Medema.
“I feel a lot of freedom as a solo writer and performer, and I believe some of my best material has evolved more recently,” Ted says. “Lee’s passing has fueled my work and gives it a new passion and life as a creative artist that will have a life beyond Lee. I still enjoy doing some of our older material, but the Ted & Lee brand is gone, and I needed to move on.”
With new projects in the works, some things must end. Although scripts and videos for the Christmas play “DoveTale” are available, Ted, Trent and Ingrid performed the Christmas play for the last times Dec. 22-23 in the EMHS auditorium in Harrisonburg.
Ted & Company looks ahead
Ted is geared up—a “kickstart momentum,” he calls it—to present nine new productions and a solo piece. But he wonders, “Can this structure we’ve put together be sustainable—professionally, financially, emotionally—in a difficult economic climate?
“I need to do 100-110 shows a year to make a living,” Ted says matter-of-factly. “But I can’t keep up the previous pace at this stage of life, and having incurred major debt doesn’t help.”
Ted is working with a consultant to develop a fresh marketing strategy and find the niche for his new material—what direction is appropriate when historically only about 10 percent of his work is at Mennonite Church USA-related venues. He is also experimenting with different options to replace the graphic look that Lee once handled for promotion, playbills and simple stage props.
Sue is optimistic about the direction of Ted & Company: “For a long time, it felt like wheels were spinning. We had heard that any trauma to business takes two years for recovery; we are closer to three,” she says. “Many good things are happening: name, logo and Web site are in place, downloadables are available, new scripts are ready for publication, marketing and other roles in the company are better defined, and Ted is sighing less. I’m happy when he can concentrate on writing and performing, the things he does best.”
Beyond Sue and extended family members, Ted credits Sheri Hartzler, the troupe’s agent and manager for some 16 years, as an invaluable support throughout the readjustment process.
“The biggest adjustment was feeling a lot like we were starting over, only now it wasn’t only name recognition but what shows to do,” Sheri says. “The unsettled economy has directly affected the number of churches and other organizations that are able to book a show.
“I think progress and success for Ted & Company will occur as we seek to expand our marketing efforts, continuing to explore other options for performance, such as Ted’s solo shows, workshops, spiritual life weeks and weekend retreat events—in other words, using past material in new ways, still trying to get it out into the world while promoting the new shows with other actors.”
According to Sheri, “Fish-Eyes” was the most-booked in the past and remains the most-purchased script and video. All scripts and DVDs are readily available at www.tedandcompany.com/store.
For churches that feel pinched in the pocketbook, Sheri suggests that they consider working with other churches in their community to cosponser a show, find sponsors for the actual show fees, make tickets or offerings available for use for a local or church cause, or purchase script books or download scripts of an entire show (or individual scenes) and do their own performances. A click on “products” and a quick click on videos on the Web site provide the needed information at a glance.
“I invite persons to check with me on Ted & Company’s upcoming schedule,” Sheri says. “We may find a way to piggy-back on another performance and save some travel costs.”
Ted is enthused about “I’d Like to Buy an Enemy,” a one-hour show co-starring Trent Wagler that premiered at the Mennonite Church USA convention last July in Columbus, Ohio. “I think it will appeal to a broader audience,” he says. The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU sponsored a performance on March 22.
“Nothin’ Funny ‘Bout Money,” another collaboration with Trent Wagler, weaves comedy and original music around the sensitive topic of finances and caring for God-given material possessions. He premiered a solo show on the Apostle Paul at a Catholic church in Cleveland. Another new work, “St. John’s Revival and Music Review,” is a stage play that functions like a radio program structured around a church service. Ted wants to turn “What Would Lloyd Do?” into a screenplay.
“When I started working with Ted and Lee, I often said they helped me learn to laugh,” Sheri says. “When Lee died, the work became so overwhelming that laughter was no longer a priority. Now, as we make some changes in the business, in the shows, in the way we work and the people we work with, the laughter and the joy of the work is returning.”
“I’m addicted to goose bumps and laughter,” Ted says, “and I feel a spiritual calling to continue sharing these gifts with others.”
Out of tragedy plus time, there is renewed hope, healing and laughter for Ted & Company.
Jim Bishop is public information officer at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., and a member of Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, as is Ted Swartz.