No one likes to be upstaged.
This feeling rings true for veteran actor and playwright Ted K. Swartz of Harrisonburg, Va., who has dealt with unexpected script changes over his 34-year theatrical career, most recently by a vile pandemic antagonist.
Widely known for his ability to make audiences laugh one minute and be moved to tears the next, Swartz spent 20 years with acting-writing partner Lee Eshleman. The duo made biblical characters relatable in productions like The Creation Chronicles, DoveTale and Live at Jacob’s Ladder.
Then came Eshleman’s death by suicide on May 17, 2007.
“To say it was devastating is putting it mildly,” Swartz recalls. “I lost my business associate, my creative partner and my best friend, all at once.”
After Eshleman’s death, Swartz worked feverishly on new material. He co-wrote four new shows within a year and regrouped under the rubric Ted & Company, collaborating with actor-writer-music colleagues Ingrid DeSanctis, Jeff Raught, Ken Medema, Trent Wagler and others.
In 2012, Herald Press published Swartz’s Laughter Is Sacred Space, which chronicles his journey of falling in love with acting while on his way to a pastorate. He would become a theologian of a different sort, discovering at the intersection of humor and biblical story new understandings of Scripture and the human condition.
Now, once again, Swartz’s creative spark has been dampened, but not extinguished — this time by the bad actor COVID-19. Touring schedules were put on hold, performances canceled.
“Simply being onstage became impossible, and that will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future,” Swartz said. “Shows have been 90 to 95 percent of income for the last two decades. Some of them may have to be retired.”
The biggest obstacle has been what Swartz calls the difficulty of the maybe: “Maybe we will have audiences. Maybe enough people will receive the vaccine. Maybe churches, colleges and institutions will have the budget to hire us. Maybe.”
Another conundrum: “Is the model of a market-driven company possible anymore?” asks Swartz, who is 64. “I’m holding Ted & Company on life support or hibernation to make sure the infrastructure is still there when we can tour again. There have been gifts and a small local grant that have helped, and I’ve stripped down expenses to a bare minimum, hoping to not slide further into debt.”
Since September, Swartz has helped his two siblings care for his father, Robert Swartz, 91, of Spring City, Pa., whose memory loss proved “somewhat of a surprise” after the death of his mother, Ruth Swartz, at age 88 two years ago.
“It’s quite the engaging experience,” Swartz said, “spending time with Dad, making meals and healthy snacks, watching M*A*S*H together, rubbing his feet with lotion after showers — all of this has begun to feel like a ritual of mourning for my grief in watching him change and slowly disappear, a ritual I would not have taken time for were it not for the pandemic.”
To work at financial survival, Swartz and several fellow artist-colleagues established the Center for Art, Humor and Soul (arthumorsoul.com) in 2019. The nonprofit has, as Swartz describes it, “a dual purpose in advancing the arts and spirituality in a culture that desperately needs new stories to shape a just and grace-filled society.” As executive director, he lets people know about the center, does networking with other artists and fundraising.
He and his acting colleagues are using a different medium — video and online presentations — with some success. But they can’t replicate the live, onstage experience, where the possibility of improvisation and disaster within a written script help an audience stay engaged.
Swartz and artist-collaborator Michelle Milne of Goshen, Ind., are creating a live show and a series of videos based on the Enneagram, a popular personality typing tool. The as-yet-untitled show will seek to help people understand how different personality types work in human relationships.
Another project of the Center for Art, Humor and Soul is Portraits from the Human Faces Tour: Mental Health Struggles and Resilience, a book co-created with Valerie Serrels with photography by Steven Stauffer, that brings to light a topic often kept in the shadows — mental illness and suicide. A feature-length film, No Feeling Is Final, based on the book, will be released this spring.
“I am being stretched personally while trying to remain flexible spiritually and artistically,” Swartz said. “I still need to write and to perform. It’s what feeds my soul like nothing else. I also miss deeply what playwright Richard Everett calls ‘spiritual and artistic companionship,’ being on the road with other artists, meeting like-minded pilgrims.”
The pandemic, as well as the material Swartz grapples with as a writer, has pushed him into times of silence and contemplation — even a seven-day silent retreat, of which he says: “I actually made it. OK, I did talk to the neighbor’s god, er, dog.”
He believes the pandemic is providing “a space where transformation can happen, personally, professionally and artistically. It’s an unmoored, frightening, hopeful, invigorating, quite possibly unique space. When I hold the anxiety at bay, I can see the potential for so much life and holy surprises.”
He is feeling the pull to move into a mentoring role, encouraging and enabling other artists, especially those from a more diverse background.
“Maybe the pandemic has sped the process along toward a model of less touring and more enabling,” he said.
Swartz takes heart in knowing that one day the curtain will open, the spotlights come up and the interaction between actor and audience resume.
“I’m addicted to goose bumps and laughter,” he said, “and I feel a spiritual calling to continue sharing these gifts with others.”
Ted & Company TheaterWorks can be reached at 540-560-3973 or email@example.com for performances being offered and available dates. Details on shows, scripts and downloadable videos are also available at tedandcompany.com.
Jim Bishop is a member of Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va.