Writer and performer Ted Swartz is a rare bird. Misidentified initially as a Congregational Theologian (Theologus ecclesiaticus), it was some time before Ted was correctly identified as a separate, but related species, the Dramatic Theologian (Theologus scaenicus). The two species share many of the same traits, but their presentation can be markedly different. It took years of carefully discerning and testing Ted’s call in multiple environs to make the accurate determination. Native to a very small field, that of didactic drama, it was thought perhaps that Ted was the only one of his kind. Providence, though, had something up its sleeve. Laughter Is Sacred Space: The Not-So-Typical Journey of a Mennonite Actor (Herald Press, 2012) by Ted Swartz is the story of what happened when two rare birds met.
The serendipitous pairing of Ted with longtime artistic partner and creative soulmate Lee Eshleman, birthed a dramatic enterprise which brought fresh perspectives on scripture to audiences of all ages. I was fortunate to see them perform on several occasions. The most memorable Ted and Lee performance for me was the time I saw them at the Blue Gate Restaurant in Shipshewana, IN. This was before the Blue Gate had built their theater and so the performance was relegated to a basement banquet room. It was about the least ideal performance space one could offer: a long, rectangular room with support posts scattered throughout–in which the stage platform was positioned at one end–that had an eight foot drop-ceiling and the acoustics of a church basement. Now Lee, of imposing height, found himself with a particular challenge. Eight feet of airspace minus six-feet-plus of Lee minus one foot of platform height left Lee with less than a foot of head clearance–and the skits involved jumping. Ted and Lee owned the space; their chemistry as actors and their brotherly ease made the basement setting melt away and we the audience were drawn into the scene-space in which their characters lived. When Lee had to jump, he avoiding the ceiling by managing to both lift himself in the air and compress his torso in a style worthy of the best of vaudeville. These two holy fools consistently got people to let their guard down; breaking the hardpan of our imaginations so that seed might take root.
Laughter is not a Mennonite churchman memoir like those from the days of yore. The image of a cigar-chomping, in-character Ted on the dust jacket should warn the presumptuous righteous like the proclamation on old maps which denoted uncharted territory with “Here Be Dragons!”
Ted’s vulnerable account of his own grief work after Lee’s untimely death is a gift to those of us in the sea of audience faces into whose hearts the gents snuck and for whom the loss of Lee was something substantially more than a passing soundbite.
I expected Laughter Is Sacred Space to be a good memoir. I did not expect it to be a primer on the philosophy of stagecraft. Nor did I expect it to be a pastoral epistle about religious vocational calling. Likewise, I did not expect it to be a guidebook for accompanying a friend with mental illness. Indicative of the dramatic artistry of the man himself, Ted’s book manages to be all of these things at once; winsome and never contrived.
Laughter reads like a Director’s Cut edition of the life of Ted Swartz complete with asides in footnotes. Flipping through this book at a glance, one might think the typesetter was asleep at the wheel, but in fact the formatting is very intentional. Don’t skip the Guide to the Layout of the Book which comes after the Foreword written by Brian McLaren.Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher, Herald Press. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”