"Acting" with Ted Swartz

“Acting” with Ted Swartz, Part 1

~ing podcast Season 2 Episode 19
Full Episode Transcript

Season 2 Episode 19: “Acting”, with Ted Swartz Part 1 was released on May 17, 2022. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

In today’s episode, ~ing host Allison Maus sits down with Ted Swartz, a playwright and actor, who has been mucking around in the worlds of the sacred and profane for over 20 years. Ted fell in love with acting and theater on his way to a traditional pastorate in the Mennonite church, a denomination not usually thought of as a hotbed of theatrical opportunities. In addition to discussing what it has been like to combine theater with a seminary education, Ted and Allison will be talking about his journey toward the intersection of humor and biblical story, and what projects are on the horizon including the launch of The Center for Art, Humor, and Soul.

This is part 1 of a two-part episode. Stay tuned for the next part coming up later this week!

Allison Maus, Ted Swartz, Ben Wideman

Ben Wideman  00:00
Welcome to Season Two of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine.  What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus? Each week ~ing Podcast invites you to join us on a journey. Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing, and being… people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world.

Ted Swartz  00:27
I discovered that it was a really wonderful way into a story when you ask that question first, not what does it mean, but what’s funny. And if you follow that with integrity, and you’re not making fun of the characters, you’re not making fun of belief system. But what you’re not doing is giving those characters a 2000 or 2500 year old theology and understanding. And I think that was what made what Lee and I then started doing, related to that, different.

Ben Wideman  01:02
Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together.

Allison Maus  01:08
Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of ~ing Podcast. Allison here, and today I am here with Ted Swartz, who is a playwright and actor. Welcome, Ted, how are you doing today?

Ted Swartz  01:21
Thanks, Allison. I’m doing great.

Allison Maus  01:22

Ted Swartz  01:24
Another opportunity to have a good conversation.

Allison Maus  01:26
Yeah, will you tell our audience and me a little bit about yourself, who you are and the work you do?

Ted Swartz  01:32
As you said, in the introduction, I usually identified myself as a writer and an actor. And I started this career as a bit of a detour after going to college and seminary as a 30 year old to become a pastor and got derailed by my appreciation and love of theater, and specifically comedy and started a business with a creative partner in 1994, 95. There’s this interesting transition from when you say to yourself, I think I’m an actor, to saying it out loud to someone. And then actually making a living doing that, in my opinion, you can say that you are an actor, anytime in that whole range, I remember it being very distinct change, for me to say, not only am I an actor, I’m an artist in a way. And this was a bit of a late discovery for me. And so for the last 30 years, it’s been my full time vocation. Within those 30 years, there were some amazing and wonderful highs, of simply performing in front of tens of people, hundreds of people, and thousands of people at different arcs and changes throughout my career. And realizing that I get to do something deep and meaningful. And it’s not simply the material that we were doing. It was the fact that I’m in the place where I feel wholy who I am. And that was wonderful. 15 years ago, about halfway through this process, my creative partner took his own life on a suicide and then about the same time the economy worldwide crashed, which impacted me personally and then business wise. And then pushed the rock back up the hill until pandemic, and 2020 in the midst of what was looking to be the biggest year in terms of number of shows and reach in all of the 30 years 2020 was going to be that and then so we lost about 40 to 50 shows that year. And I have performed live four times since February of 2020 or March of 2020. And so now we’re back thinking, okay, is this possible? To be able to do this again?

Allison Maus  04:11
What sparked your love for theater, for acting, that changed this trajectory for you? But then I’m guessing also, you know, motivated you through a lot of these lows that you experienced?

Ted Swartz  04:26
Right, I think I took my first acting class in undergraduate at age 30. I was married at the time three boys… four, two, and six months old. And there was this calling and support from a home congregation in Pennsylvania… I was going to school in Virginia. But in the midst of all of that process in my 20s getting married at 19 and working for my my family business which closed when I was 29. This sense of search, as all of us probably go through at some level like who Am I what am I doing here? What’s what’s, what are my not just goals in life, but what is the core of who I am. I didn’t ask those kinds of questions at the time because it felt frivolous. And I was coaching, basketball and coaching baseball, and I was a youth leader in our church. And all those things kind of coalesced into well, this person saw that there was perhaps a skill set helped me to lead into pastoring. And there were some things that were very appealing about that. But it wasn’t until I, I took an acting class, and at the same time met my creative partner in that same fall of 1987, where these things coalesced into this, I’m going to call it my own personal conversion experience.

Allison Maus  05:48

Ted Swartz  05:48
And discovering a truth about myself I hadn’t known before, which is my calling remains true, I think it took a very different form. And it took a very different, not just form instead of not working in a church in a pastoral situation, but rather being an actor. That calling I think has sustained me. So I’m trying to answer your question, come back to answering. This is what I’ll do. I’ll talk for three minutes and wonder if I’ve answered the question. What it did, it touched me in in a particular way that I have ever felt before, in terms of what I was doing. I mean, I love coaching. But I realized I had a certain skill set around that point. But I felt like I was I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t be even career wise, have that be a profession, or find, okay, I’m good at this level, I can’t go past that level. And for acting, it felt like oh, my gosh, this is really kind of who I am. And it felt like the world could continue to evolve and grow and expand and I could still fit in, in that in that art form. So I became a writer, because I enjoyed ideas, I love ideas, how to coalesce that into a four to six minute sketch that can make people laugh. It has a good beginning, a middle and an end, and it’s done. And that also fits my personality. So I started in sketch comedy with Lee Eshelman, my partner at the time. So while I was falling in love with acting as a general artform, and getting connected in ways I didn’t know was possible. I was also I found what I called my comedic soulmate in that we loved making people laugh in very similar ways. And that short art form also fits my personality, something short, not not a full length play, writing something short, you get the impact, you move on, you do the next one. And that’s also fits my personality, somewhat as well. So I became a writer in order to get on stage, I started a business with Lee in order to get on stage. So all of those becoming a writer and now writing over 30 plays, and having a business that’s had its ups and downs, and but has sustained at least 30 years. all comes down to the point where I feel most present in the world when I’m on stage. And so one of the my tasks personally, in growth is to take that feeling of presence in that moment, where I’m, I’m listening intently, I’m really in the moment, and I’m going to be authentic in the moment to translate that to the rest of my life. Because that’s also in my personality, which is I’m always thinking about what’s ahead. And am I really present in the moment, am I listening? Am I curious, in ways that not only enliven my own life, but also also build empathy for those around me. So I sometimes have said, everything I learned about life I learned by pretending to be other people. Yeah, again, a long answer to a short question.

Allison Maus  09:12
That’s okay. It’s interesting to hear your story and your process, especially the way that you talk about it relates to you know, the language I would use about my call and switching directions. You know, I landed in a more traditional pastoral space so I do think this is something that Yeah, we all have to process and find where we fit in the world and where we come alive. I wonder if you’re, as you started exploring, acting and writing more, did it always fit with the your vision of like your theologian side, or did you ever think it would take you away from the some of the stuff you were preparing yourself for in seminary? What did that look like?

Ted Swartz  10:02
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that there was, well, first of all, that the church that paid for housing and tuition for five years for me to go to school, were not happy with my decision.

Allison Maus  10:14
Yeah, not surprised.

Ted Swartz  10:15
So. And there was also a mistrust of the art form and the lifestyle that people would equate with being an actor in the way that they envisioned it. Okay, so he’s going to head to New York, he’s going to head to Chicago, he’s going to head to LA and pursue this in a quote, what we think is the traditional way to, to be an actor. While I was in seminary, I connected with a professor at the time, who had a love for the arts, and was tremendously encouraging, pushing me into into writing more because I had started to write material that was based on a biblical story. So I was working with the youth group at our church and the poor kids were for two and a half years or so. When I was on pastoral team, I would tell them, the youth group that we have a church service, that we’re in charge of X number of weeks or months from now, what we’re going to do is we’re going to do a one act play that I’m going to write. And I guess I wasn’t so blunt like that, but I probably asked them if that would be okay. Yeah. So I began actually working with my own congregation in terms of creating plays when I play sketches out a biblical story, with the hook, because of my love of comedy, and my work with Lee and sketch comedy with what’s funny first in the piece. And I discovered that there was a really wonderful way into a story when you ask that question first, not what does it mean, but what’s funny. And if you follow that with integrity, and you’re not making fun of the characters, you’re not making fun of a belief system. But what you’re not doing is giving those characters a 2000 or 2500 year old theology and understanding. So if you’re going to write a first century story, you cannot write it with any kind of understanding that there is 2000 years of theology tied to it. And I think that was what made what Lee and I then started doing, related to that different. So when I was in seminary, I was dabbling in it. I did an assignment for a preaching class where I envisioned a number of the disciples talking to an unseen character, which was Jesus, around the feeding of the 5000 story, which is, they come to Jesus and they say, Lord, we realize it’s going really well. Lots of people here, we’re hoping someone’s writing it down, maybe talk to John.

Allison Maus  13:05

Ted Swartz  13:06
But it’s supper time. And it’s time to let them all go home so they could get something to eat. And then I listened to the unseen answer to that, which is, you know, you go find them something to eat. So my response is, I beg your pardon. And then it’s, we’ve got to go find something, come back report in. And then it’s, you know, pick up the leftovers. And all this whole time they’re following because, hey, there’s something about him and they’re confused. And the comedic aspect of that was the hook for me. And that image, that story of then Jesus saying in the following boat ride, you know, beware of the use of the Sadducees and Pharisees. And they think, well, it’s about fish. It’s because we didn’t bring any bread, right? No, it’s not about the bread. So that one image then became a sketch that became a one act play that became a full length play that Lee and I toured from a different… times from 1994, when we premiered it till he died in 2007. We were still doing pieces of that, and I still do some solo pieces. So I don’t know how many hundreds of 1000s of people have seen versions of that story that came out of my work in seminary, because I had had an assignment and I didn’t want to do a normal assignment. And with the encouragement of this professor, his name was Dwayne Sider. And also my congregation was very supportive of what I was doing here in there in Virginia. The ones back in Pennsylvania weren’t quite so sure, yeah. But I did have the opportunity to go back and explain what I was doing. And I took Lee along with me, and we performed some of our biblical story stuff on the Sunday morning and allowed people to see okay, this is what we’re doing. So in a sense it’s… many people have said to me it was a melding of what they saw as a theological understanding coming out of seminary. And in a comedic, and an actor background, a theatrical background, I would sometimes say, Well, I wasn’t learning a whole lot of theology in seminary that I was putting into those pieces. But what I was doing was given the space, the opportunity, then being in touch with people like professors who I think were very happy to see me get outside of the box a little bit in terms of what the ology was. So I think it was Spike Lee, who said many years ago, before the advent of video, he said, many of us went to film school, to have access to equipment. We didn’t go to film school, learn how to make film, we went. So in some ways, being in seminary gave me access to the equipment. And I probably learned a little bit more by osmosis than what I think I did. But there was a whole lot of things that didn’t feel relevant to me. My lens was how does this fit into an acting career? How does this fit into my love of theater? How can I take that idea and put it on stage? So I was very enamored of that. That spark, what I call sacred curiosity. Yeah.

Allison Maus  16:30
So yeah, I think you’re starting to answer the next question that’s coming to mind for me that maybe it’s a question for those who are more skeptical. But why is this art form an effective way to talk about theology or matters of faith or, or scripture?

Ted Swartz  16:53
I’ve always looked at art as a reflective mirror not not to look back at you, but to look at maybe a theological truth, or I see it as I’m going to now use my hands on an audio podcast, to explain something, which is, if I’m talking to you directly, Allison, I could give you what was called direct declaration, proclamation, I’m going to talk to you. But if I talk to you in metaphor, if I talk to you, and you know, art, if I talk to you, and comedy, you have to travel to that other place that I’m pointing toward. So it makes the audience active, it makes the listener active. So you’re participating immediately, you don’t make people laugh, what you do is you invite people into a situation that they see as surprising, familiar, and true and authentic. And those, those three things are, there’s probably more, but those three things are the rock bed of why we laugh. If I can invite you into laughter, then mental and emotional barriers break down. And there’s also something happens physically, what I’m learning a bit more about that is, and I’m just doing some reading with with one of my collaborators about how much your body can influence how we think, we think your your body, your mind, is influencing your body, when in reality, your body’s influencing your mind, perhaps even more so. And, and so many of the new studies that I’ve been reading and listening to are saying that the body is what’s truthful. The mind is distrustful. So what is your body saying in this? So when you laugh, your body is opening up anthropologists have said that many, many of them believe that. The very act of laughter comes from something that the great apes still do, which is they make that sound that is Hoo, hoo, hoo. Which in there is a signal to others in the group, the tribe, that they’re safe. So if I meet someone who’s threatening and I might, an ape would do that to another to say, It’s okay, you’re safe here. So in laughter, if we follow the evolution of that, so that when we do that, it almost always says, You’re safe here. So that if I can help a group of people laugh together, then they’re participating in that same kind of thing, which is, it’s safe here. If we find something funny and humorous than we laugh together, the very act of being together and breathing together is critical. When we started writing biblical story with the idea what’s funny without making fun of it, so you’re not punching down, you’re, you’re asking up you’re saying, These are human beings. We’re all in this together, and we’re all wonderfully blessedly ignorant about this story, but we’re going to learn and we’re gonna laugh together, that the arts in general because of that reflective nature inviting people to something to participate in, in engenders learning so much more deeply. And it’s it’s not the easy way. The easy way is to say, here’s the truth. If you want to be in here’s what you have to believe, rather than invite them into a journey themselves.

Allison Maus  20:20

Ted Swartz  20:21
You know, an Anabaptist aren’t, aren’t immune to some of this toxic BS in terms of theology, but at least in, in theory, there’s this sense that we are going to discover what the truth is. In a journey together. It makes a great book title… Brian McLaren’s book is We Make the Way by Walking. And it’s based on a number of very impactful readings and writings over the years, which is its presence. A friend of mine said that in the best case scenario Anabaptist theology can be considered theology of the presence of what’s right now, you know, the Kingdom of God is here. And now as opposed to what’s in the future. So, for me, art helps us do that. It lets us stay here in the now and the presence. But I think mostly it’s when you traffic and metaphor the audience. You have to do some work. And metaphors to heart, heartbeat of art, and particularly theatre.

Ben Wideman  21:32
Our conversation with Ted Swartz is not done yet. Join us tomorrow as we continue this conversation, including some reflection on the Enneagram. And what it might mean for us as we navigate our personality types.

Ted Swartz  21:45
I’m a seven with a strong wing six, which fits that. I need to make sure I’m going to be safe before I venture out. And then I waffle. I know what the heck I want. So I’ve asked a couple of good friends which wing do you want me to be? And they said, “Oh my god, please be an eight wing which is just tell the truth. Get it, you know, and say it and then take consequences from there.” And I have resisted that my whole life.

Ben Wideman  22:12
As always we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review in your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards. And produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at MennoMedia.org.