Episode 20 "Acting" with Ted Swartz

“Acting” with Ted Swartz, Part 2

~ing podcast Season 2 Episode 20
Full Episode Transcript

Season 2 Episode 120: “Acting”, with Ted Swartz Part 2 was released on May 18, 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 2 of a two-part episode. Part 1 can be found here.

Allison Maus, Carlene Hill Byron, 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. Today’s conversation with Ted Swartz is the second part of a two part conversation. If you haven’t yet listened to yesterday’s conversation, we hope to go back and listen to that first. Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together.

Allison Maus  00:46
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. The way you were talking about laughter, right, there’s there’s some vulnerability that can come with that. But also your mention of safety. I do feel like I’ve been to so many talks where you know, it’s about sex, sexual abuse, or really big, heavy topics. But there’s this laughter and, and safety of, we’re all here figuring it out that journey aspect that you talked about. And so I’m wondering, yeah, as you can, maybe more comfortably or you’re just able to go into these spaces that churches are maybe afraid to enter or feel like they can’t enter around LGBTQ plus issues or mental health, you know, or traumas that have happened to indigenous peoples? Yeah, how? How do you see your role, I guess, in I know, entering those spaces that need to be entered into, if we’re going to be thoughtful, engaging Christian humans in the world, that can parallel church in a different way.

Ted Swartz  02:10
I think about propaganda art, that is trying to tell you how to feel and believe the truth in a way that the perpetrators of that think that truth is storytelling, a compelling story that’s truthful, or authentic, with all of its shit, and joys and wonder, and mystery, breaks down barriers. If people are willing to listen, art can be tremendous, as you said, tremendously vulnerable, particularly theater can be that. And I’m still learning what that means. For instance, the show that I wrote listening for grace, which has to do with struggles with churches have with LGBTQ inclusion or not in that conversation. And it’s been a tremendously impactful show for me to perform. But I realized with some help of some friends, and also my therapist, that I have written, I’ve written in a passive voice, especially when I’m doing direct address. An example would be, there’s a character in Listening for Grace, where a gay man is talking to his cousin, about church in general. And the lines initially were, that I did for many years, and they were impactful, which is, “we love to preach community in church. We make you fall in love with it. And then when it’s taken away, it just hurts worse.” So what I rewrote this past January was this, which is “the church always preached community to me. They made me fall in love with it. And then when you took it away, it hurt worse.” And I realized what I’ve been doing is creating a barrier between me and the audience. Which is, as I’ve I’ve jokingly written into a show that is we’re still in process on the Enneagram, which is part of a major project of the Center for Art humor in Seoul, of which I’m executive director and CO leader at this point. And I have a monologue where I talk about fake vulnerability. performative vulnerability, I call it faux-nerability, which is, it seems as if I’m being vulnerable because I’m a good enough artist. But if I remove that barrier by writing less In a passive voice and make it an active voice and owning that story, and make it easier for an audience to come with me, it’s almost as if I’ve said, “Hey, I’ve got something really important and impactful to show you, it’s right around the corner. Come with me.” As opposed to, “here it is.”

Allison Maus  05:19

Ted Swartz  05:21
And that that’s, I’m still learning on those things. And I am writing some things that are around fundraising, which is one of my major tasks for the center. And saying, part of what I love about conversations that I’m having with young artists that we’re trying to support, upcoming and sort of passing along the legacy of whatever it is that I gained, is, I love learning new things. So the curiosity is a, I think, a spiritual gift. It seems to me that if we continue to express that sentiment that’s been said many times by smarter people than me, which is, the older I get, the more I learned, I learned, the less I know. And that is borne out by my friends who have been physicians for many years, which is, you’re never done learning something. That’s what keeps it exciting. And that’s as an artist and as a human being. It’s pretty critical. And I’m really, I’m still in love with that idea. I’m in love with ideas. And I love I love ideas of the mind, what I’m trying to do is embrace more. What do I feel? I sometimes skip that on to the next new, fun idea. Was that the question?

Allison Maus  06:42
I don’t remember. I don’t know. That was a great answer. Whatever the question was.

Ted Swartz  06:47
I can’t remember what the question was. I don’t… I think it has to do with stepping into difficult conversations. How does it help us do that? I think it’s when it comes with vulnerability and humility and curiosity. Those three things together, can make great art. And it can invite people into a conversation they might not want to have.

Allison Maus  07:11

Ted Swartz  07:12
I had a conversation with someone who thinks very different differently than I do theologically. And I was reacting against that. And I thought, Well, I’m not sure I can continue these conversations with him. Because it’s so different from where I have, I am now and will want to be ongoing. And I realized, I don’t think he was saying this is the only way to think about faith and theology. He may, he may think that, I don’t know. But I didn’t hear that from him. What he was explaining to me was his experience, which I’m not, I don’t think he was negating my experience. So there was a certain humility there that I appreciate it.

Allison Maus  07:56
Yeah, I well, I appreciated how you were talking about almost like the need to take it personally, yourself some of these difficult topics, so that you can help other people authentically enter into those spaces. And I think that, I find that as a challenge as a pastor, right? Like, I can preach about forgiveness, but there are people in my life who are really hard to forgive. And it is in wrestling with that and exploring that, that I can more truly and authentically preach about forgiveness and understand what is Jesus inviting me into really. And what does that look like in my daily life? So unfortunately, sometimes, we can’t just have those barriers up. And those difficult spaces are, are hard to inhabit. And I’m grateful there are people who are leading the way with humor and, and drawing people in in thoughtful ways. Yeah. Good. Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. People do that, whoever these fine people might be. Yeah.

Ted Swartz  09:04
So what I’m also is in the last number of months because of going through some difficult personal experiences too is what does it mean to be as transparent and authentic offstage as much as I want to be on stage and what happens when you step into a, an unknown, uncomfortable, potentially difficult situation with vulnerability and honesty and humility. And one of my biggest traits that I want to change is I try to assess how people are going to feel. Try to control that before I go in, before I say or do anything, which consequently means many times I do not say or do anything. Which was a surprise It makes it worse. Yeah. And that’s been a big challenge for me, it’s trying to control a situation of which you have no control. And it’s an ongoing challenge. And that, that kind of attempt to control. And I don’t think I’m a controlling person, I want everybody to like, be absolutely everybody to like, that’s my first impulse when I walk into a room. And it has served me well, at a certain level, as my therapist says, something’s worked for you this far. What if it’s not working anymore? Or maybe that’s how you want to live. I ran into a high school classmate I hadn’t seen in 35 years. And he said, “I don’t want everybody to like me. I don’t like everybody, why would I expect them to like me, everybody liked me?” And I thought, Hmm, what an interesting way to live. To have my impulses be more about authenticity and transparency. As opposed to I want this person to like me is a is a whole lot better. A whole lot better. You know, the Enneagram at all? Personalities?

Allison Maus  11:08
Yes. I identify as a nine, wing eight.

Ted Swartz  11:12

Allison Maus  11:12
I don’t know if what that tells you about me. But

Ted Swartz  11:17
Yeah, 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 don’t 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. Now those of you who don’t know what the Enneagram is, please watch for a new show that’s coming out this fall that’s been sponsored by the Center for Art, Humor, and Soul that deals with two characters. The other collaborator and I, Michelle Milne, about what it means to embrace their own hard stuff, and looking at themselves, and how they can be transformed in a way that allows them to be more empathetic both to other people and to themselves. And it will be funny. It has to be funny, in order for me to be one to be a part of it.

Allison Maus  12:21

Ted Swartz  12:22

That’s just me. But yeah. So that is one of my own personal struggles that I’m trying to learn from stage putting into personal life because we always take our personal life, and we put it on stage. We can’t help ourselves. Yeah, that’s what I love about theatre, which is hey, it’s about us. Yeah, it’s eminently relatable because we all do stupid things together.

Allison Maus  13:07
You’ve mentioned a couple of times now, the Center for Art, Humor, and Soul. I’m wondering if you can talk more about what is that? What’s the vision for what’s coming from it?

Ted Swartz  13:19
It’s beautiful. A number of years ago, I had an intern, Alison Casella Brookins, and she was in seminary and asked to do an internship. And she said that part of what she wanted out of the internship with me, with Ted & Company (the center didn’t exist at the time) was to stretch some writing muscles around a particular topic. And this one was indigenous rights, and the Doctrine of Discovery. So she started writing, and I realized she’s got some real chops. And and I said, If you finish this play, I would like to produce it, and put it on the road with with Ted & Company. And long story short, that that did happen. And what I realized out of that is I had a great deal of satisfaction and love for the idea of championing someone else’s work. Sometimes it’s passage of time, sometimes it’s where we are in life, that what do we pass it on? What do we how are we helping the next generation or generations or or persons who haven’t had a voice in the way that maybe I have? So the center came out of some of that. And it was also a place where we could ask for support, to help underwrite shows, that like the Doctrine of Discovery show, which is now called We Own This Now. And a show called I’d Like to Buy an Enemy, which is about peace and justice, social issues, and that way and then the Laughter is Sacred Space, which is about my relationship with Lee and mental health and suicide and grief. Most of those shows have some form had underwriting, so which is an outside source will help pay for it. So a congregation or a college or a community doesn’t have to pay as much. So out of those two things, what’s to pass on? Sometime in the future, and how to underwrite shows, there pandemic changed that a bit? Well, it changed a lot, which is we can’t be on stage. So the underwriting factor kind of goes away. So we started thinking about projects, that’s where the angiogram project came out of that, which is we can’t perform let’s transition into writing a brand new show without that we can perform. And then it’s translated into “Alright, how do we use the leverage created by 35 years on the road?” As a straight white male, with a whole lot of privilege – how do I take that and make it possible for persons who have not had that same kind of privilege? For artists who need a voice. Can we give them a voice? Can we elevate their work? And this is the thing it’s really important for me is, what can I learn from those artists? I think the church in general, let me let me go went way out on a limb and say, the straight church in general should just shut up for a while and learn from the queer community. And that’s part of what I wanted to learn from is indigenous voices. That’s what the show we earnest now has done for me. Women’s Voices, queer voices. And that, that, to me, is tremendously exciting. There’s a whole lot to learn. There’s a whole lot of transformation that can happen for me personally. And then how can we take that and show the world in a way that again? There’s the vulnerability, curiosity, humility. How can we take that and give people opportunity to show how that transforms lives. And that’s kind of the vision of CAHS. It is also about engendering conversations that transform people as well. So there’s, there’s a contemplative, somewhat mystical side to it. And I’m oriented toward let’s put it on stage. So we’ve got a nice combination of those kinds of things. I understand there’s a there’s an institution called the Center for Action and Contemplation. It’s a shame that’s already taken. That’s Richard Rohr’s place. I think about that sometimes where I’m oriented toward what the action is, the idea spurs in action. There’s another way to come to truth, which is, action engenders contemplation, contemplation engenders action. So it’s this nice little cycle about that, so that I’m not completely responding to what’s in front of me all the time. So the center, this is only really two and a half years old. And we’ve got a brand new energetic board that’s come on, as it’s our original board has transitioned out. And we’re excited about a lot of new things that we are going to do. The websites being constantly updated. Its arthumorsoul.com. That’s all one word art, humor, soul, it looks like Arthur somebody, but it’s arthumorsoul.com is where the website lives. And you can also find information on my website, which is Tedandcompany.com, about shows to support and also to book, we see it as a as a gathering place for artists to gain support, both psychologically emotionally as well as sometimes financially. And it’s a place then for people to see what’s going on, and how your community might be transformed through through the work of art. In all forms, I leaned toward, you know, spoken word, and theatre, but we want to be able to branch out into other art forms as well, too. So yeah.

Allison Maus  19:11
That all sounds really exciting. And yeah, I’m excited to check it out and learn more. I my last few questions you answered in your last answer. And so you are not only answering the question, but all future questions. You’re advanced level podcast guest here.

Ted Swartz  19:35
Oh my God answering future questions! Wow. Wow.  Oh, my God.

Allison Maus  19:39
I’m gonna break forth wall, and ask Ben if there’s any other thing he wanted to add before I close this out.

Ben Wideman  19:48
No, I the only thing I’m thinking is I bet there’s a jazz trio that really wants Arthur soul as their URL.

Allison Maus  19:55
Yeah, you stole it from them!

Ben Wideman  19:57
Or maybe it’s an emo band. I think that’s been it’s been a pleasure to be a fly on the wall. Ted and I went to church for a brief moment in time after graduation, but before I headed out to seminary, and I think our lives just keep criss crossing in these interesting ways, Ted. And it’s, it’s a privilege to keep having that happen.

Ted Swartz  20:18
I agree, it’s been fun

Ben Wideman  20:18
Yeah. Sometimes through some really shitty stuff. So that’s okay too! That hug that you gave Meredith and I, when, right after our stillborn daughter, as you were performing Laughter is Sacred Space, I could still feel in my bones. So thank you for, for that presence in my life.

Allison Maus  20:39
Thank you so much, Ted. I’ll say that first, for speaking with me and sharing this work that you do. If people want to follow along, where is the best way that they can connect with you and the work that you’re doing.

Ted Swartz  20:50
As I transition a bit more of my energy, I have to decide how I want to sustain Ted & Company because I only have so much capacity, right? Again, writing two brand new shows upcoming, and then to tour those I need an apparatus. So I’m trying to keep 10 company at least active in a way that it is still there. We’ll be on the road with with two shows. This fall on possibly a Christmas tour that run through 10 company with one of my collaborators and artists Jeff Raughts, from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the amazing piano player and very funny man. So Ted & Company still exists. There is some confusion, obviously some you know, so what we’re trying to do is take care of some of that confusion, which is we’re calling it a partnership. So the Center for Art, Humor, and Soul is partnering with Ted & Company in different projects. The Center we call it CAHS – C A H S – CAHS, Center for Art, Human, and Soul; we think of as an incubator. Not a producing company that they you wouldn’t call them to book a show. Sometime in the future maybe… but for right now it’s an incubator and then send it out. So if it’s a Ted & Company product after that, if someone comes to us to write a play, and they need some support CAHS will not own any of that. Yeah, the idea is, we can help as best we can to help your work go out. So we don’t have any interest in holding rights to someone else’s artistic, sweat, blood and dreams.

Allison Maus  22:36
Yeah, no, that’s a helpful clarification. Thank you again, so much. This was wonderful. And thank you everyone who will is is listening to this episode. I hope that you check out Ted’s work and the work that comes out of the Center for Art, Humor, and Soul as well.

Ted Swartz  22:51
Please do.

Allison Maus  22:53

Ted Swartz  22:53
Thanks, Ben. Great to see you. Thanks, Alison.

Ben Wideman  22:56
The month of May is recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month and over the next several weeks we will be highlighting some voices that do work in that particular area. Next week on ~ing Podcast, we’re joined by author Carlene Hill Byron.

Carlene Hill Byron  23:10
Faith communities are uniquely situated to provide outstanding mental health supports when we do what God calls us to do. Churches are designed to be places where people experience meaning and purpose and belonging and value and hope. And those are the mental health supports that we are best qualified to provide.

Ben Wideman  23:35
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.