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Comedic exegesis coming to Assembly 2012
May 11, 2012
Winnipeg, MAN. — Ted Swartz studied to become a congregational pastor but discovered that his true calling placed him on stage rather than behind a pulpit, using “comedic exegesis” to encourage scriptural understanding.
“It wasn’t my intention to become an actor and a writer, but that was what happened,” Swartz says.
Swartz is the founding member of Ted and Company, a team of players who use humour to explore scripture and social justice issues. He’s producing two video sketches specially commissioned for Mennonite Church Canada’s Assembly 2012, taking place in Vancouver, BC, July 12-15. A live appearance wasn’t possible due to a previously arranged family commitment.
For Swartz, the assembly theme, Dusting off the Bible for the 21st Century, evokes a strong, visceral response that has influenced his sketches. He points to King Josiah’s encounter with the long-forgotten book of God (2 Kings 22). “I’m envisioning a cluttered back room and dusty scrolls…a quirky prophet who is misunderstood and a bit of an outcast. He’s the kind of guy that if you saw him coming, you’d move to the opposite side of the street.”
Another sketch, drawn from the “road to Emmaus” story (Luke 24), inspired the character of an old Jewish man who recounts a story passed down over four generations. “What was so intriguing for me about this story is that when bread is broken, Jesus is revealed. That’s astounding. When something is broken, something is discovered. In this case, God is revealed. There’s humour and a certain amount of pathos in that.”
So how did a fellow who wanted to become a pastor find himself writing, performing and producing comedy? Swartz says it happened in 1987 when he began his pastoral education. While studying drama with Barbra Graber at Eastern Mennonite University and Tom Arthur at James Madison University, he discovered that “the acting and theatre world connected with me more deeply than anything else I had ever done.”
Around the same time, Swartz met fellow actor and comedian, the late Lee Eshleman. Swartz had been invited to perform for a youth retreat, but his scheduled partner cancelled just a few days before they were to leave. A friend introduced Swartz to Eshleman and just a couple of days later, they were on the road.
Swartz says they received a number of wonderful responses to their performance, and their writing and performing partnership began. “Lee and I worked together on ideas that made us laugh,” Swartz says. “We were comedic soul mates.”
Despite his success on the stage, Swartz spent a number of years feeling angst over his strong attraction to theatre. His congregation at that time, Plains Mennonite Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, was funding the pastoral education that fuelled his desire to write and perform.
“Initially they weren’t happy about it,” Swartz says, “From a very pragmatic Swiss-German perspective; they weren’t getting what they paid for. Theatre and arts in general weren’t considered viable careers and didn’t seem to be a consistent choice with a calling to serve and be a pastor.”
Swartz says that the congregation is now one of Ted and Company’s biggest supporters. “Once they saw and understood what was coming out of seminary and my relationship with Lee and the biblical story, they saw it as a completely different approach to theology, but still something sustainable and useful.”
Most recently, Ted and Company took their production, I’d like to buy an Enemy, to the road on a “Peace Pies and Prophets Tour” fundraiser for Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). A playful pie auction interrupted stage performances and raised more than $15,000—along with priceless awareness—for CPT.
After the event, Swartz spoke with Tim Nafziger, outreach coordinator for CPT. “He said there’s a renewed energy [among CPTers]. It’s given the organization a moral boost,” Swartz reports. In fact, the tour was so well received that Ted and Company has committed to another 30 performance/auctions for CPT. There are plans to include Canada in that tour.
Swartz’s memoir, Laughter is Sacred Space, is expected from MennoMedia in Sept. 2012. Ted and Company is currently developing a touring show to accompany the book’s release.
Swartz lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with his wife Sue where they attend Community Mennonite. The couple have three married sons; Eliot (Katrina), Ian (Hannah), and Derek (Chelsea).
For a preview of Ted Swartz’s approach to “comedic exegesis”, see www.mennonitechurch.ca/tiny/1760