Something charged the air last Thursday night in Common Grounds at 8 p.m. About forty-five students sat around the stage in anticipation of a Spiritual Life Week event featuring comedic actor/author and 1992 Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate Ted Swartz. Swartz had partnered with long-time friend and 1986 EMU graduate Lee E. Eshleman to create a Bible-based comedic acting duo for twenty years, before Eshleman took his own life in 2007 while suffering from clinical depression. Swartz was the speaker for Spiritual Life Week, discussing his journey of healing and redefinition after Eshleman’s death.
Swartz sat on a stool on stage and announced that he was leaving the time open to discussing his journey; he encouraged anyone who had questions for him about his acting and spiritual life (during his time with Eshleman as well as afterwards) to ask them.
An individual asked Swartz why he did not take on the attitude of “screw the church” after Eshleman died. “Part of me did,” Swartz revealed. However, all in all, Swartz stated that his home church was “a place of safety and comfort” and because of it he eventually began to heal. He emphasized that “no healing happens overnight.”
“A Stumbling, Bumbling…
An individual during the Common Grounds session asked Swartz if he knew that Eshleman was dealing with depression, and if so, how he dealt with that knowledge. Swartz stated that he had known, and it was an “elephant in the room” that soon became Eshleman’s identity, and then the identity of both of them.
While Swartz never had a blunt conversation with Eshleman about his struggles, Swartz emphasized that it is important to live one’s own life as well as to be there for someone struggling with depression. “Lee was never ready to do something, and that is part of the disease,” Swartz explained.
He remembered affirming Eshleman’s acting on a scene they performed hours before Eshleman’s death, but still shared that he and others who knew Eshleman personally “all have guilt.” He advised the audience to “hear” those with depression, and to “take it seriously, ask them to get help that’s better than you [a counselor or other psychology professional].”
Responding to the event, senior Audrey Hoover stated, “It’s good to hear. I’ve lost a friend, so it’s good to hear from someone who’s gone through the experience, about how to heal.”
Swartz continued the Common Grounds Event by reading a few excerpts from his book “Laughter is Sacred Space: The Not-So-Typical Journey of a Mennonite Actor.” Afterwards, he showed a video clip of himself and Eshleman acting out their version of the story of Nicodemus. Later he showed clips of them doing a “concentration exercise” backstage, one of the duo cooking, and one of the two speaking in melodramatic monologues about their acting relationship. “These are fun for me to watch,” Swartz commented warmly. “I find myself only watching Lee.”
Junior Stephanie Shelly commented, “It was a nice stress-reliever to be able to be both honest and to have some laughs.”
Later in the night Swartz was asked if the feelings he had expressed about needing to be in the community of the church but also feeling the desire to run away from it also described his feelings about God after Eshleman’s death. Swartz responded, “Yes, that was a huge part of my life for a while. It’s not over; no journey is ever over… I see the expressions of God in community more clearly than in anything else.” He then added, “I have no easy answers.”
“What was it like to work with Lee versus now?” another questioner asked. Swartz answered that he and Lee “developed a particular kind of art together,” and that they were “inseparable.” Today, although he works with a rotation of different actors, he emphasized that he “is well past having a permanent partner.” One thing that Swartz stated that he has realized but not processed yet was, “I wouldn’t be here today if Lee was still alive.”
Swartz led chapel Friday morning as a continuation of Spiritual Life Week. He described the beginning of his “stumbling, bumbling, pothole-filled journey” to healing after Eshleman’s death by saying, “I decided with great intelligence to not mourn and ignore grief.” However, he remarked that “grief is like a shape-shifter; you never know when or in what form it’s going to show up.”
He told the audience about his anger toward Eshleman and anger at himself for being “so vulnerable” to grief. For a long time, Swartz did not keep a journal or want to see a therapist. He revealed with humor that when he eventually saw a therapist for the first time, he felt as though his therapist was an audience.
First-year Sam Stoner described his interest in Swartz’s story: “I remember watching the two of them do shows and thought they were great!… I can’t imagine how hard it would be to lose my best friend and I believe that I really
felt Ted’s emotion from his Friday morning chapel and I gained even more respect for him, to see where he has come from and where he is now. He serves as a big inspiration for me when times are troubling.”
One difficult thing about the aftermath of Eshleman’s passing, Swartz said, was that many people assumed that his acting days were over, and that he would “do something else,” since he was the “straight guy” to Eshleman’s humorous acting mannerisms.
It was also hard for Swartz to not carry around his negative feelings everywhere he went. He eventually wrote shows “on grief, loss, and to [his] great surprise, hope.”
“Acting cannot be practiced alone. Faith cannot be practiced alone,” Swartz emphasized. He stated that the reason he believes in God is because he participated in church and the arts, which both have a “fragile mystery” to them.
Sophomore Angelina Pardini commented on Swartz’s Friday chapel with the statement, “I was really impressed by how far Ted’s come in the past few years and how he linked acting to his faith – coming back to theater was [his way of] coming back to God.”
Swartz performed a final scene in chapel, the last scene he and Eshleman acted in together. In this piece, two fishermen living during the confusing time of Jesus’ life “turned to what they knew”: fishing.
They were unsuccessful, until Jesus yelled from across the lake to throw their nets on the other side. “I don’t think he’s going to shut up until we do,” one fisherman said to the other. They caught multitudes of fish after listening to Jesus’ suggestion.
In closing, Swartz said, “What I really want to say is that shit will happen. It’s not God’s fault. Sometimes we need to stick together. Sometimes we need to get up and go fishing.”
-Monica Root, Circulation Manager