EMU celebrates the late Lee Eshleman, pictured above (r) with longtime collaborator Ted Swartz (l), by naming the new University Commons studio theater in his honor.

EMU Celebrates Life and Work of Lee Eshleman, Names New Studio Theater in His Honor

EMU celebrates the life and work of Lee E. Eshleman, 1963-2007, by naming the new University Commons studio theater in his honor.

A small gallery at the theater entrance will showcase some of Lee’s art work and photos of him on stage.

Lee was the last student to graduate with a degree from EMU’s art program in 1986. After graduating, he worked in the school print shop and as a graphic designer for EMU.

Former EMU art professor Jerry Lapp, MFA, recalls discussing the “knowing line” concept with Lee.

“A ‘knowing line’ was what Lee was good at,” Jerry recalls. “He captured particulars and peculiarities in animals, humans or objects rendered, that caused one to stop and gaze, ponder, chuckle. The ‘knowing line’ Lee rendered created a two-dimensional reality which we, as viewer, could so easily imagine into our own realities, outer or inner.”

Ted & Lee
Lee Eshleman (l) teamed up with Ted Swartz (r), Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate, for a 20-year partnership that resulted in the well-known Ted & Lee TheaterWorks. Ted says, “Lee understood that great art is also embracing the simple. A simple line in drawing, a simple line in acting, a simple line in writing. Despite a great intellect, he relished in the small seemingly silly exchange, which of course communicated great meaning."

“Lee got at the invisible realities which are a part of our existence and brought them forth. Suddenly, we would be sitting as part of the audience, exposed to our self-thinking, having to admit to our silliness, smallness or, largess.”

Lee also began his stage career at EMU.

“Lee wasn’t afraid to take his fear and pain on stage with him,” says Barbra Graber, MFA, former EMU theater professor and department chair. “But he also wasn’t afraid to let that Divine Comedian morph the pain into something else, something magnificent, poignant, deeply truthful, and so very funny.”

Graber worked with Lee as a theater student, later as an EMU graphic designer (he produced all the theater posters and programs) and as an actor in Theater AKIMBO from 1991-1998. Theater AKIMBO was founded by Graber and Ted Swartz as a community-based professional theater company under the auspices of EMU’s theater program.

Ted & Lee TheaterWorks

In the fall of 1987, after graduating from EMU and working on campus as a designer and printer, Lee teamed up with Ted Swartz, Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate, for a humorous sketch at a church camp. That chance teaming became the springboard for a 20-year partnership – Ted & Lee TheaterWorks .

Lee’s humor, wit and passionate faith were shared with thousands through the work of Ted and Lee, while he continued his journey as an artist, sharing creative inspirational drawings with friends, the church and for the business. Lee captivated audiences with his hilarious renditions of everyone from the Archangel Gabriel to Julia Child.

“It’s hard to say how much Lee meant to me,” reflected Swartz in November 2009. “He was my comedic and theatrical soul mate as well as a great friend. We grew as artists together and Lee taught me much about humor, about word choice, about clarity of objective. But he also made me laugh more than anyone before or since. It was a great gift, not a flippant or incidental thing, the ability to make another laugh, but rather an ultimate gift. He was also not shy about tackling and wrestling to the ground his own pain and struggle giving his work depth and color.”

“The on- and off-stage chemistry between Ted and Lee was remarkable,” remembers friend and long-time colleague Jim Bishop , EMU public information officer. “Even more, their material was fresh, imaginative, often slightly askew. They pushed the envelope, but never resorted to denigrating people or employing off-color humor.”

EMU dedicated the new theater space, and other major renovations to the University Commons, during a March 26, 2011 event.