Actor and EMU alumnus Ted Swartz (center) converses on themes of sexuality, faith, and family in "Listening for Grace," a play that invites the audience to listen to the diverse voices speaking about the controversial, challenging topic of same-sex relationships.

Playwright and actor Ted Swartz brings music, comedy and storytelling to conversation about sexuality, faith and family

Three is a magic number, says veteran actor and playwright Ted Swartz.

“That’s true in baseball, theater and comedy,” he says. “I generally listen when things come in threes.”

The adage has served him well for more than 20 years, as Swartz ’89, M.Div ’92, has engaged with the unlikely trio of theology, comedy and issues of faith. First with Lee Eshleman ’86 in Ted & Lee, and now with Ted & Company, he has written and produced more than a dozen plays, travelling extensively worldwide for performances.

And that’s why, when three similarly focused suggestions came to his drawing board, he took notice.

“About two years ago,” Swartz remembers, “I was asked to consider writing something about same-sex issues and sexuality in the context of the church, and I was busy at the time. But then six months later, on two other occasions, people asked the same question, and I took it a bit more seriously.”listening-for-grace logo

This dialogue resulted in “Listening For Grace,” a play that invites the audience to listen just as Swartz did to the diverse voices speaking about the controversial, challenging topic of same-sex relationships.

Eastern Mennonite University will host a performance of the show, which is free and open to the public, Sunday, Nov. 2, at 7:30 p.m. in Lehman Auditorium. Seating is on a first-come, first-serve basis, with doors opening at 6:45 p.m. A talkback session will follow.

Characters share variety of perspectives

The main character of “Listening For Grace” is Daryl, a widower who learns that his son is gay. During the 70-minute performance, Daryl shares the stories of five other characters, each of whom provide a different perspective on same-sex relationships and faith. One of those voices is that of his deceased wife, Grace.

“The audience is continuously listening throughout this play, for Grace as a character who speaks truth to the main character in a way he can’t hear otherwise,” Swartz says. “They are listening for Grace, but they are also listening to hear themselves in someone else’s story.”

In shaping the play as an extended dialogue, Swartz invites the audience to honor their own viewpoints and those of others, and then to re-engage in continued discussion with respect and empathy.

Campus community invited to conversation

Recent performances at Mennonite churches and other locations around the country have often sparked the scheduling of conversation circles and small-group discussion, “sometimes even a few days later to allow people to process it, depending on how the community or congregation wants to handle it,” Swartz says.

EMU is following this model, hosting a follow-up conversation for campus community members at the Discipleship Center on Monday, Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m.

Pastor Brian Martin Burkholder, director of campus ministries, says the play offers an opportunity for continued dialogue.

“I expect that most people will find their voice, or voices, represented by one or more of the characters in this play such that continued reflection and conversation with others might be prompted,” Burkholder said. “Ideally, this performance will offer a shared experience that encourages ongoing dialogue.”

Play, cast, have connections to campus

“Listening For Grace” has been performed at Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg to a packed house of Swartz’s hometown fans.

Yet Swartz says he is delighted to be returning to EMU and to Lehman Auditorium, the stage “where I learned to act” while studying theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

And it’s fitting that the play returns to campus, where Swartz debuted an early script at a closed reading in the fall of 2013. Since that time, the play morphed dramatically, most notably from an ensemble to a solo cast, and from recorded music to on-stage accompaniment.

Music at the Nov. 3 performance will be provided by pianist Phillip Martin ’13 and celloist Justin Yoder (when Justin is unavailable, EMU student Chris Yoder contributes in this role).

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