Ted Swartz’s one-man play teaches the importance of laughter in a celebration of life lost

Ted Swartz's performance of “Laughter is Sacred Space" opens Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Weyers Cave Community Center. He teaches audiences the importance of laughter in a celebration of life lost, but also a celebration of love. Swartz '89 shares about depression and mental illness in the life of his friend, business partner and fellow alumnus Lee Eshleman '86, MDiv '92. (Courtesy photo)

This preview, published Aug. 24, 2016, in the Daily News-Record, profiles Ted Swartz ’89, MDiv ’92, and “Laughter is Sacred Space,” his performance about depression and mental illness that tells the story of  friend, business partner and fellow alumnus Lee Eshleman ’86, MDiv ’92. The Studio Theatre on campus is named after Eshleman.

Ted Swartz knows what it’s like to experience the grief of losing a loved one to suicide.

But in his performance of “Laughter is Sacred Space,” which opens Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Weyers Cave Community Center, he teaches audiences the importance of laughter in a celebration of life lost, but also a celebration of love.

“If you can find comedy in the situation, it means you care deeply for the situation,” the principal actor, creative director and writer of Ted & Company TheaterWorks said. “That we can find laughter in a situation means there’s a lot of love.”

The free one-man performance is the first of 11 shows around the country on the September Suicide Prevention Awareness month “Human Faces” tour.

[Swartz returns to the area with a Sept. 27 performance at 7:30 p.m. at Bridgewater College.]

Using a multimedia show of photos and video, Swartz takes the audience through his relationship with friend and business partner, Lee Eshleman, who took his own life in 2007.

Through Swartz’s narration and the media shown, the audience will get a glimpse of who Eshleman was, his work with Swartz and what he meant to him.

“I like [the photos] we chose because it pokes fun at our relationship and also gives people a great glimpse into who [Eshleman] was and how talented he was and our love for one another,” Swartz, a Harrisonburg native, said.

The show highlights the paradox of working with a comedic partner struggling with bipolar disorder, while Swartz struggles to write and perform stories about God despite feeling an absence of God.

The juxtaposition of footage from Swartz and Eshleman’s work together and Swartz’s solo performance highlight the sense of loss as Swartz struggled toward hope.

“There’s a sense of absence in the midst of the sketches,” he said. “But why they’re written and how they’re written is a journey toward wholeness even with the absence.”

The show is sponsored by Pleasant Valley Church of the Brethren and Karis “Gifts of Grace,” a Christian nonprofit founded to help people change their lives through God.

On the tour, Swartz targets houses of worship and religious organizations because they are the best positioned and least equipped group of people to deal with mental illness.

With suicide so prevalent, especially in the veteran population, it’s important to raise awareness, according to Swartz.

“Churches are places where we don’t bring our pain or hurt because we think we have to put the pain away, but that’s the antithesis of what churches are supposed to be,” he said. “I want the show to help people be aware that there are people struggling around them all the time and be more open to share stories if they feel it’s acceptable to share.”

To those concerned about the emotional weight of the subject, Swartz said the laughter helps balance the sadness of suicide.

But suicide still needs to be talked about.

“One of the best ways to continually perpetuate the stigmatization of mental illness and depression is to not talk about it,” he said. “If you’re looking for a night of easy entertainment, you should go rent a movie, but if you want to feel deeply and connect to other human beings, come see [the show].”

Free refreshments to follow the performance.

For more information, visit tedandcompany.com.