Catching Laughter is Sacred Space (book or show!)

by Steve Carpenter

I was at Ohio Mennonite Conference’s annual assembly at Bluffton University in early March and had the pleasure of seeing Ted Swartz perform “Laughter is Sacred Space” before an audience of more than 300 people – in a space that maybe seemed not so sacred. The venue was an old gym with bleacher seating extending to the edge of a worn basketball court – not exactly Carnegie Hall. Yet, Ted was engaging and the audience was enthralled. This was my second time seeing Ted perform “Laughter” and it was just as funny and poignant the second time as it was the first time.

TedSoldOutShowI’m sure many of you have seen Ted perform, perhaps as one-half of “Ted and Lee,” or more recently as the lead actor of Ted and Company TheatreWorks. He and Lee were perhaps best known for their roles in Fish Eyes which debuted in 1994*. In it they portray Peter and Andrew, disciples and brothers who walked with Jesus in his final days on Earth. However, when Lee took his own life in May of 2007 Ted lost his business partner and best friend. “Laughter is Sacred Space,” the show and book, tells the story of Ted’s struggle with that devastating loss and his faith journey through the mist of overwhelming grief. In this one-man play Ted recounts the first time he met and worked with Lee and of their growing friendship and business partnership. Though props, photos, and reflections, Ted describes how he and Lee honed each other’s skills and created a drama company capable of bringing fresh insights into biblical passages while providing them both with a respectable living as theater professionals.

Ted will be back in Ohio to perform “Laughter” again, this time at Central Mennonite Church, on Friday April 4 at 7 pm. For information about this and other upcoming performances check out Ted’s web site at: Ted and Company TheaterWorks.

For those of you who have not been able to catch a live performance of “Laughter is Sacred Space,” I recommend reading Ted’s book by the same name, available in two different covers:
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In September 2012, Ted paired a live performance of “Laughter is Sacred Space,” to a sold out crowd at Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg, VA where Ted and his wife Sue live, with the launch of the book. Since then more than 1600 copies of the hardcover book have been sold, along with nearly 750 sales of the electronic version. Both the book and audio download, which is performed by Ted, are available through MennoMedia’s store.

This was my second time at Ohio Mennonite Conference’s Annual Assembly and both this year and last Eliot and Seth Nofziger, two brothers from Ohio who perform original skits under the name The Living Script, have put on dramas which introduce a scripture passage for further reflection by the delegates. These men are young, Eliot is a student at Bluffton. Ted has been doing drama in church settings for more than 37 years. Seth and Eliot’s work seems to have been inspired by Ted and Lee in that both teams use humor to bring a fresh interpretation to scripture. It’s good to see the vision of one generation pass on to the next. It’s even better to see how both The Living Script and Ted and Company have been used of the Holy Spirit to cause audiences to take a fresh look at familiar Bible stories and laugh in the process.

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Have you seen Ted or the Nofzinger brothers perform? What did you think?
Have you read Ted’s book? Which parts did you connect most deeply with?

*For those in Virginia: Celebrate the 20 year anniversary of Fish Eyes, an unforgettable and funny series of detours through the Gospels, with Ted Swartz as Peter and Jason Hildebrand as Andrew. Fish Eyes will be at Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg, Va., on April 10, 11, 12 at 7:30 p.m. and April 13 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door. Seniors, students and groups (10+) $12 in advance, $15 at the door. More information here.

The Dove Visits Our House Each Year

December at the Eby house means watching Dove Tales. While we watch this DVD at other times of year, it gets played most often in December. Ever since we bought Dove Tales, the day we decorate the Christmas tree always includes the retelling of the Christmas story, compliments of the Peanuts gang and Ted Swartz, Lee Eshleman and Ingrid DeSanctis. (That’s high praise, considering my kids were seven-years-old and ten-years-old when we first bought the DVD.)

We’ve watched Dove Tales so often that we chime in on certain lines such as:

  • “Joseph, if you cannot deal with this pregnancy, how are you going to handle the really tough things?” – Mary (Ingrid)
  • “I also happen to be Joseph’s first cousin twice removed  . . . once against my will.” – photographer at Joseph and Mary’s wedding (Lee)
  • Where did you get that donkey?!” – Mary
  • “You can be sore. You can be afraid. But you can’t be sore afraid.” – shepherd (Ted)

Sample the magic here:

My favorite scene is where the very pregnant Mary tells Joseph three things he can do to keep their marriage together. (I won’t spoil it by saying more.) My favorite line happens in the scene where Joseph and Mary meet after several months apart. Joseph shares that he still loves her, but no response. He asks, “Can you help me out here, Mary?” Mary pauses then replies, “I’m pondering.” My kids, who grew up with the New International Version of the Bible, and not the King James Version, will never think that line is as funny as I do.

Elizabeth, who is now thirteen years old, had a hard time picking one favorite scene or line. “I always liked the more physical scenes like Zachariah and Elizabeth communicating through pantomime and Gabriel and Joseph fighting in Joseph’s dream. For the first couple of years, I was confused by Gabriel’s line at the end of that scene when he says ‘Marry her.’ I kept thinking he was saying, “Mary her.’ Now when that part comes, it makes me smile, just because I get it now.

I also asked sixteen-year-old Nathanael why he still enjoys watching Dove Tales. “I like the way the actors become the characters they are portraying. They are very expressive in how they speak and act. Each character is unique and recognizable. It’s fun that Nigel is in it as the innkeeper because I like him in other sketches. Best of all, it’s clean humor about stuff that really matters—not just punch lines.”

My husband, Rick, added, “It’s a fresh but authentic take on the Christmas story and about people with real human frailties. We tend to forget that the characters in Bible stories didn’t know what was going to happen or if things would work out. Dove Tales is a great reminder of this.”

That’s the beauty of Dove Tales. So many layers and each one enjoyable. There are the pratfalls and the chance to make animal sounds that even the youngest child can enjoy. There are the familiar scenarios where we laugh when we recognize ourselves or people we know well. There are the odd, quirky characters who are simply fun to watch.

Dove Tales is also about relationships. The husband, who wants to say the right things to his wife but can’t seem to manage it, and the wife who loves him anyway. The brother and sister shepherds who are content with whatever comes their way, from foot rot to a message from angels. Gabriel and “the lesser cherubim” who are simply excited to be part of the God story, even when their plan doesn’t go as planned.

And most of all, Dove Tales is about how our God—who wanted so much to have a closer relationship with us—chose the surprising solution of sending a small baby to a humble couple to raise. This is a story that will definitely go “forever on.”

DovetaleRachel Nussbaum Eby
Managing editor of Shine: Living in God’s Light

If you don’t have your own copy, you may want to think about making it a gift for the whole family. You can also learn more about the current Ted & Company Theaterworks here.

For Ted’s memoir check out Laughter is Sacred Space.

Keeping Current with Technology (Part 1)

Ten Tons of books. That’s what I estimated were heading for the dumpster as we closed the warehouse of the former Mennonite Publishing Network (MPN) in Scottdale, PA,  in June of 2011. “What a waste,” I thought to myself, “I hope in the future we can do it differently.”

Today, with eBooks, Print on Demand, and audio downloads, MennoMedia is doing it differently.

ward-sutton-in-preparation-for-landing-please-turn-off-your-books-new-yorker-cartoonEBooks are everywhere now. Over the past several years they have become the fastest growing segment of book revenues in North America. While many like to read digital books on dedicated devices, like a Nook or Kindle, the tablet computer is rapidly becoming the device of choice and will, I believe, make dedicated readers obsolete in the near future.

MennoMedia has recently had most of its backlist (older) titles converted to eBook formats, which are available at places like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. Since last fall, every new book title from Herald Press has a digital format available concurrently with the print version. Before too long we hope to be able to sell eBooks directly through our own online store as well. While I am not a huge fan of digital books personally (I like the tactile experience of reading a book on paper) I can see how eBooks can be especially useful to people who travel, do research, or who simply don’t like stacks of books lying around.

photo (3)Print on Demand. It used to be that when you printed books, you had to calculate a print run in the thousands in order to get a decent unit price on books. Older books were a dilemma: how many more would we estimate to sell? What if we don’t sell all that we print? Shall we just let it go out of print? Do we risk printing 500 or 1,000? The ten tons we disposed of in Scottdale are a case in point. In the past decade, a new technology, Print on Demand (POD) has changed the decision-making. Now we can literally print one copy of a book at a time and not have any inventory at all. We are utilizing it for lower selling products as well as older books that have steady, but lower sales. It means that we also never have to let a book go out of print. As POD vendors such as Lightning Source open up facilities overseas we also see them being able to produce our books in places such as the UK, Germany, South Africa and Australia, meaning that we don’t have to ship books overseas, which is very expensive and time-consuming.

Audio downloads. I love listening to books, especially when I am driving long distances. Sometimes I borrow books on CD from the library (a useful, but dying technology,) but lately I have been downloading books directly to my iPhone via Audible. Two of our recent books, Laughter is Sacred Space, by Ted Swartz and Making Friends Among the Taliban, by Jonathan Larson,  are now both available as audio books and we have made both available only as a downloadable version. Both authors are great speakers/performers and it was natural that we would produce audio books from each. These downloads, by the way, are available directly from MennoMedia’s online store.

Russ Eanes

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See also video trailer for Making Friends among the Taliban, and Weaving Life documentary, and video for Laughter is Sacred Space.

New Yorker Cartoon above available as a poster.