By Ted Swartz
I believe laughter has a unique power to connect people, reveal truth and change perceptions of the world. It is perhaps the quickest way to open people up to learning and feeling deeply. However, I wasn’t fully aware of the power of laughter until I started acting, and my acting journey was deeply affected by my relationship with Lee Eshleman, the funniest person I’d ever met. Lee was my best friend and creative partner who struggled with bipolar disorder and depression. After he and another member of my congregation died from suicide, I became heavily involved in mental health advocacy. Many members did not know of their struggles with depression, but for me, it was the very personal loss of Lee that compelled me to speak out.
And thus storytelling and humor became my avenue of healing—my way to create an identity and find my place in the world. I love to make people laugh, but I especially love when they can learn at the same time. Learning, therefore, has always been an element of my comedy writing and acting, and a huge factor in creating a unique niche in faith-related theater. I have eight shows in rotation, which are mainly based on Biblical stories. I try to find the humor in each story and then allow the story to unfold and display its deeper meaning.
I used this model in a play I was asked to create revolving my experiences with suicide. The play, Laughter is Sacred Space, is a walk-through of my discovery of theater as a calling and my life with Lee. I illustrate through performance and multi-media the playwriting and comedy work we did together. I recount the events around Lee's suicide and my spiraling depression as a survivor. The play is a tribute to my best friend and our work together, as well as an illustration of the power of community and art to heal one's pain. After the show, I provide time and space for a talkback, asking questions and allowing others to share their experiences.
The responses to Laughter is Sacred Space have been amazing. The play helps open dialogue about mental health issues. Laughter and vulnerability are valuable methods to open people up to new or difficult conversations. Many have used the show as a kickoff or a capstone to a series on mental health within a congregation.
On my upcoming tour, I’m bringing along a professional photographer to offer a portrait session for those who live with mental illness and their caregivers. The photographs and stories will be prepared for a website or book. My hope is that the faces and personal stories will open hearts and minds and change the narrative about mental illness.
In January, we performed Laughter is Sacred Space in Indianapolis as a fundraiser for Circle City Clubhouse and NAMI Indianapolis. Currently, we’re booking for two tours—one in September for Suicide Prevention Awareness month and one in May 2017 for Mental Health Awareness month. Whether we perform Laughter is Sacred Space at churches, schools, NAMI conferences or other events, we invite NAMI leaders to speak about their local NAMI programs.
We look forward to working with many NAMI affiliates to create many sacred spaces in order to help raise awareness and funds for NAMI support, advocacy and education. Even though mental illness is no laughing matter, laughter and theater have a unique power to connect people, reveal truth and reframe our understanding of mental illness.
Ted will be performing excerpts from “Laughter is Sacred Space” during the NAMI National Convention at the “How to” session for Responding to Survivors of Suicide.
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