The eulogy was given at her funeral on Thursday, August 4, 2011 and shared with the Educational Theatre alumni. I have very fond memories of Professor Lowell Swortzell who I met in the summer of 2001 on my first trek to NYC alone to visit the NYU Educational Theatre Program for advisement. I last talked with Professor Lowell Swortzell two weeks before he died in the summer of 2004. Professor Nancy Swortzell directed me in a production of the Odyssey at the Provincetown Playhouse at NYU. Literally plucked from class and cast by the Swortzells to help put on a show! Loved them dearly for their expertise, enthusiasm, brilliant creativity and knowledge of craft. A music major in undergrad, I was able to make my way in the theatre world by immersing myself in drama-in-education studies, breathing NYC theatre, London & Ireland studies across the pond, and gaining a better understanding of theatre, music, and my role as an arts educator in both. They will surely be missed. See below.
Eulogy for Dr. Nancy Swortzell sent by Dr. Philip M. Taylor
August 4, 2011
Nancy was an only child. We were her family. We were her big, extended family, beyond her Lowell – her soul mate, the one great love of her life. We became members of her family, each of us, at different times in her life and in ours. She adopted us and we, in turn, adopted her.
We were the ultimate polyglot family – as adopted families often are. We were an international family — from China, England, Ireland, the Caribbean, Australia, the U.S., Taiwan, Scotland. We were her students, her colleagues, her collaborators; playwrights, directors, actors, stage managers, dramaturgs; her caregivers, her friends. Some of us were – are — many of these all rolled into one. But mostly we were, in the deepest and fullest sense, her family.
I first met Nancy shortly after I came to Steinhardt in 1989. In those early years, the Dean asked me to do all sorts of academic work for which I had no experience, but for which I apparently had some kind of aptitude. I worked with Nancy on curriculum and planning issues until she came to see me, I think, as woefully uneducated in drama. I admit that I was. So she began, slowly and persistently, to introduce me to educational theatre. We connected as level-headed, commonsensical Midwesterners — she was from Cleveland, I from St. Louis. She invited me to her productions and, over time, I became a fan of her and Lowell and the program they co-founded together in 1966 — the first such program in the country. We adopted each other, in earnest, after Lowell died in 2004, seven years ago next week.
Nancy and I spent many hours pondering academic conundrums over glasses of wine or cups of tea in her home at 76 Washington Place, and later, after she moved, in her apartment at 24 Fifth Avenue. Louisa Frame and her family – Husband, Tonia, and Kevin — joined Nancy’s family full time. So did Spider, the dachshund she came to cherish who reminded her of Lowell for he, too, loved dachshunds. I brought her flowers every time I visited and eventually took out stock in Anthology Florists on the corner of Fifth and 8th Street. I told her about novels I liked. She recommended her favorites to me, and we had book chats that always made us laugh at those silly authors.
Nancy was a brilliant critic of literature and drama. She was also a talented storyteller with a phenomenal memory for people, places, and events that astounded us all.
Nan Smithner, a professor in our educational theatre program and a former doctoral student, said that listening to Nancy’s stories was like “being in the presence of a master.”
She was indeed a master storyteller, so this morning, I would like to honor her by sharing some personal stories with you about Nancy, some of which others have shared with me. Stories of creativity and fun, of laughter and warmth and generosity, of fortitude and strength. This is the Nancy we knew and admired and loved.
I wish I had been around when the Creative Arts Team — one of Nancy’s enduring legacies — took shape in 1974 around her kitchen table at 76 Washington Place. This was the address of the 4-story townhouse on the far side of Washington Square Park that she and Lowell called home for more than 30 years. Lynda Zimmerman, who’s in the house today, told me this story. She was a graduate student then and Lowell was her adviser. She was interested in arts education for youth and children. Lowell directed her, of course, to Nancy. Together Lynda and Nancy and other collaborators sat around that table — where so many ideas were hatched over the years — and devised an arts-education-in-the-classrooms program. They held auditions in October that year, and the Creative Arts Team was launched in the basement of Weinstein Residence Hall.
The following summer, in 1975, Lynda and her peers went to the new study abroad program in England — the very one that Nancy had launched the summer before and another one of her enduring legacies. It was there that the students clearly saw the potential for their fledgling Creative Arts Team. They performed their first show — the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling – in Washington Square Park with costumes and props borrowed from Nancy’s closets. The day Nancy and Lowell and the students chose for their performance – quite accidentally — was, of all days, National Marijuana Day. Imagine the atmospheric haze.
The Creative Arts Team moved to CUNY in 2004, but Nancy remained on their advisory council for more than 25 years. She wanted CAT to survive wherever it went. She believed it in fully and made it a point to meet many of the students CAT worked with at CUNY. She was interested in students as individuals and supported and encouraged many of them. In that way, Lynda says, she was a real mensch.
CAT wasn’t, of course, the only idea that was hatched at 76. Large extended families tend to gather often. And as the kids grow up (in this case, Nancy and Lowell’s students), the family grows, too. Edie Demas, a doctoral alumna who now lives and teaches in Los Angeles, told me she was in and out of 76 Washington Place when she was a student. Nancy had a knack for knowing when she needed some extra cash, and there were many legendary gatherings in the Swortzell home that needed Edie’s extra hands.
One was a surprise baby shower for Nan Smithner. Ah, how I wish I had been there! Nancy taught Edie to make tiramisu and a gang of students covered 76 with over-the-top baby decorations, following Nancy’s detailed instructions. It must have been quite a party. Edie and Nancy had epic shopping trips for parties large and small where Nancy introduced Edie to cheese cake from Vinieros, to Murrays Cheese Shop and the Jefferson Market and an incredible Scandinavian bakery on Avenue A. And, oh my god, says Edie, the food hall at Marks and Spencer — nobody could work that place like Nancy. Knowing her, Edie says, was an adventure.
By Nancy’s example, Edie learned about running a home that was warm, welcoming and inspirational. A place that nurtured both relationships and ideas. She learned how to live a life that celebrated relationships — real, person-to-person relationships. Facebook, Nancy told her, was a terrible excuse for human contact.
Now, shopping was a much better way to connect! Just ask Louisa and Leslie White. QVC Network, internet shopping, Bed, Bath and Beyond – this was shopping therapy, her form of stress relief. She was dangerous with a credit card, especially around bargains. Shopping and buying things – mostly for others, rarely for herself. Tons of kids benefited from her largesse and the extra purchases she would donate.
Cecily O’Neill was one of Nancy’s closest friends and collaborators. She came to New York City from England more often as Nancy’s health declined. Even still, Cecily said, Nancy remained a perfectionist, fully engaged with creating good theatre.
Nowhere was this more evident than in her work with New Plays for Young Audiences, another of her enduring legacies now in its fifteenth year. Cecily was here this summer as dramaturg for the series. Nancy was particularly concerned about one of the plays in development and she came to the theatre in her wheelchair and oxygen tube nearly every night. Joe Salvatore and David Montgomery, who’s here today, were there with Cecily on a most memorable Wednesday night. So was Louisa. Here’s David’s account of what happened:
“She sat at the back of the Provincetown Playhouse, watching, and not liking what she saw unfolding on stage. She waited, and watched, and waited some more until she just couldn’t take it anymore. “What are you doing?” she shouted out. Silence. Everyone looked toward the back of the theatre. Nancy began calling out a host of questions for everyone to consider. She wanted people to stop and critically think about what they were doing. She wanted the actors, who were playing animals, to act more like real animals. ‘How does a wolf enter?’ ‘How does a wolf eat?’’ ‘How does a wolf growl?’ Nancy began to growl. She was quite good at it. ‘This is not Disney!’ she reminded everyone, “this is theatre!.” I thought she was going to jump out of her wheelchair. I heard Cecily excitedly whisper into Nancy’s ear, “You go girl”” No one there that evening will forget the urgency in her questions, or the passion with which she expressed her ideas. It was electric.”
Joe calls this episode one of his “top ten rehearsal moments of all time.” He was sitting next to Nancy and felt a mix of terror and awe. Terror because the approach was so aggressive and awe as he witnessed the results she achieved.
In typical Nancy fashion, she immediately apologized for interfering. She could be challenging and uncompromising and impatient at times when it came to theatre. As Emelie FitzGibbon and others told me, “Where’s the drama, dear?” she would say, waving the cigarette in her hand.
Yet Nancy’s humility, her deep respect for the role of actors and directors and writers in the creative process were what made her so great and so extremely generous. And even though she and Lowell were like royalty in the drama in education community around the world, she was not interested in being queen herself. She pushed her students and colleagues so that they could achieve their fullest potential, so that they could realize their own greatness.
Certainly ideas were always important around the kitchen table at 76 – so much so that Phil Taylor told me he actually dedicated his book on applied theatre to that place — but it was always people who were truly important to Nancy. She always put others first – paying for a student’s books so that he could stay in school, buying a puppy for David Montgomery’s kids at Christmas, cheering on and encouraging the young people around her, as she did Louisa’s daughter, Tonia, and hundreds of students over her lifetime.
Even in the hospital, Chris and Helen told me, she chatted and cheered up her fellow patients.
“Hospitals are sobering places,” they said, “and we had been speaking in hushed tones with one of the doctors. We returned to where Nancy was waiting in the ward to find everyone screaming with laughter – and there she was at the center – witticism after witticism pouring from her lips. She had succeeded in giving the whole place a party atmosphere. People were giggling, begging her to stop while egging her on. As we left, one of the other patients screamed at us ‘Don’t take her away!’”
We will miss the catchphrases Nancy used, as Chris and Helen reminded me, like: “Bless your heart”; “Thanks, no thanks”; and a personal favorite of theirs, “as she digressed in one of her labyrinthine stories, ‘I seem to have interrupted myself again!’” I always laughed at that one myself. And who wouldn’t? She so enjoyed telling her stories, and I, for one, was a willing audience.
We will miss her laughter and charm, her wit and energy, her perseverance. Her example of a life well lived, as Edie put it. Her humanity and wisdom. Her unwillingness to be defeated, even by cancer. Her remarkable good cheer. Her guts, her risk-taking and outspokenness. Her devotion to young people – through theatre and in her personal life. Her deep, deep belief in the importance of education and of second chances. We will miss gathering around her table and making her the center of attention. We will miss her cooking.
She adopted us, and we her. We were her family, and she was ours.
So, Nancy, we send you off today with laughter and love, to share this awesome view of the Hudson with your dear Lowell. You consummated your life. You loved your destiny and lived your life to the fullest. Thank you for making us your family and for sharing your life with us.