TheaterJones: Give us a synopsis of your play.
Jeff Swearingen: It’s a true story about my vacation in France. I went to France for five days to visit friends that I had met in Ireland, and it just went horribly bad. Mostly due to circumstance, and there was a language barrier. One thing about the play is you learn a lot about me and why situations were particularly bad for me. That would be the short synopsis of how I had a nightmare of a time in France. And I was in the south of France, it’s probably one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and I imagine that most people have a magical time there, but it was like a watching a vacation movie to me, where everything goes wrong and the problems just keep building on themselves.
How long of a period of time does the play cover?
The play covers things as early as my first childhood trauma. The actual story of [the trip to] France covers seven days, five of them being in France.
What were some of the problems that you experienced, without giving too much away? Which ones did you feel were from your end?
Some of it is just my personality, the shortcomings of my personality. The language barrier between my host and me was pretty bad. [There were] differences in culture that were pretty bad, and that was a problem. I have obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and so whenever we have that and some things get out of whack, a lot more gets out of whack emotionally and physically. I had a lifelong fear of being lost, being stranded, being in the wrong place.
How did you come to be a part of the Solo Fest?
[Audacity Theater Lab artistic director] Brad [McEntire] directed me in a one-man show all over the country, we toured it in New York, called The Last Castrato. We’ve done it in a couple of different fringe festivals, and we’ve done it here in town a few times. I’ve had to tell this story [of the France vacation] a million times, people will always be like, “Tell them the France story! Tell them what happened to you in France!” That night, someone actually suggested that I tell it as a one-man show. The story gets pretty complex, and it gets dark pretty quick. 80 percent of the people I tell it to think I’m lying.
Is anything associated with Fun House Theatre & Film in the play?
There’s no connection, except the story takes place when I’m making Fun House. I’m trying to create Fun House. Before I’m leaving, that’s the last thing I’m doing and while I’m there, I stress out about it. Then, what happens is that it gets created after. It’s even one of the things that goes wrong. I’m stressed out before I go, but right before I go to France, everything looks great. Fun House is going to down without a hitch, things will be paid and it’s going to be fine, and I’m happy about it. At some point, when I’m very, very miserable in France, the first time I get to see my email, basically all my emails are saying that it’s not going to happen. So, it’s one of those moments where you say, “And now I don’t even have a job!” The story is miserable. It just keeps getting worse.
That sounds like a lot on your plate, especially as you’re trying to start a vacation.
The south of France is gorgeous. At one point I’m not realizing that it’s absolutely gorgeous, and [thinking] “you’ll probably have an amazing time there,” but I just had the worse damn time I’ve ever had, probably.
Is the comedy in your play the way you dealt with this awful trip, during, or maybe after, the vacation?
There was nothing funny while I was there, but I love seeing the humor. Once I was on the plane back and I knew I was done with being there, [since then] I can look back and see it was hilarious. It’s also the time I came face-to-face with my childhood fear. I got lost out of town on a bus when I was a kid, like real little, I’m talking 4. I was smart enough to know I was lost and know I wasn’t lost in my hometown.
Why were you invited to France?
Because being lost was a big childhood fear of mine, I went out of the country for the first time by myself where I knew no one was going to meet me there the year before. I went to Ireland, and I had planned out the trip and did all these things I wanted to do, and I had one of the most magical times of my life. When I was there, I met this French couple who I made friends with and they were like, “Hey, come to France next year and visit us.” When I was hanging out with them in Ireland, we had an awesome time, like, epically magical. Then when I went to France, I was on my kick of “Yes, I’m getting out into the world!”
I’ve learned by this point that going to other countries is probably my favorite thing I’ve ever done in my life. The first time I went to Hong Kong, frankly I was terrified, but at least I had a friend there. When I went to Ireland, I was by myself. It was English-speaking, I had wanted to go there so bad, I had planned out the trip so much. I made sure I could take care of myself, basically. But when I went to France, I didn’t plan out very much except the few things I wanted to do.
I didn’t have, beforehand, the knowledge of the geography, or the geography of the city, which is what I totally did in Ireland. With Ireland I was so excited to go, and I was so excited to go to France. I couldn’t even believe I was so lucky to get to go to France, I was so happy to go.
[But the cultural and language barrier] was more evident when I was with them 24 hours a day. One of them was better at speaking English than the other, but that person was always working.
You’re used to writing shows. What was similar and different to your approach for this piece?
This one, it’s me doing it, so it’s a little more free form. I’m basically working [from] an outline for the show. I’ve told this story so many times. I know what happens from moment to next moment, so I feel like I don’t have to be so specific in writing things. I’m an improviser, so I feel comfortable doing that.
And you don’t have a director for the show.
No, I don’t have a director for my show. I’ve done theater and performance for so long that I have an understanding of how the stage is. I know how the story goes, I don’t need a director to interpret something that I’ve experienced. I know how the story goes. There’s nothing embellished, or made false, or changed or anything like that, so I don’t need to see how things read because they already read truthfully. It’s already the truth. That’s sometimes what a director is there for. Now, I’m not one of these people who loves to direct themselves, I know it’s a chance to make me a lazy director or a lazy actor. But in this, it’s basically storytelling. I know how to tell the story, I was there, I lived it. There’s not really a need for [a director].
With your improv and solo performance background, how do you think that has affected your approach to An American Asshole in France?
It helped create the structure. It’s basically me stupidly acting out the story. I’m basically saying the story and talking about myself, and occasionally when you need to see physical representations of how it went and how things went down so that you know the story better, I act it out. [When you’re] onstage storytelling, you try to be engaging, and be very clear, visual, gesture a lot, act things out and be very physical. Every time I tell a story, I don’t just say them, I always have to act them out. I just think it’s more clear. When you tell a story like that, people tend to get on the same page faster. If you physically act out “This is how it went down” as opposed to just telling it, they then form a different thing in their minds. Years of storytelling in all kinds of areas, and just seeing how it works and what can communicate clearly and effectively.
And I’m sure the physicality only adds to the comedic effect.
Oh yeah! Oh yeah. There’s a lot of it where you just have to see it.
You participated in last year’s Solo Fest as a director. What was that experience like, and why are you excited to participate this year as playwright/performer?
I really loved directing that. It was a girl named Kennedy Waterman, she was 13 at the time, and she was telling her true-life story of her peanut allergy called Allergic Me. She wrote it, and she basically put it together herself, all I did was tweak it here and there.
That was fantastic. Kennedy Waterman is one of my favorite people on Earth. She’s super, super talented. I direct Kennedy Waterman a lot, and it seemed like she was stepping out in the world of performing, writing, doing her own show. Kennedy Waterman is funny and engaging, and parts of the show were very funny, but for the most part it’s a very scary show. She’s this girl who can die if someone ate peanut butter and they fell in the grass and she falls in the same grass later on in the day. Her allergy was off the charts. Mine is very much like, “Hey, let’s everybody gather around and laugh at me, when it’s my fault, when it’s not my fault.” It’s just funny to laugh at people who are going through crap, if it’s crap that ultimately doesn’t matter. There’s nothing in my show about how I got a disease or lost a loved one or anything like that. It’s just kind of fun to laugh at me.
» Jeff Swearingen's An American Asshole in Paris is performed at the following times:
- Friday, June 5 @ 10:30 p.m.
- Sunday, June 7 @ 8:30 p.m.
- Friday, June 12 @ 10:30 p.m.
And you can follow our coverage of the 2015 Dallas Solo Fest in our special section, here.