Interview: James Van Eaton Talks about His New Play, AN HONEST APOLOGY, at FreeFall Stage

The Show Premieres on February 14th

By: Feb. 11, 2024
Interview: James Van Eaton Talks about His New Play, AN HONEST APOLOGY, at FreeFall Stage

Interview: James Van Eaton Talks about His New Play, AN HONEST APOLOGY, at FreeFall Stage

Sacramento is brimming with new works in theatre this month, and one play that I am particularly looking forward to is by former Sacramento-based playwright James Van Eaton. The premiere of his Oscar Wilde-inspired An Honest Apology will be performed at FreeFall Stage beginning with their annual Valentine’s Day Dessert on February 14th. BroadwayWorld spoke to James about feminism, video games, and all things Wilde.

James, you are an up-and-coming playwright with ties to Sacramento. How did you get into theatre and what inspired you to begin writing plays?

I got into theatre in a weird way. I always thought I was going to be a novelist. I wrote and self-published four books, the first one in 2010. At some point the second one, “Chasing Moonshine,” was adapted for the stage, and the playwright who did the adaptation wrote me a little cameo. I played a guy who sold someone a car. “It’ll be a little Easter egg, here’s the author!” I got so into it and had so much fun that the role kept expanding. Hanging out with all the people backstage got me into acting and I started doing roles and going to auditions and that got me into theatre. I fell in love with the world of theatre but didn’t start writing for it until 2015, and not seriously until 2017. In 2019 my first full-length play, which is the first one I wrote, was done as a Readers Theatre in Portland. That was Help Me, the one that FreeFall did as a full production last year. I decided to combine my passion for the stage and writing. That sort of congealed as the perfect blend.

You have gone from Sacramento to Oregon. What took you there?

My dad moved up here years ago in the late 90s and I fell in love with the city and did that typical California to Portland thing where you get here and they hate you. The drawback is that all of the interesting places to live, as far as rent goes, make it that you can barely afford to do any of the cool events. The vibes, the people, the culture, it’s all really fun.

Your first play, Help Me, focused on how women are treated by men from a male perspective, and takes place in a video game simulation. Can you tell me where you got the concept for such an original idea?

That’s an easy origin story. Years ago, I saw somebody make a Facebook post about a woman at a bus stop and this man who wouldn’t leave her alone. In ignorance, it now feels, I asked if she told him directly that she wasn’t interested. All of these women, justifiably, jumped on me saying it’s a good way to get hurt and I turned that experience into a meditation. I was working with privileged male logic and thought if someone said no thanks, that would probably work. I wanted to explore what would happen if a man was put into that situation as a woman, as a female avatar, and all the ways it wouldn’t work and how it would get dangerous He’s trying to bring what he thinks is reason to these situations and these guys are reacting badly and the plot is essentially him thinking that this is a typical video game and trying to figure out how to win and he can’t. It’s an empathy machine and a teaching tool. It came about as me trying to work on myself. I always thought of it as, this is one part of me trying to improve as a feminist and one part trying to ask men to do better. It’s had a phenomenal side effect of women telling me they feel seen. People come up crying after the show and that’s been amazing. I wish I could say I was just trying to be like Upton Sinclair when he wrote “The Jungle” about labor rights and how people are being treated in factories. The two chapters on meat packaging made people like, “That’s what’s going into our food?” He said he aimed for the heart and hit their stomach and I had the same thing happen in a great way. A lot of my stuff is me working through ideas. I call my short plays meditations instead of plots. The video game is meant to lull people into a false sense of security and get the men there that need to see it.

As a new playwright, how did you go about getting it produced?

There are a couple of websites and Facebook groups that I used as the avenue for my short works. New York Play Exchange is the main one. They post opportunities where you don’t have to pay a submission fee. I’m in two Facebook groups where they just post what they are looking for and you submit and you have to hope that someone eventually reads something and wants it for a festival in Vermont or something. The more express way is networking and knowing people. Being an actor has really helped with that because I get to know artistic directors and maybe actors that end up as directors. Eventually they end up thinking, let’s do some local work and they’ll ask. That’s how all of my full-length work has been performed. I’ve known someone from the theatre world. I just got a ten-minute play accepted blindly in Australia, of all places. I have a one-act coming up here soon, through networking.

Your new play, An Honest Apology, is premiering on February 14th. It’s very different from Help Me. Can you describe it?

It’s very definitely an Oscar Wilde tribute play. I basically wanted another spiritual cousin of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. I loved them so much that I thought the world needed another one. I completely fell in love with what he was doing in terms of comedy, social satire, great character work, fantastic female characters, and, not as much in Earnest, dramatic problems and the people dealing with real dilemmas andd couching those inside comedy to blunt the blow a little bit. Instead of just having a character caught up in a scheme, he’s got this madcap fast-paced comedy whirling around that situation and it makes it easier to stare into the sun. I take that approach a lot with my short work. It’s almost like what is said about stand-up comedians being the last ones in America able to tell the truth. Talking about some darker things, psychology and inner turmoil, while telling jokes. That being said, An Honest Apology doesn’t have nearly as much as that but there’s a core of alienation and being afraid of silence and always having to be on and definitely caring too much about what people think of you and the harm that careless actions can do and how we dismiss it. Choose your semi-modern equivalent -- The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer --almost everyone has a professional quipper in the show and everyone is trying to sound smart at top speed except the father, who is clueless and a little sweet. It’s about the ultimate dandy, who is really into fashion and presentation, embarking on a scheme to get rich through this plot that comes to him at the beginning of the show. He has to attain forgiveness from the person he has most wronged in his life. He decides he knows who it is and he may or may not be right. He brings his sister into a country home and tries to go ahead with this scheme and everything goes wrong in funny ways. We follow him as he bungles through this and along the way hopefully learns a little bit about himself.

DeeDee Eldridge, the director of An Honest Apology, has said that if one didn’t know any differently, one would think that Oscar Wilde wrote the play. What do you think about that comparison?

Wow! I don’t think I agree with that, but thank you, DeeDee. I feel like I got about 75% of the way there. I wrote this off and on for seven years and I came up with the initial plot in 2015. I wrote the first scene and thought, here’s the spark that starts the plot. This is a fun idea, it’s a little different for a Victorian comedy of manners. It wasn’t so much writer’s block, but it needs to feel like Oscar Wilde, but I’m not good enough. It became this ambition to come closer and closer to that level of irony and social work and zingers, so I just kept going over it. Wherever I was over the years, I would think of a line and it took so long until I got it to a point where it took shape and would be worthy. I took a playwriting class at Iowa and that was the pressure I needed to finish it. That comparison, she knows Wilde really well and I’m shocked and it’s so gratifying. I don’t feel like I quite did it, but I’ll take it. His sense of irony is so sharp.

There is a quote in the play that I find interesting. “Respectability, as boring men like to call their routines, strips a person of his most interesting attributes and forces him to become his father.” What are examples of what you would consider to be a person’s most interesting attributes?

Well, in the case of Alexander Collier, he is a bit of a cad. He is not one to follow strict social norms -- he stays up drinking, goes to fancy parties, and courts women like crazy. He’s very worried about what people think of him while, at the same time, cultivating his bad boy image. His father is a financier in mines and things and he is very business-like and formal and very about typical Victorian values, so Alexander is terrified of getting old. This is what happens when you become an old man at the age of forty. More is revealed in the play but he has baggage from his parents. The respectability thing is a dirty word because it means you’re getting old. I don’t want to become my father and grow up. I want to go around the country in a carriage and get kicked out of Versailles.

What do you do to get inspiration for your short plays?

I have done a thing occasionally where you look at a prompt and then write a play about a piece of furniture that’s the color blue and a song from the 60s, but those always are kind of weird. I usually just start wondering about something. So much of writing is about “what if?” What if a person was in a restaurant and they saw an object that they thought was thrown away years ago and now they have trauma tied to it. There’s a kernel of something, but you start pulling the thread and see what comes up. There’s a short story where this guy goes to a roadside rest stop and there’s a couple fighting and after they leave he wonders what would have happened if he had intervened. Stuff like that, you’re in a situation or dream up a situation and think, what if? With something like An Honest Apology, there’s more structure in that.

What are you working on now?

I have a one-act, about 45 minutes, and it’s a little dreamy and heavily symbolic. I’m trying to get those two things to lock into place and still make sense. I’m trying to make it approachable -- not too weird but not too pedestrian. There’s a point in “Salem’s Lot” where he went 130 pages or something about someone moving to a New England town, like a John Irving book about typical New England life and all of a sudden, they go to a morgue and there’s a vampire. I can’t make this jump and that kind of killed that book for me because King is usually really good at blending and foreshadowing. I do a lot of symbol work with my short plays. I’m asking a lot of the audience with this one. I’ve workshopped this and it’s getting close to the finish line but I need more blending and foreshadowing and little flickers of narrative where people will get it.

An Honest Apology is being performed at FreeFall Stage through March 10th. More information and tickets may be found online at www.freefallstage.com.

 




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