'Greater Tuna' revival tour to feature three actors, freshened script, says director/co-creator
By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
There's more Tuna to indulge in when a gut-busting Texas theatrical favorite returns to town March 23.
Greater Tuna — a side-splitting visit to "the third smallest town in Texas," located approximately halfway between San Angelo and Hell — will be staged at 7:30 p.m. March 23 in the Amarillo Civic Center Complex Auditorium, 401 S. Buchanan St., as part of Civic Amarillo's Broadway Spotlight Series. Tickets are $20 to $60, plus fees. (Watch for construction on Buchanan Street and take alternative routes or add drive time.)
It hits town for the second stop of a tour across the West and Southwest, but unlike the last time the official tour hit town in 2002, the show's creators won't be on stage. The show originated at an Austin cabaret in 1981, the creation of comedians Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, with original director Ed Howard. Sears retired in 2013, but Williams, who spent part of his childhood in Olney and Crosbyton, is on board as this tour's director.
We spoke last week during a break from an afternoon rehearsal in Southeast Austin in a studio where Williams and his cast were sharing space with a dance troupe.
"They're trying to find peace through meditation right now," Williams said. "I try to find it through revenge."
Much like the characters he helped create — smut-snatching Vera Carp, dog killer Pearl Burras, OKKK disc jockeys Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis, among nearly two dozen others — Williams is quick with a sharp joke.
Like when he was talking about the South by Southwest band that finally drove him to give up his downtown Austin apartment: "A bad reggae band was playing, and I finally had enough. They were so bad that people would stop smoking pot if they heard them."
After the comedy first opened on Austin's Sixth Street in 1981, it found phenomenal success — first locally, where its run was extended time and again; then on tour to the East Coast; then off-Broadway and HBO. It spawned three sequels; the second, A Tuna Christmas, played on Broadway and garnered Sears a Tony nomination.
Williams thought he'd finally moved out of Tuna after Sears retired.
"I'm Medicare age," Williams said. "I've been wearing high heels for a long time. I went to the doctor a few years ago, and he said, 'You have a type of tendonitis that I only see in women who have been wearing high heels for a long time.' I said, you know, it's time to hang my undergarments up.
"If you had told me five years ago that I'd be directing Greater Tuna, I'd be, 'Been there, done that.' But it's all fresh and exciting to me. The guys are fresh and marvelous. They're wonderful."
Sears, by the way, retired to Oklahoma, where he has been active in community theater.
"He was ready to go back to Oklahoma and make cream gravy for the rest of his life," Williams said. "He's very happy up there. I talk to him every couple of days. He is very supportive of us doing this."
For this tour, three men will play all 25 or so roles in the show. Though the play originated with only Sears and Williams in all of the roles, with all of the quick costume and wig changes that entails, several other stagings over the past 36 years have used three or even four actors. (Amarillo Little Theatre, which has staged both Greater Tuna and the sequel A Tuna Christmas, has used only two actors in each production.)
"Joe and I did it with two because that was what we had and what we could do at that moment," Williams said.
But actors Ryan Bailey, Tim Leavon and Will Mercer were all so strong in auditions that Williams couldn't imagine not casting all three.
"My partner (Dr. Kevin Rooney) was in the other day watching the second half and said that he can't imagine it without three (actors) now," Williams said. "It has given me much more freedom."
Williams has fleshed out and rewritten some aspects of the script and, even more noticeably, he has brought characters on stage who were previously only heard in voiceover as one actor or the other was off stage changing costumes, like Ronnie, the OKKK studio assistant, and Coach Chassey, who utters the immortal line "Our problem is that we just cain't score."
"It's satire," Williams said. "It just begs you (to be freshened)."
He's equally as inspired by his cast members.
"All three of the guys had done the play before, all in different places under different directors and under different circumstances," Williams said. "They've been amazing. They don't show any fear to me. It might have been there, but I didn't pick up on it."
Bailey said he wasn't nervous to act for Williams as a director. He was much more nervous to perform when Williams was in the audience in 2015 during a Fredericksburg community theater production of the play in which Bailey starred.
"Talk about a nervewracking but completely amazing experience," Bailey said. "For the creator-slash-writer-slash-actor to be out there, I have never experienced anything like that.
"The director brought him back (stage) before the performance, and I got to meet him. Jaston just looked at us and said, 'Don't screw it up'," Bailey recalled. "We all laughed, and it was smooth sailing after that.
"I think I worked through the nerves that moment. ... Since then, the nervewracking part was wanting this part so bad."
Bailey, who has never had any professional acting experience before this tour, said he finds Williams to be a strong director.
"I couldn't ask for a better start," Bailey said. "He's helping us in finding all of the little tiny things that make these characters feel very real. He is so good at, how do I say it?, in observing human nature and bringing it to life in a character."
For his part, Williams said he is concentrating on letting the actors find their own interpretation of the characters.
"The harder part for me was to make sure I forgot what I had done. Let it go, let it go. See what they can do," Williams said. "I never tell people, 'You can't do that. You can't say that.' These are really talented guys, and they find it on their own."