By Kelli Allred
Long before redneck humor became mainstream, two actors met and created a theatrical phenomenon uniquely appealing to global audiences. In the tradition of the great comedy teams of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams have made their living on their collaborative genius, based on contradictions that begin with the actors themselves. These two actor/playwrights have been able to use their body types to represent a wide array of characters based on stereotypes. One is husky, the other lanky—not unlike Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife. Together they become a pair of clueless radio disk jockeys, a racist sheriff, a gun store owner, a religious bigot who studies “segregation in the scriptures,” an animal rights advocate, an undertaker, a crooked judge, Baptist “smut snatchers,” a cliché-laden preacher, and many more. Welcome to Tuna – the “third smallest town in Texas” (Williams, Jaston, Joe Sears, Ed Howard, Greater Tuna, [New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1981), 20–21).
Greater Tuna, the first of four full-length plays set in the fictitious town of Tuna, Texas, is populated by a bevy of eccentric characters with names like Bertha Bumiller and Thurston Wheelis, Vera Carp and Petey Fisk. The characters may seem concocted, but most of them were based on real-life people known to the actors. Playwrights Joe Sears and Jaston Williams “share much in common: both grew up in small towns, both showed early interest in theatre, and both have more than a professional familiarity” with the characters they created and set in Tuna (“The History of Greater Tuna,” http://www.greatertuna.com/gt/greater). Sears grew up in Oklahoma, surrounded by cowboys and ranchers. He studied these folks and his family by “hanging around in the kitchen, watching my aunts prepare [meals]. The way they carried on conversation, joked with one another, I always watched that” (Ibid). In writing Greater Tuna, the two did their best to capture the language and gestures of their parents’ generation “who spoke in a very specific way and had very unusual inflections, which are disappearing from our language. And we try to keep those alive,” says Williams (Ibid).
The two comedic actors met in San Antonio, Texas at an audition for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Their friendship has led to a lengthy career in theatre that has given audiences four long-running plays set in Tuna, Texas: Greater Tuna (1981), A Tuna Christmas (1989), Red, White, & Tuna (1997), and the most recent Tuna Does Vegas (2008).
During breaks between the various Tuna plays, Jaston Williams has toured in Larry Shue’s The Foreigner, for which he earned a Helen Hayes Award for Best Actor. The State of Texas honored him with the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts by a Native Texan. He also wrote and performed an autobiographical one-man show entitled I’m Not Lying (Ibid).
Joe Sears’s credits include summer stock, outdoor drama, television, and eight Shakespeare plays. “Among his many roles are Bottom and Thisby in two separate productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the Doctor in Three Sisters. . . . He made his movie debut with Tommy Lee Jones and Matt Damon in The Good Old Boys” (http://www.tunadoesvegasthetour.com/cast.htm). He also writes for the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation’s outdoor summer theater and owns and operates a summer stock theatre company in Cody, Wyoming.
As the original script developed, Sears and Williams soon discovered they were on to something extraordinary, so they convinced their friend Ed Howard to join them in producing and directing the original play. Howard “collaborated on the script . . . and drained his savings account for the $10,000 to mount the [original] production” (Faires, Robert, The Austin Chronicle: Arts [12 April 2002]). Since then, Ed Howard has contributed to each of the Tuna plays, as playwright and director of each original production.
What makes Greater Tuna a box office draw from coast to coast? The answer is simple: audiences love watching two actors play twenty different characters in less than two hours. According to Williams, the Tuna plays have been successful because “Joe and I established a very strong friendship that started in the theatre but eventually had nothing to do with theatre. It had to do with our political beliefs, with our background. When we went home for Christmas, I could hardly wait to get back to San Antonio to exchange stories and hear what was going on with Joe’s family” (http://www.greatertuna.com/gt/greater).
Sears and Williams maximized the importance of their opposing body types by creating characters inherently rotund or diminutive. For example, Sears plays Bertha Bumiller, who—as her name implies—is a woman of some girth; Williams plays the Barney Fife-type character of Petey Fisk—a weasel of a man who runs the Humane Society in the greater Tuna area. The two actors each portray ten different characters in each performance. The costume changes require lightning speed and a well-choreographed off-stage area, so that one actor is always on stage performing while the other may be in the wings changing. Even during costume changes, the actors continue their dialogue, resulting in some of the most humorous moments in the play.
The twenty characters in Greater Tuna run the gamut of social strata and political persuasions, and every audience member comes away from the play with his or her own favorite characters. Who can watch the Bumiller family dynamics and not laugh? The oppositional-defiant Stanley tells on his sister Charlene: “Mama, I heard her up there groanin’. Every time the groanin’ starts, I know she’s tryin’ to squeeze into another pair of my blue jeans. . . . Her hips are so big she has to lay down on the bed and groan into them” (GreaterTuna, 17). Charlene is a study in contradictions—a pathetic, chubby adolescent crying out for recognition and acceptance. Her greatest ambition is to be chosen for the cheerleading squad at Tuna High School, but that doesn’t happen. She does, however, win a poetry-writing contest and reads her prize-winning poem live on Radio OKKK.
The playwrights have infused the play with so many funny and exaggerated stereotypes, it’s hard to keep track of them all. In addition to the stock characters (read: rednecks), animals figure prominently in Greater Tuna, reinforcing the stereotype that all Texans (dare we say all Southerners?) love fishing, hunting, dogs, and hunting dogs. In fact stray dogs run in and out of the Bumiller home, because little Jody Bumiller keeps rescuing the dogs from the Humane Society. Yippy the Dog plays a pivotal role, providing plenty of noise, irritation, and laughter. He also provides the foil for more than one hurried, offstage costume change for the actors, even though Yippee is never seen on stage. The contradiction between what the audience sees and hears contributes to the play’s humor.
What do two contrasting venues—Tuna, Texas and Austin, Texas—have in common? According to the Austin Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires, actors Jaston Williams and Joe Sears have given back as much to Austin as the city has given them. “The third smallest town in Texas” owes its celebrity to the second largest city in Texas, “to which the [playwrights] have consistently returned . . . to nurture their artistic impulses, as a team and individuals, . . . where they’ve been able to work with a broad array of theater artists and companies and build creative and personal relationships of longstanding, where they feel comfortable and at home” (2 April 2002).
Greater Tuna has enjoyed worldwide success since its 1981 inception, playing to audiences at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival, at America’s Spoleto Festival, on and off Broadway, at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Late Night with David Letterman, and as an HBO special produced by Norman Lear. Today the three playwrights are millionaires several times over; nevertheless, when all is said and done, the actors return to the big city of Austin, Texas to start all over. “With each new project come new collaborators and a new circle of friends that just extend and strengthen these two artists’ ties to [Austin]” (Ibid). And that contradiction is the key that has unlocked theatres everywhere, bringing audiences again and again to see each new production of Greater Tuna. The playwrights of Greater Tuna have proven that “theater is still a living thing, a thing that can touch people, move them, by the thousands” (Faires). And as disc jockeys Arles and Thurston remind the residents of Tuna, Texas, in the play’s closing scene, “If you can find someplace you like better than Tuna . . . MOVE!”