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The Road Home from Tuna

Texas Tech alumnus and ‘Greater Tuna’ co-creator Jaston Williams comes back to teach, inspire and share a little on life.

Written by John Davis

Jaston Williams Alumnus Jaston Williams began sowing his theater roots at Texas Tech in 1969. Today, he and his partner Joe Sears make millions laugh with their comedic plays.
You recognize something about his face. Something’s familiar in the smile and the eyes that might remind you of a friend’s brother in reform school or maybe the lady who took your order at the diner. Maybe? Then you realize. Jaston Williams is that brother – and the waitress. Even if you haven’t seen the ‘Tuna’ plays, chances are if you grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, you have met or are related to the characters Williams has brought to life. With razor-sharp wit, finely honed powers of observation and a native’s understanding of rural Southwestern social dynamics, he and his partner, Joe Sears, have made millions laugh at the quirky residents of the fictional West Texas town of Tuna. Through his career, the shows have played on and off Broadway, at the Kennedy Center, the Edinburgh International Arts Festival, the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. and all across America. Williams has received Washington D.C.’s Helen Hayes Award nominations for “A Tuna Christmas” and “Red, White and Tuna,” as well as the San Francisco Bay Area Critics Award for “Greater Tuna.” While in Lubbock for the premier of his new show, “Blame It on Valentine, Texas,” Williams came back to his alma mater to share his take on the essence of comedy with a group of aspiring actors. The event was presented by the Department of Theatre and Dance. “To me, great comedy is not funny to the person it’s happening to,” he said to an eager group of student and community actors. “That we can stand out from it and watch it is what makes it a lot of fun.” After launching into a side-splitting, true-life story about his family trying to take the car away from his blind, deaf and elderly mother – a harrowing task that involved the help of not only family, but religious and civic leaders in his hometown of Crosbyton – the students understood his point as they held their bellies and guffawed. Clearly, the pain of the moment was funny in retrospect. “You see,” he said. “At the time, it wasn’t funny … at ALL.”
Department of Theatre & Dance
Department of Theatre & Dance Texas Tech’s Department of Theatre and Dance is part of the College of Visual & Performing Arts. It is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre. The university is one of two in Texas to offer all traditional degrees in theatre, and one of only three in the southwest to offer a Ph.D. in Fine Arts. Students in the Department of Theatre and Dance pursue a core curriculum that includes training in the areas of design, acting, directing, dance, stage management, history and playwriting.
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Jaston Williams and Joe Sears are Tastee Kreme waitresses Helen Bedd and Inita Goodwin in the fourth Tuna show, (L-R) Jaston Williams and Joe Sears are Tastee Kreme waitresses Helen Bedd and Inita Goodwin in the fourth Tuna show, “Tuna Does Vegas.”
Mix one part lonely farm-kid with an active imagination and watchful eyes. Then add the power of ‘50s-era television comics. Throw in your typical West Texas neighbors and family whose characters seem bigger than life. In a nutshell, Williams said, that’s the start of the recipe for his career. “I was very observant,” Williams said, describing his childhood. “When we lived in Van Horn, we lived out on a farm. We were about 25 miles out of town. I had friends I hung with when I was in town or at church, but generally, I had to entertain myself. So I did. I created my own little world, not knowing I was working toward a career in show business by doing so.” Even though only two television stations existed, Williams said he thought the power of the then-new medium taught him much about delivery and the mechanics of making people laugh. And so he began practicing with his family and friends. Growing up and in high school, that comic ability became a way to survive the rigors of the wonder years. “What I discovered as a kid out here was if you were little, they don’t give you any brownie points for that,” he said. “Other kids will just slap the snot out of you. They don’t care. You’re easy prey. Some places, they’ll go ‘leave the little guy alone.’ Not here. They’ll say ‘Whack him, whack him. Hit him.’ “But if you’re funny, they’ll give you a break. I was friends with the football players and a lot of the cowboys because I could make them laugh. If you could make them laugh, you had a fighting chance. Once in a while, there was one of them whose development was so arrested that there was just no way you were going to get away with it. But, for the most part…”

Theatre at Texas Tech

Once Williams graduated, he knew show business was the only thing he wanted to pursue. When he arrived in 1969 at Texas Tech, he said the strong theatre and dance program served as an incubator and a laboratory for him to expand his abilities. Though he didn’t graduate, he said the experience spurred him into his professional career. “G.W. Bailey was around. Jay and Pam Brown were around and Richard Privitt,” Williams said. “It was a dangerous and volatile mix. They were doing some pretty amazing and daring theater back then. When I was there they had National Theatre Conference and they did Lysistrata, which was Aristophanes’ play about a sex strike. And it was amazing. You had a whole army of soldiers whose lances would fall on cue. They did ‘The Boys in the Band’ in 1970 and sold it out. It was before anyone got the rights to it.
Jaston Williams Jaston Williams plays “Maurice,” owner of the Vegas Hula Chateau Hotel’s beauty salon, in “Tuna Does Vegas.”
“It was a good time to be here. I loved performing. I never wanted to do anything else. I didn’t have any other marketable skills. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I ended up in Houston for a year. Then I got a job at the old First Repertory Company, which was a professional repertory theater in San Antonio. I earned $125 a month. That’s where I met Joe Sears doing Shakespeare. And that’s how we got Tuna and the last 30 years of my insane life.”

Building the Town of Tuna

The “Greater Tuna” characters started as a lark in the early 1980s, he said. Originally, they were meant only to entertain a few theatre friends at a party after a friend recruited Williams and Sears to come up with a last minute act. “It wasn’t intentional,” he said. “The guy who lived downstairs from us worked in our theater. He was having a party and wanted the people to be entertained. So, Joe and I just threw this together. We created Bertha (Bumiller) and Petey (Fisk). And people went crazy. They just went crazy. And that’s when I told Sears, ‘We are on to something. We gotta play with this.’ That’s literally how it started. Then it started getting real serious.” Originally, he thought the idea would work only in the Lone Star State. But the idea became a show and started bringing down houses. It ended with representation at the William Morris Agency in New York. After that, Williams began to realize the honesty of the characters gave them the ability to play anywhere in the United States. The audience got the humor. “We never have done things the way other people do,” Williams said. “We’ve broken every rule. They teach courses in college that teach you that you can’t do it the way we’ve done it. It’s not that we intended to break the rules, we just never read the rule book. That’s how the Tuna thing came about.” Williams and Sears are now producing their own show. Currently, Williams says he’s branching out into writing. He’s found he likes it even more than acting, and “Blame it on Valentine, Texas” serves as an autobiographical one-man show that draws deeply from his West Texas upbringing.

Having Class

On a warm day in February, Williams held court in a dance studio in the Sports Studies Center on Texas Tech’s campus. He showed clips from movies and talked about real-life stage experiences to about 20 people in the audience. Then, as students went before him with scenes, he taught them how to turn the volume up on humor through honest behavior and attention to detail. Hannah McKinney, a first year graduate student from the Metroplex studying performance and pedagogy, said she felt terrified before performing in front of Williams with a monologue from “Humble Boy.” Though it’s a standard piece in her repertoire she uses regularly to audition, McKinney said Williams showed her never to be satisfied just because it’s polished and ready. “You tend to think it’s polished and good and you don’t have to work on it anymore,” she said. “You tend to stop exploring options. Just working with him showed me you can keep working on it. How you handle props is something else I learned from the class. And that sometimes, if you spend your whole scene looking at each other, you end up shutting out your audience. Definitely, it firmed up some things in my mind that comedy is never funny to the people it’s happening to. I guess I’ve always known that, but it was cool to see that take shape right in front of you.” James Bush, an assistant professor of theater, said he brought Williams to the university to give budding actors a chance to hear about the real world of performance from someone who once stood in their place. “Jaston’s a teacher by nature,” Bush said. “He actually mentioned to me he’d love to teach a class, and I said, ‘Hey, let’s set it up.’ I went and talked with all the powers that be and we decided we’d work in a master class. After he had the students do the scenes, he totally reworked them. When he added those new activities, it brightened them up completely. He added a little about what you can do, and how you can take the honesty you know with you and talk about and act about what you know.”

Master Class Photos

Photos by Brenda Ladd and Joey Hernandez.
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3 Responses to “The Road Home from Tuna”

  1. L. L. Cox Says:

    Interesting article! I’ve seen “Red, White, and Tuna” at the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum in my hometown, Fort Worth, and “Greater Tuna” at the Grand Opera House in Galveston. At the
    Grand Opera House, I was the only person in my section, and probably the whole house, who laughed at Elmer Watkins’ line “let us bow for a word of prayer,” because of the incongruity–and because it is still used.
    L.L. Cox, Ph.D., 1996

  2. Pilobolus Teaches Dancers to Think, Move Outside the Box :: Texas Tech Today Says:

    [...] Read about and view pictures from a theatre master class here. [...]

  3. Jim Luzenski. Says:

    I was working at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit when “A Tuna Christmas” came in and I was captivated. Being able to meet Joe and Jayston, and be a guest backstage (and wear the Guest Apron) to watch how they did those amazing transformations, will always be a highlight of my life. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to perform “Greater Tuna” and I’m finally getting ready to do “A Tuna Christmas”, both as Jayston’s characters. I’ve fallen in love with Tuna, Texas!!!

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