Jaston Williams Proves His Acting Skills Anew
The actor who makes comedy look too effortless runs the risk of being thought of as no actor at all. That's because most folks take a pretty casual view of acting, to begin with -- apart from memorizing all those lines, how hard can that be? -- then, to make matters worse, tend to figure that, of all the kinds of acting there are, comic acting must be the easiest. After all, most everybody is able to get off a good joke now and again, and they've all known that favorite aunt or uncle who was always firing off zingers at the family reunion or the class clown who perpetually kept all the students in stitches. Acting funny, then, must not be so tough, and the performer who breezily provokes us to laughter surely isn't employing skills acquired through years of training but is just trading in on a knack, a gift, something he or she was born with. Oh, it doesn't mean that folks don't enjoy these actors and their work tremendously; they do. They just tend not to take their artistic accomplishments seriously; they write off comedic actors as one-trick ponies.
You can see where this would be a problem for Jaston Williams. In 1981, he and Joe Sears launched a little comedy called Greater Tuna, and they were so good in it, so funny at evoking a host of comical small-town Texans, that they've been able to spend the 19 years since performing it and its sequels, A Tuna Christmas and Red, White, and Tuna, in theatres all across the country and abroad. The phenomenal success of the Tuna plays, and Sears and Williams' willingness to devote most of their time to playing them, has linked the two men indelibly with the small gallery of characters that populate their "third-smallest town in Texas." So, with little besides Tuna on his theatrical plate, Williams might appear to some people to be less an honest-to-god actor than a guy who gets laughs from sporting a dress, a pair of cat's-eye glasses, and a twang.
Of course, the truth is that nobody gets laughs like Williams -- the raucous, straight-from-the-pit-of-your-belly, turning-your-eyes-into-weepy-slits guffaws -- and gets them as consistently as Williams does from just cheap drag and a West Texas accent. That kind of response, which he's gotten from audiences in every corner of the continent for two decades running, comes from not only a deep well of inborn comedic talent but a masterful application of comedic technique. When Williams adopts the guise of gun-shop owner Didi Snavely, his gut-busting delivery of the word "goddamn" -- with its epic pause between the first and second syllables, always exquisitely timed to draw the maximum amount of laughter from the audience's sense of anticipation -- alone marks him as an artist with a craftsman's command of the tools of the stage. Such skill is evident throughout any performance of a Tuna show: in Didi's squint and the malevolent shuffle of her feet, in Charlene Bumiller's just-a-step-removed-from-fingernails-on-the-blackboard high nasal whine, in Stanley Bumiller's juvie slouch, in Vera Carp's imperious bark, in the laconic rhythms of Arles Struvie's affirmation "It is, it is." Williams' movements, gestures, vocal pitches, tempi, timing -- all have been carefully modulated for comedic effect, and with a precision honed by thousands upon thousands of performances. To you and me, he may appear to be just a guy goofin' around onstage. But behind that nonchalant façade is an artist hard at work.
Audiences may find it easier to see the actor in Jaston Williams in his current project, Jay Presson Allen's Tru. In this solo show now onstage at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Williams must portray the celebrated writer and notorious celebrity Truman Capote. It is a daunting role by any measure. Not only does it require the actor to hold the stage for almost two hours alone, but to do so in the guise of a prominent public figure of the late 20th century, one whose pronounced persona was his calling card, instantly recognizable in its day and still familiar to many, and to depict convincingly not just this man's public face but his private face, too, and to reveal that private face during one of this figure's darkest hours, when he was tormented by doubt, despair, and feelings of abandonment. The actor must continually walk a fine line between an evocation of Capote's personality and an outright impersonation of him (an act made all the more difficult by the extravagant nature of Capote's speech and mannerisms), all the while charting the writer's emotional journey as a character in the play. Now, Allen has vividly captured the essence of Capote in her text and provided a wealth of witty and poignant material for any actor gutsy enough to take on her script, but being able to reap the rewards they offer a performer is still a substantial challenge.
Williams' desire to meet that challenge head-on after 20 years of touring Tuna may strike some as a kind of hubris borne out of the actor's vanity -- and heaven knows, the theatre abounds with peacocks who take on big parts out of a conviction that they have The Stuff to play them. But the more familiar you are with Williams' work, the more you've seen of his crisply timed gags, his outlandish characters, his deftness in sketching out a character's emotional state and suggesting emotional depth, his attention to detail in physicality and speech, the more likely you are to see Williams' decision to tackle Tru as an actor of talent and range and discipline seeking to test himself with a role that will force him to employ all his theatrical skills and even to develop them further.
That feeling is reinforced both in conversations with Williams -- as can be seen below -- and, more significantly, in his performance in Tru, as co-produced by Zach Scott and Actors Repertory of Texas. There's no bravura quality to what Williams is saying or doing, no Texas brag. Virtually everything coming from the actor is subdued, small. In our interview, he speaks softly, his voice at times dropping to a whisper. In performance, he keeps his tone in the intimate Whisenhunt Arena Stage at the level of a conversation, he moves with a spareness and delicacy. It's as if he's drawing himself in, reaching into himself to find Capote.
He finds it.
Williams offers an incisive portrait of a man torn between his impulses: to covet the company of the social elite and to expose their shallow lives in print, to live comfortably and to live freely, to drink and not to drink. Williams lets us see the charmer in Capote; the writer's love of and facility with language is evident in Williams' smooth, understated delivery of his bon mots and tantalizing gossip. There are times when he tosses a line away -- say, an expression of Capote's disdain for Arthur Miller not being a drinker -- and it's as if he's casting rose petals on a pool. The wickedness is treated with a kind of delicacy that gives it a warped beauty -- and isn't that très, très Tru? But then, on the heels of one of those bad-boy lines he's served up so beguilingly, Williams will let us catch a glint in his eye and hear one of Capote's wheezing laughs that reveal a harder, more mocking edge to this man. We come to see the charm and disdain as tides pushing and pulling inside this man, drawing others to him in his longing for acceptance and driving them away, and the conflict is twisting him apart inside, as well as feeding a deepening alcoholism. It's an inner tension we don't quite expect from this odd little man, so brainy, so trenchant, so effete. And yet we come to accept it because Williams grounds it so firmly in honest emotional turmoil.
Williams makes eloquent use of physicality to convey a sense of Capote's fragility: his head sunk into his shoulders, as if his neck were too frail to support the weight of it; his shuffling gait, scarcely moving forward a foot with each step, the feet seemingly bound to the earth; his right hand coming to rest across his breast, as gingerly as if it were a crystal rosebud. And as he grows increasingly agitated, frustrated over the snubs from his wealthy friends and their circle, reopening old wounds in his psyche, desperately fighting the urge to pour himself a large, numbing tumbler of vodka, the lines in Williams' face seem to sharpen into edges, and his hand goes ever more quickly to his temple, the middle and ring fingers desperately sawing his brow. We come to see that this Tru is not only fragile but brittle; were he to fall from the balcony of his apartment in the United Nations Plaza, he would shatter into a thousand thousand shards.
Williams brings all his considerable technical skills to bear in making his Tru credible (and those skills are marshaled sensitively and most effectively by director Larry Randolph, it must be said), and certainly that's part of what makes Williams' work here compelling. But when all is said and done, the real power in his performance comes from something more elusive than beats or gestures or an emphasis upon a key word; it comes from a sense of emptiness that Williams is able to project, the void within Truman Capote that keeps sending him back to that bottle of Stoli. It's a profound absence, and at certain moments, as when he recites from A Christmas Memory, "Home is where my friend is and there I never go," it tears your heart. That's something that even longtime fans of Williams are unlikely to have seen him express onstage before, and it is yet another indicator of his sublime artistry.
Because Tru is such a departure for Jaston Williams as an actor, we were curious about his preparation for the role. He spoke to the Chronicle in the Whisenhunt Arena Stage, just a few feet from the set of Tru, the day after his first preview performance.
Austin Chronicle: Why do this project now?
Jaston Williams: The last few years have been rugged, and I've spent a lot of time traveling and dealing with a lot of loss, but there was something really missing in my life. I'd been doing writing projects, doing Red, White, and Tuna, and all of that, but I realized that it had been a long time since I had a shot at doing a role that I really wanted to do. As we age, we make decisions. I'm going to do this or do that, or I'm going to pass on this project so I can have the time off to rest so I can put the high heels back on and go back out next year. And you reach a point where you realize that roles have passed you by. [Now] it's time do some acting.
I saw the play in New York about 10 years ago. I saw Bobby Morse do it. But I didn't get the feeling for the script then that I get from the script now. I thought, "What a wonderful thing for Bobby Morse to do at this time in his career." And it was. It was a big deal. But it didn't occur to me at the time to do it. Then I was looking at scripts to do this summer, and Tru was on the list, and he was 51 when this play is set, and I'm 49. We have some identification factor here. It just made sense.
Something hit me too at some point last year in the midst of another tour, and god knows where we were, I thought, "You know, I have this wonderful home in Austin. I live in this really incredible city, and I don't feel like I've done everything I need to do there." It's an unusual experience for me to be in a city where so many people know me and yet I don't know them. And it's because I'm on the road and because, tragically, a lot of people have died in the last decade. I was a little nervous about coming into Austin because [of all that]. I didn't want to come on in any sort of condescending way whatsoever. I just wanted to do this play. And Dave [Steakley] and Ann [Ciccolella] and everybody [at Zach Scott] have just been marvelous.
I'm grateful for this space. Part of the joy of coming in here was that with the Tuna plays, we gotta play the big houses. So to come down to a space this size is such a luxury.
AC: Have you felt certain acting muscles working that you haven't used in a while?
JW: Yeah. We're so far away from Texas here. The Fantasticks [which Sears and Williams performed in Washington, D.C.] was farce, which was a lot of fun, but it was pulling from your burlesque tricks. And Tuna is Tuna. We live and breathe those characters, and they mean a lot to us, but they live in their own kind of little universe. I've never known two actors who take their characters out like we do, and have to put up with them once we take them out, too!
This has really pushed a lot of buttons for me. A lot of people have said, "The Tuna shows must be very difficult for you because you play so many different characters." Actually, now, for me, that doesn't seem as difficult. What is really difficult is to take one character and run it all the way through, someone you have to see progress -- a play that does not have that theatrical content that keeps people amazed and what you've got to do is amaze them with the content and the heart of this character.
It's forced me to make some serious decisions. You make decisions about the voice, and you think, There are many, many people of our generation who knew Truman Capote, who knew the voice, that whole bizarre image that he projected, which was very calculated, and he turned it on and off. And I had to keep reminding myself that you do not have to do this exaggerated vocal thing all the time.
AC: How did you go about crossing from being outside Tru to inhabiting him?
JW: It was a very slow process. It's kind of a daunting experience in the amount of dialogue that he has to deal with and the amount of changes that he forces almost to happen. It was very frustrating because you'd feel like you were into it and then you'd finish the moment and feel you were very into the moment and then realize, "I don't know what the next moment is. I don't have a clue. I. Don't. Have. A clue." The director has been great in putting up signals, very specific signals in blocking and in rehearsing the sections. The character has been there on and off throughout, but I think the real breakthrough came about a week ago. Dave Steakley was there -- it was his last chance to see it because he was going into a serious week of Evita rehearsals -- and something about knowing he was there, it was like, "Okay, it's time to pull this together. It's time to get to that point and not worry about that line and that transition or whatever. You know, let's do this." And I realized, "You've got him. You don't just have him in segments. He's there."
A lot of the acting in this show, for me, is like method-acting recall, going back to my childhood and his childhood. There are moments where he's reading A Christmas Memory, and it inspires memories of my own childhood, of all those that are gone, those sacred aunts and grandmothers and those amazing, wonderful old-Texas women who killed the Comanches but who loved children. I came out of a dusty little town in West Texas and I've had some amazing things happen to me -- nothing remotely like what happened to Truman Capote, but I made my way out through my skills and my talents, which is exactly what he did on a much grander scale. So there's an identification factor there with him.
AC: How was the first time before an audience?
JW: I have to come out in the dark and sit on the chaise, and there's a recording of me talking on the phone. The recording was getting a reaction, so I thought, "Okay, we're rolling here. But what are they going to say when the lights come up?" Then there's a segment in the first act, pretty early on, where he really does sit down and start a conversation with the audience, revealing people that he's known. He says, "I'm probably the only person who knew Sirhan Sirhan and Robert Kennedy who also knew Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Kennedy," and you feel something go through the audience. It's like, "Who is this guy?" and it gets rolling at that point.
And because the fourth wall is broken very quickly and he does directly deal with the audience, that I hadn't been able to do, and last night there was no choice, there were people out there and you had to face 'em, and it felt great. It felt great to break that wall, to personalize it, to welcome them into the home, to try to charm them as he would have charmed them, because he was a very charming person. It's one of the reasons he had all those stories in Answered Prayers. C. Z. Guest was talking in an interview, and she said, "He was just so goddamn seductive. You would say things to him that you wouldn't say to your husband or your family or your priest. But you would say them to Truman because he was very, very seductive. And he was, in many ways, just a really good friend." It felt great to make the contact and to entertain and cajole people, and to allow people to see that side of him.
In this play, he breaks down those walls, he communicates with people, he entertains them, cracks great jokes, and that vodka bottle keeps getting lower and lower and lower. And you start to see that he was extraordinarily charming, he was personable, but he was a desperate alcoholic. And the lower the vodka bottle gets, the lower his self-esteem gets. It's a real lesson, so it's very important for me at the top of the show to be defiantly joyous and friendly, so they can see the decline, that he was all of this but on another level he was just another alcoholic.
AC: It doesn't seem like that's been a large part of your career for the past 20 years. Is it hard to go to that place?
JW: Yeah, it is. It's painful. It's been a painful thing to rehearse. His inner pain, his sense of personal abandonment. I think sometimes it's easy, especially when you're abusing substances, to push those around you, to say, "Oh, you love me, but what if I did this to you? What if I revealed this about you? Would you still love me?" It's classic abusive behavior, and something that I had to learn to deal with in my own life, and I'm grateful for the friends that have survived, because I pushed them pretty hard. So I identify with him on that level.
And the failed relationship -- what did I do wrong that has killed this lifelong relationship? Why can't I have that? If people love all these other things about me, why do I go home alone? When you gain some celebrity, you crave it and yet there comes a point of wanting to turn it off. He dealt specifically with being abandoned, being alone, and not to get morose about it or anything, but the world that Joe and I have of traveling on the road, a lot of it is really wonderful, we have friends around the country, we perform in wonderful places, and it's a lifestyle that on some levels is quite amazing and on others is incredibly lonely. It really is incredibly lonely. And this for Tru is a very lonely Christmas. And I didn't even think about this until I read the script, this whole thing is set at Christmas and for someone who has done a Christmas show for the last I don't know how many years, it deals with that universal tragedy of Christmas that we can get our hopes so built up: This year I'm going to do it right. This year the tree is not going to tip over. This year I will not have a breakdown getting the goddamn packages open. This year I will get something that I really, really want. I find myself at Christmas, generally in a hotel, trying to put up some makeshift tree, cussing up the windows and screamin' at room service and not thinking, "My god, they're workin on Christmas, too." So it plays into that thing, which I think is very American, about Christmastime, taking us into a land of expectations, and for Tru it's a very sad place to be.
AC: Do you still love the theatre as much as you did when you started out?
JW: Oh yes. What I love about theatre is that it is personal. I'll run into someone in New York, and they'll say, "I was at Greater Tuna the night of the blizzard." All these people had gone through incredible hardship to get there and didn't know how they were going to get home, the city was shutting down, and yet it made it a very personal show. We were doing Tuna in Fort Worth several years ago, and it was stock show season, and we were at Casa Mañana, and the flies ... We had a couple of flies onstage in the first act, and they were driving us just nuts. And I found backstage someone as a joke had given us this huge flyswatter, a Texas-sized flyswatter, and Vera came out and killed flies with that thing. Sears was just comin' apart. And I still run into people who say, "We were there the night Vera was killin' those flies."
I'm the luckiest person I know, to be able to have the life and do what I get to do, to have this space every night. It's an honor.
Tru runs through October 8, Thu-Sun, at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, 1510 Toomey. Call 476-0541.