For 'Tuna' creators Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, the fourth time is the charm
No one expected there to be a fourth trip to Tuna.
At the time Red, White and Tuna premiered in 1998, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams had already been dishing up Tuna for 17 seasons, spending the better part of every year on the road portraying the assorted Lone Star lunatics of Texas' third-smallest town in either Greater Tuna or its 1989 sequel, A Tuna Christmas. And even though the third comedy was intended to give them something fresh to play with – and possibly allow them to retire the original Tuna vehicle – no new show would be able to dissipate the inevitable strain wrought by those 17 years of touring, working so closely with each other, and being so closely identified with that specific set of characters. These guys felt, in the vernacular of their West Texas burg, "rode hard and put up wet." So they treated the show as a summing up of what they'd created, giving closure to certain characters – getting Bertha and Arles headed up the aisle, letting Aunt Pearl contemplate her own death – and going so far as to make the show's final change of costumes in full view of the audience – as clear a gesture of farewell to the work as these men could make. This, they signaled, would be it.
And yet here we are, almost a decade later, and Sears and Williams have gone back to their old "hometown" one more time and come up with a new comedy titled Tuna Does Vegas. What's more, they're excited about the show – more excited, they say, than they've been almost since the beginning of their remarkable theatrical journey. Much of that is due to the pair having chosen to produce the new Tuna themselves. It's a move that that's led the longtime co-creators to reconnect with old collaborators, reclaim their old friendship, and rediscover the fun in what they do.
So Damn Unique
The strain that developed within the Tuna team was as natural as the shows' successes were unnatural. After all, Greater Tuna was developed only because Sears and Williams needed to create some work for themselves after the theatre company that had brought them to Austin folded prematurely. Their friend Ed Howard, who collaborated on the script and directed the two, drained his savings account for the $10,000 to mount the production. Nothing with that unpromising a beginning ought to amount to much. But the show proved wildly popular with the locals and won a rave review in Variety. In just over a year after it opened on East Sixth, Greater Tuna was playing off-Broadway, where it ran for a year. Within three years, it was turned into an HBO special by Norman Lear. Within four years, it was being performed at the American Spoleto Festival and the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland. Within five years, it was the most performed play in the U.S. Before the end of the decade, the show was being performed at the White House for then-President George Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush and spawned a similarly well-received sequel. Five years after that, the sequel was on Broadway, and Sears was being nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in it. That phenomenal level of success is all but unprecedented in the contemporary American theatre.
And don't the shows' creators know it. Williams has a friend in Georgia who once told him: "'You realize they teach courses in college that are based on the premise that you cannot do what you two guys do.' They teach this. People go out in the world having been taught that this cannot happen. So it's so amazing to judge us by anyone else's experience, because it's just been so damn unique."
That said, even a one-of-a-kind skyrocket rise is subject to those showbiz stresses chronicled in every backstage story ever told. That old truism about being on top not necessarily equating to being fulfilled? Williams recalls that hitting home with him when A Tuna Christmas finally made the Great White Way. "It was a great time," he says. "It was great getting those reviews, and it was great having the people come, but I remember walking home one night after the opening, thinking, 'Is this it? Is this it for you? Is this really what you want?' And I couldn't say no, but I couldn't say yes, either.
"You know, your life changes so drastically, and our lives were diverging in different ways. Everybody had their escape place. Anytime Joe was off, he was in Wyoming. Anytime I was off, I was in New Orleans. And that was great, and it was a good time, and it's never that the respect wasn't there, but the ability to relate to each other's lives and the directions they were going wasn't there. We had to go out and do a lot of stuff on our own."
This was the era when Sears might be found in the company of Bobby Bridger, helping develop the dramatic version of his Ballad of the West, or collaborating with musician Kimmie Rhodes on the musicals Small Town Girl, Hillbilly Heaven, and Windblown. Williams could be seen onstage at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center (Tru, The Laramie Project) and the State Theatre (The Chairs, I'm Not Lying). But as important as these independent projects were to the two and as tired as they were, Williams and Sears never considered abandoning the Tuna franchise. Williams explains why: "Being the two of us, it was hard to be arbitrary and say, 'I will make this choice, or you will make this choice.' We were very aware, both of us, that if you did make a choice, it would affect the other person, it would affect other people. Did you want to do that? How could you do that and still maintain this? The other thing is we would go to New York and go to L.A. and deal with our friends in the business and realize we have something which is still, for whatever reason, selling. For whatever reason, they're still coming. That's something that a lot of people don't have, so you had to look at the positives."
Thus, the Tuna train trudged on. But as the franchise was entering its third decade, more tensions emerged. That Fourth of July fireworks farewell they penned to bring the Tuna trilogy to a close never quite popped the way Sears and Williams wanted it to. The pair tried a rewrite on Red, White and Tuna a few years ago but weren't able to produce it the way they wanted. Then the number of bookings of the shows began to drop off, even though Sears and Williams could still sense enthusiasm for them in the marketplace. "We thought, we need to take more control," says Williams. "We saw this as a way of starting over."
Since Charles H. Duggan, who had been producing the Tuna tours and a host of other projects starring Williams and Sears since 1984, retained production rights to the three plays already created by Sears, Williams, and Howard, the obvious thing for them to do was create a new one over which they'd have complete control. The men had toyed with the idea of a fourth play for some time but had never been able to agree on a story. Sears favored another holiday-themed show, this one set around Halloween. Williams preferred something radically different: a show called Escape From Tuna, focusing on 10 characters who had put the little town in their rearview mirrors but were still dealing with the psychological scars it left on them through therapy. Once the prospect of self-producing came on the table, the two began looking for fresh ideas. "We didn't want to do anything derivative," says Williams. "And we wanted to have fun with it. We'd been in harness for a long time, and we'd lost the fun."
Vegas entered the equation first as a city where they might be able to play the show for months at a time. They knew of performers such as Penn & Teller who were able to do extended runs there, and the city had become much more amenable to plays lately. Could they take the show to Vegas and establish a presence there, performing in the city a few months every year? Being able to get off the touring treadmill and have a stable home life had become much more important to both men in recent years, what with Sears helping to care for his granddaughter and Williams and his partner, Kevin Mooney, having adopted a boy from China. "Part of the appeal of producing it ourselves is that we have the power to say, 'We want to be home,'" says Williams. "My child spent seven years in an orphanage, and my partner Kevin and I equally take responsibility for his care. One of us can be gone for a little while, and it's okay, but then he wants both his parents. So in so many ways putting this project together was about how do you do that? How do we do what we do and go home every night? How can we do what we do and not have to be on the road all the time? We've had some good times on the road, but the road is the road. The road is tough. It'll kill you. If it doesn't kill you, it'll make you wish you were dead."
Vegas being something of an unknown quantity for Williams and Sears, the two sought out producers there with "deep pockets and big connections" who might help them get a foothold in the city. But the experience only served to reinforce their belief that they needed to captain their own ship at this point. After a period of dealing with these producers, Williams asked Sears: "How come they can do this, and we can't? What do they have that we don't besides extremely deep pockets? We've got connections; we've got these characters; we've got something that people want." So the men decided to produce the new show on their own.
I Can Work With This
By this time, Williams had made a couple of reconnaissance missions to Vegas, and the idea of the play actually being set there had surfaced. Williams says that when he first hit Sin City, he went seeking fodder for the script and didn't find much. It was only when he quit looking, he says, that "it all just surfaced. I saw this bridesmaid in this sleeveless gown with this itchy-looking tattoo and her flowers down at her feet, dragging on a cigarette, like, 'I'm so sick of this freakin' job.' And I said, 'I can work with this.' The second time I went, I stayed at Mandalay Bay and looked out my window, and there was this church right across the street – big Catholic church, kind of a cathedral type. And across the street from where the front doors opened up, they're building the new Hooter's resort. So [inside the church], you open the doors, and the priest is standing there with 'Hooter's' right over his head. And I said, 'I can work with this.' I took Ed Howard, and we hit all the wedding chapels. We saw everything you could imagine in terms of a wedding chapel. You know, it's a business, baby. They've got one that you can drive in. It's like a drive-in restaurant, and you get all your paperwork and just hand it through the window. You wonder if people say, 'Can I get fries with this?'
"So we started working on ideas. What would get people from Tuna to Las Vegas? Why would they go? How would characters from Tuna react to this? Then we just started writing. It's amazing how you find a place or you find a situation or you find some seed of an idea, and eventually it grows into a play about a specific thing. And this play – which I love – is about the sanctity of home. What home is. And that urge we all have of, 'Well, I'll just have fun if I can go to ... Guatemala and sit on a volcano.' How people take that approach to life: 'Well, if I can just get out of here, it will be better.'"
Bertha Bumiller and Arles Struvie, the unlikely lovebirds whose romance was part of the arc of A Tuna Christmas and Red, White and Tuna, became the key to getting the Tuna characters to Vegas. They would be headed there to renew their wedding vows and trying to make the trip in secret. But before they could get away, they'd keep encountering people who would find out about their getaway, each of whom would come up with a reason for needing to accompany the couple on their trip. Until half of Tuna winds up in Sin City at the lovely Hula Châteaux Resort.
A Crazy Thing
When it comes to hammering out a Tuna script, Williams, Sears, and Howard follow pretty much the same procedure they have for 26 years. "We talk things out, and then I generally do a draft," says Williams. "And as I'm doing the draft, they're sending me stuff. 'I've got an idea here.' 'I've got something here.'" Williams credits Sears with having some of the best ideas in conceiving scenes. "Joe is amazing in that he will go into situation places that would not have occurred to me. In Tuna Christmas, the whole scene in Didi's gun shop at Christmastime was Joe's idea. That never crossed my mind, and it's one of the favorite things I've gotten to do in my life. I contributed greatly to that scene, but Joe was the one who said, 'We need a scene in the gun shop.' He's done the same thing in Tuna Does Vegas. After I got the main draft together, he said: 'We need a scene with Pearl in her suite where she's dealing with room service and people hitting her up for money and the whole nine yards. And I want her in this kind of Carole Lombard outfit.' [Laughs.] And I thought, 'Well, why not? She's expanding. She won a little money in the slots.' And the scene is so much fun. That one wouldn't have come to me."
When a scene gets on its feet, one actor may start working it, with the other suggesting additions. But then, says Williams: "Ed Howard comes in and says, 'We gotta have this and this and this.' Edward has such an amazing eye for detail, the kind of detail that says, 'You don't need these two words.' And you take them out and go, 'Oh, yeah, that's much better.'" Each member of the trio contributes something distinctive, but "nobody feels like they're working any more than anybody else. We just do it. Collaborations are a crazy thing, but they sure are fun when everybody's laughing."
While the structure of the collaboration may be the same as it's ever been, a certain attitude among the three creative partners is different this time out – and that's a good thing. For years, Williams says, it was difficult for any of the three to criticize one of the others or suggest changes without the comment being met with suspicion. What was the speaker's motivation? Was he speaking out of jealousy or anger or spite? "We're strong-willed, opinionated people, all three of us," Williams admits. But of late the enormous amount of respect these men have built up for one another over 26 years has allowed them to accept that "if someone is criticizing something or suggesting something, that there's not any malice involved, that its only motivation is to make you look better or to try to make you think. We all think in very different ways and approach things in different ways, but there is no assumption that there's any malice or ulterior motive." In developing Tuna Does Vegas, the three have enjoyed a kind of playfulness that exceeds the kind they had when they first did Greater Tuna.
Again and again, Williams describes putting together this fourth trip to Tuna in terms of fun and friendship and the old days. "Where Joe and I are now as friends and collaborators is really where we were in the 1970s," he insists. "It's amazing. And now we are having fun."
In assembling the production team, Sears, Williams, and Howard pulled in several artists they've known for decades, some of them contributors to the team's first shows: designer Linda Fisher, who created the costumes for Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas ("Linda is so damn good. It's been an absolute gas to work with her again," says Williams.); lighting designers David Nancarrow and Root Choyce, who was with Sears and Williams in the failed Trans/Act company that preceded Greater Tuna ("Back when she wore the T-shirts that said, 'Kill men,' which made me a little nervous," Williams laughs.); set designer Christopher McCollum, and Paramount Theatre head carpenter Pasquale Del Villaggio.
Wearing the producer's hat has been an education for the three creators, says Williams. "You may have to tell someone something they don't want to hear. You may have to say, 'I cannot afford this salary.' But it's been marvelous." He speaks with obvious pride about the quality of the costumes ("mind-bendingly good stuff") and the fact that "everything happened here in Austin." The set was built and painted here. The costumes were built here. Most of the production team is from here. And as if that weren't enough, "The really joyous thing about it is that Joe and Edward and I are having the time of our lives."
That might have come to a screeching halt when the show actually premiered in Galveston this past August, but it didn't. "We had so much fun in Galveston, and it's been a while since we've had this kind of fun," Williams says. "I think we're as tight on this first act as anything we've ever done. The second act is like going off a cliff a little because you're introducing new characters and you're in a new place," he notes, and even the adoring audiences in Galveston – one of the cities that, like Austin, has always had a special affection for the Tuna shows – took a little while to warm up. But Williams states confidently, "We're going in the direction we want to go."
This week, Austin audiences get their first gander at the new Tuna; then the show will move on to Fort Worth and San Francisco and as many more spots as they can book. Williams believes the show will rekindle in audiences the same affection and enthusiasm that it has in the men who made it. "It's like seeing old friends," he says. "Hopefully, it's like seeing old friends."
Tuna Does Vegas runs through Nov. 11, Tuesday-Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 2 & 8pm; Sunday, 2 & 7:30pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For more information, call 866/4GET-TIX or visit www.austintheatre.org