The Secret History of Tuna

How Joe Sears and Jaston Williams' little Texas town changed the Capital City

Bertha and Vera after the hit off-Broadway run of <i>Greater Tuna</i>,  <i>The Austin Chronicle</i>, October 1983
Bertha and Vera after the hit off-Broadway run of Greater Tuna, The Austin Chronicle, October 1983 (Photo By Suzanne Ebner)

Two men and a town. That pretty much sums up the careers of Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, at least for most of their audience, who know and love Williams and Sears as the creators of Tuna, Texas, and as the physical manifestations of its many lunatic citizens.

And rightly so. It's through Tuna that these two theatre artists have received their greatest attention: playing Broadway, appearing on network talk shows, starring in their own HBO special, performing at the White House -- twice -- for President Bush (the elder) and First Lady Barbara Bush.

And it's Tuna to which these two have devoted most of their professional lives, touring one or more of the plays in the Tuna Trilogy -- Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, and Red, White and Tuna -- three seasons out of every four since 1982. All told, Sears and Williams have racked up some 4,000 performances as smut-snatchin' Bertha Bumiller, puppy-cuddlin' Petey Fisk, mongrel-murderin' Pearl Burras, pistol-peddlin' Didi Snavely, and the assorted other two dozen-plus denizens of Tuna (for a list, see sidebar), and now, they're launching the 20th anniversary tour of the show that started it all, Greater Tuna, which guarantees another couple hundred trips to the "third smallest town in Texas" before the year is out. Worked out in days, that's more than 11 solid years of Tuna for Williams and Sears -- a statistic that makes clear how much their imaginary West Texas burg defines these men's lives.

Sears and Williams' first production, with Williams as Charlie and Sears as redneck Owen Musser
Sears and Williams' first production, with Williams as Charlie and Sears as redneck Owen Musser

And yet, as prominent as Tuna is, it is not the only place with which Williams and Sears may be closely identified. Within the history of the Tuna phenomenon, from its birth through the never-ending national tours, there has been one city to which the pair have consistently returned, one city where they have been able to nurture their artistic impulses, as a team and individuals, outside the boundaries of Tuna, where they've been able to work with a broad array of theatre artists and companies and build creative and personal relationships of longstanding, where they feel comfortable and at home -- indeed, where both maintain homes.

The city is Austin, and an examination of its place in the lives of Jaston Williams and Joe Sears finds that not only has our town played, and continues to play, a significant role in the development of their town, but that the relationships forged here by these artists have changed the face of our city.

Spawning Ground

You can argue that there wouldn't be a Tuna if it weren't for Austin. It was here that Sears and Williams gave birth to the first play in the trilogy, and they might not have done that had it not been for the curious blend of individuals and circumstances at the time. This was in the pre-dot-com bust, pre-dot-com boom, pre-real-estate bust, pre-real-estate boom Austin of the early 1980s, and professional theatre was still little more than a hopeful gleam in the eyes of local actors. But there was a noble experiment being undertaken in that vein, and Joe Sears and Jaston Williams were a part of it.

The experiment was called Xenia III Productions, and it was an attempt to create a theatre with a permanent company of salaried artists. Unlike other similar ventures before and since, this one started with capital from a group of private investors -- enough to renovate a crumbling old Sixth Street moviehouse and start paying seven artists "somewhere between $150 and $200 per week." So it was that in the fall of 1980, Sears and Williams, friends since meeting in a theatre company in San Antonio in 1973, joined forces with C.K. McFarland, Terry Galloway, Ed Howard, Adrienne Braswell, and Joy Cunningham.

In a theatre they dubbed the Trans/Act, these creative adventurers announced their arrival in Austin with a project that scooped Disney by a decade and a half: a musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Alas, their take on Quasimodo didn't enjoy the success of the one from the House of Mouse. It became Xenia III's first and last production. The private funding, which was reportedly guaranteed for five years, wasn't, and the company was dissolved. That was how Williams and Sears found themselves without gainful employment in Austin in the summer of 1981.

Later production with Sears as Betty Meeks and Richard Jones as Owen Musser
Later production with Sears as Betty Meeks and Richard Jones as Owen Musser

Now, around that time, they had been asked to provide entertainment for a friend's party. It being Morning in America, with Ronnie leading the charge against the Evil Empire, and Austin being a liberal outpost in a conservative frontier and they being liberals with a taste for satire, they opted to use the opportunity to smite the Right. Drawing on their mutual histories in little Western towns, they delivered dispatches from a reactionary radio station in some Panhandle paradise for the profoundly conservative. When their little broadcast from station "OKKK" proved enormously popular, they decided to develop it into a play. After all, what else were they going to do? They started getting together at Barton Springs, swimming for half an hour, then improvising into a tape recorder. Their friend Ed Howard collaborated on the script, directed the two actors, and drained his savings account for the $10,000 to mount the production.

By Labor Day, the team had a show. Fortunately, the Trans/Act was still hanging on as a theatre, so they booked it and that September, in the building that is now the Hard Rock Cafe, Greater Tuna was born. The response was immediate and strong: People loved the show, loved it enough to warrant a second run in December. That run extended into February, during which time it was seen by a critic from Variety, who raved about the show in the national press. Within a couple of months, Tuna was set to runs in Hartford, Conn., and New York. Just over a year after it opened on East Sixth, Greater Tuna was playing off-Broadway, where it ran a year.

At this point, you might reasonably figure that Sears and Williams had put Austin behind them. After all, the city had been home to them for only about a year; hell, it wasn't a place where they had jobs, much less roots. Now they were in the Mecca of American Theatre, they had a hit, they were being seen by celebrities, mentioned in gossip columns, booked on talk shows (Letterman snagged them three months into their run), pursued by Norman Lear for an HBO special. What was waiting for a couple of theatre professionals back in Austin?

Well, an audience, for one thing. Make that the audience, the one that had given them the support that made the New York run possible. In an interview published in these pages in 1983, Joe Sears told writer Neal Herr, "Every time we come back to Austin, something major happens -- the New York deal came through, the television deal came through, and our first conference with Norman Lear was last night. It's magic when you come back to Austin."

Sears and Williams with a pair of unidentified fans, 1989
Sears and Williams with a pair of unidentified fans, 1989

Which prompted Jaston Williams to add, "Austin made the show, that's the whole point: that there was just this groundswell of support from certain locals that came over and over again before we ever knew they had seen the show and they spread it from word of mouth till people came out of the woodwork."

Tuna Helpers

The week those comments saw print, Greater Tuna opened its first run of many at the Paramount Theatre. The fact that the show was booked for two weeks in a 1,200-seat house spoke volumes about how far Williams and Sears had come in two years. They were drawing audiences in numbers unheard of in the city of that day -- many times the size of any other locally produced theatrical production, larger than other touring shows at the Paramount, larger than shows at the then-new Bass Concert Hall ... the only events that even came close were -- ulp! -- sports events.

Tuna was proving that culture could compete with sports, that theatre -- homegrown theatre, at that! -- was big business on the order of the state religion, football. And with numbers that huge, the show had to be drawing people who weren't regular theatregoers. Sears and Williams were not only breaking box office records, they were creating a new audience at the same time. It was a breakthrough moment for the city's arts scene, setting the stage, as it were, for Live Oak Theatre, Zachary Scott Theatre, Austin Musical Theatre, Austin Lyric Opera, and the other performing arts companies that would develop audiences in the thousands.

But there was more to the distance that Tuna had traveled in those two years than could be measured in tickets sold. The show itself was different, no longer the bare-bones operation at the Trans/Act, with its generic unit set-pieces and songs to cover the costume changes that Williams and Sears had to make themselves. Now, there was a set that was designed, elaborate lighting, costumes designed for quick changes, and dressers to make them happen in the blink of an eye. New collaborators had been brought on board in preparation for the show's off-Broadway run. Tuna had been made greater. It had moved beyond three guys scraping together a show to a host of professionals crafting a Broadway-quality production. The show had become, in essence, a corporation, and so it has been ever since.

Click <b><a href=tunatree.jpg>here</a></b> to view a Tuna Family Tree.
Click here to view a Tuna Family Tree.

While Joe and Jaston are still the heart, soul, and public face of Tuna, the corporation that goes unseen behind the curtain is an integral part of the shows' successes. There are folks like Carla McQueen, who has served as company manager and producing associate; Karen Jones and Tim Mateer, both gifted actors who have performed extensively with Sears and Williams (see "Tuna Family Tree," p.32) and who have also assisted in the magic of Sears and Williams' astonishingly quick Tuna character changes by serving as dressers; and Robert Tolaro, an accomplished local director (OnStage Theatre Company's The Gin Game, Austin Shakespeare Festival's Merry Wives of Windsor) who has been stage manager for the Tuna tours for a dozen years, who has called hundreds upon hundreds of performances and who has also filled in for Williams twice during emergencies, the second time managing to play all of Jaston's parts in A Tuna Christmas by memory with only a few hours notice.

And, of course, there is Charles H. Duggan, the man who has been producing the Tuna tours and a host of other projects starring Williams and Sears since 1984. With Charles in charge, the Tuna plays have become a multimillion concern, generating $3.8 million in gross sales for the year by the time Red, White, and Tuna made its debut. Like Sears and Williams, Duggan has felt the pull of Austin. Although he was for many years based in San Francisco, where he operates the 640-seat Marines Memorial Theatre, he chose to move to Austin in 1992 and brought the corporate headquarters with him, where it's been ever since.

Beyond Tuna

Still, even though our city is the birthplace and seat of the Tuna empire, it's a place where audiences have seen Sears and Williams take part in numerous projects apart from those involving Bertha, Vera, Pearl, and Didi -- even in those heady early years of Greater Tuna's debut. In 1985, between an early summer trip to perform Greater Tuna at the American Spoleto Festival and a late-summer trip to perform it at the Edinburgh Festival, Williams staged the show Rodents and Rumors at Capitol City Playhouse. Consisting of three short plays by Israel Horowitz and a new one-act by himself, "The Devil and Mary Ann Moseley," the show was also notable for reuniting him with Joy Cunningham and C.K. McFarland for the first time since their Xenia III days.

Whenever Sears or Williams began to work on something new, old friends were sure to be involved. Shortly after their visit to Edinburgh, the two joined several local artists -- Doug Dyer, Esther's Follies, John Henry Faulk, Terry Galloway, Deborah Hay, Joe Ely, and Turk Pipkin, to name a few -- in a benefit to resuscitate the State Theater, which at the time was empty and had yet to be claimed by Live Oak Theatre. The project was a dream of Follies founding member Dyer, who was a friend to the Tuna creators. During the State's brief life in the mid-Eighties, Sears also directed a production of Dyer's play Splendora, based on the Edward Swift novel.

When the two experimented with other plays they might use to complement the Tuna shows, they invariably found room for old pals in the cast. Karen and Richard Jones, the Lunt and Fontanne of San Antone and friends of Sears and Williams since their Alamo City days, worked with the pair in The Foreigner, the Larry Shue farce which Williams and Sears toured extensively from 1987-95; American Window, a 1998 workshop of monologues written by Sears, Williams, Jo Carol Pierce (whose Bad Girls Upset by the Truth would be directed by Williams), Joy Cunningham, and Gene Fowler, and performed by John Hawkes (who was in the first cast of The Foreigner), Tim Mateer (who took over for Hawkes in subsequent runs of the show), and Starla Benford (the Austin native seen recently in the national tour of The Vagina Monologues); and the 1990 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which starred Sears in the role made famous by Zero Mostel, and also included Xenia III alums C.K. McFarland, Joy Cunningham, and Adrienne Braswell. Karen Jones also appeared in Sears' one-act "Eddie Lee, Eddie Lee" at Planet Theatre/the Vortex and co-starred with Williams in The Chairs at the State, which Richard Jones directed.

Seeing these same names again and again on the list of projects involving Sears and Williams reinforces the sense of commitment these men have to this city and the artists who live and work here. They have a ticket that could take them almost anywhere, allow them to do almost anything, but what they choose to do again and again is return to Austin and make art with people they know and trust. In a way, Sears and Williams have created a model for other Austin artists who find glory outside their homnetown: how to bring it back and share it with the community that helped them achieve their success.

Even now, 20 years from the start of their extraordinary creation, when they could easily be slowing down and enjoying the fruits of their creative labors, the Tuna guys continue to work in Austin -- and to expand their relationships to artists and companies with whom they've never worked before. In the last few years, Sears has embarked on an exciting series of collaborations with musician Kimmie Rhodes, directing a production of Rhodes' musical Small Town Girl starring Joe Ely; co-writing the musical Hillbilly Heaven with Rhodes and directing a production featuring himself, Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Barry Tubb; and Doing God's Chores, which Sears and Rhodes are currently writing. Meanwhile, Williams has been engaging in creative collaborations with the State (The Chairs) and the Zachary Scott Theatre Center (Tru, The Laramie Project). With each new project comes new collaborators and a new circle of friends that just extend and strengthen these two artists' ties to the community, that connect them with Austin.

Picture those connections -- if you need a visual aid, there's one in the "Tuna Family Tree" above -- and you'll see a web that binds Jaston Williams and Joe Sears to theatre artists who represent the best Austin has to offer, to innovators and daredevils as well as to craftspeople and preservationists. These are the people who have shaped the culture of this city, and Joe and Jaston are enmeshed with them, at one with them. They have proven that theatre is still a living thing, a thing that can touch people, move them, by the thousands. And it need not be from anywhere else -- it can be made here, and people will respond. With Tuna, Joe and Jaston built it, and we came.

Joe Sears and Jaston Williams brought Austin new words, new stories, made us laugh, made us think, and if their careers can be summed up as two men and a town, you can just as easily say the town is ours. end story

Greater Tuna runs April 16-21 at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. Call 469-SHOW for info.

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