Telling His Own Story Fearlessly

In 'I'm Not Lying,' Jaston Williams sets aside his characters to play himself

Telling His Own Story Fearlessly

You know him as tart-tongued Vera Carp and critter-lovin' Petey Fisk; as Didi Snavely of the heavy artillery and perpetual cigarette; as Stanley Bumiller, the juvie slouching toward Santa Fe; and as a dozen others. Over the past 22 years, Jaston Williams has logged so much stage time playing these figures in Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, and Red, White and Tuna that many of his fans identify the actor with his characters. But while Williams allows that these characters he has embodied for so long are drawn from parts of himself, there is more to the man than Tuna.

There is the boy who was the only male in his West Texas hometown taking dance. There is the young man wearing a yellow chicken suit, stoned in the mountains of New Mexico. There is the son sitting in the hospital with his elderly mother during the final hours of her life. There is the father just getting to know his grown son when the son dies. These incarnations of Williams surface in his new autobiographical show, "I'm Not Lying." In narrative vignettes, Williams opens a window into his past and pays tribute to the people who influenced his life and, in some cases, actually saved it.

As seen in its initial run at the State Theater in June, the show is a self-portrait on the order of a Rembrandt: lush in detail, unsparing in its depiction of the artist's frailties, generous in its embrace of his humanity and, by extension, the humanity of everyone watching him. While the show is not without its Williams trademarks -- captivating yarns, expertly spun; raucous humor, much of it biting; West Texas twangs -- "I'm Not Lying" reveals much in Williams that we've seen little of before: a gift for lyricism, a sensitivity, an openness about himself.

On the eve of his return to "I'm Not Lying," which is back for another brief run at the State this weekend, Williams spoke to the Chronicle about the sparks that prompted this memoir and his feelings in writing and performing it.

Austin Chronicle: Have you ever done anything this personal?

Jaston Williams: No. Any writer or actor, you invest your personal experiences when you're writing fiction. There are shades of my childhood in little Jody, but it's a shade, it's a shadow, it's a brief moment. There are shades of my childhood in all those children I play, but you take a germ of something, then you let it birth itself. So much of my writing has been about my feelings and my beliefs, but not necessarily about my experiences.

I don't know, I guess this came about when it was supposed to, that it is a natural evolution of a writer. You reach a level of frustration with the Tuna stuff -- and it's not that I don't love it, I do, and I love that people love it and that it means what it means to them -- but at a certain point you realize that a lot of people are confusing you with these characters. That's who they want you to be on a certain level, an extension of those characters. And you feel kind of trapped by it, kind of like you're living in that small town again. It's not that I want out of it, but I want other experiences.

This writing has been in me for a long time, because I'm a natural storyteller, and I've had so many people for so many years tell me, "You need to write this stuff down." Then I had this spooky experience on New Year's Eve -- what we thought was a heart attack, and it wasn't. It had all the symptoms of a heart attack, down to the pain moving from the left side of your chest down your arm and going numb and passing out. So, four days in the hospital really gave me time to contemplate what if it had ended right there. It's not that it would have been an unfulfilled life, it's not that it wouldn't have been a life that achieved a lot, but I felt that the important stuff I had to say had not been said.

I went home from the hospital, and I was just a rag doll for a few days. I was out at my cabin, and I woke up at 4am, and I remembered this whole incident where this farm hand had saved my life when I was 4 years old. It was something I hadn't thought about in forever. I cannot begin to imagine when I last thought about that incident, but it came to me, and it was coming to me in this kind of lyrical, poetic form. I got up about 6 and started writing, and I wrote that piece in one day. I thought, "This is not like any writing you have ever done. It is coming from a place of the heart."

I thought, "It's time to come clean. It's time to come clean with your life." Maybe this image that [I'm] the Tuna guy is something I promoted, and maybe there are parts of my life, like my sexuality, like my history, like my times at the bottom, that I have been open about only to a point. So I thought, "You just gotta write this."

And the stories just started coming out. Within three or four weeks, I had five or six. And I sent them to my agent -- and there was no idea of performing this; I thought, "I want to publish this," and I asked him, "Does this work on that level?" And he called me as soon as he'd read it, and he said, "Yeah, we can publish this, but you have to do it." And I said, "Well, I didn't intend to produce it." And he said, "No, but you need to do it. People need to hear this in your voice. It is written to be read, and it will be read, but it is also written for you to say. And if you've been brave enough to write this, you can be brave enough to do it, and I think it will be very powerful."

So I went to Scott [Kanoff, State Theater Company artistic director]. I said, "I've got some things I want you to read. I've been writing some stuff, and I'd be interested to know what you have to say about them."

AC: Were you close to Scott at that point?

JW: I had a wonderful relationship with Scott because of The Chairs [a play by Ionesco that was produced at the State starring Williams], and it was primarily based on the fact that he let us do it. I can't tell you how many directors and producers I went to with that project, and they all said, "That's not my aesthetic." [Laughs] But Scott didn't hesitate. "Yeah! The Chairs is perfect. Let's do it." We had wonderful conversations about how Ionesco had affected us as young people, so he and I had a bond. I wanted to do something with Scott the next year, but I was touring, and I was committed to The Laramie Project [at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center] -- and I'm grateful for the rest of my life to have done that show.

And Laramie, in all honesty, played a part in my writing. I think it was a catalyst for courage, for dealing with personal issues, with sexual issues, with parental issues, with accepting the loss of a child, that in my mind and in so many ways I'd done, but on some level I hadn't. I appeared to be very brave and very stoic and very spiritual, but I realized that I was in agony. I was in real, real pain. I'm also a believer that grief is a private matter -- and I deal with that in the play -- but this cataclysmic event in your life is something you need to talk about. It was hard to talk about my personal relationship with my son, which is such a cherished thing between the two of us. It was something that I had left that others didn't really know about, and once he was gone, to put that out there was a difficult thing.

AC: It wasn't something that you felt like you were exploiting.

JW: Exactly! So it was very, very difficult, but it has been totally healing and connected me with the fact that you don't quit being a parent. The whole thing has been miraculous.

AC: Laramie Project talks a lot about forgiveness. Are you looking for some forgiveness for yourself?

JW: I'm looking for forgiveness, and I'm looking to grant it. And I think it's a daily struggle, and there is no peace without it.

AC: That lyricism in the piece. Is that new to your writing?

JW: I got up that morning, and I sat down to write, and it started coming out that way.

AC: And what did you think about it?

JW: I cried. Maybe we find our voice when we confront fear, when we just quit being afraid to do it. I can't explain it, but in writing about my life, that's how I remembered it, and those images came, those images of West Texas, and it all just kind of coalesced. It's been amazing that that lyricism has come out, and I don't know how that happened, it's just that when it seems necessary, it's there. It's the damnedest thing. I don't understand it, but I'm so grateful, and I feel like a new person. I'm fond of the old one. The old one had a real good time, and I liked a lot of what he did, but I'm really feeling like a new person. Not to get too touchy-feely about it, but it's been profound for me. And if it never goes any farther than this, it's been nice.

AC: Tell me about performing what you wrote.

JW: I went through the most blinding case of stage fright the day this opened.

AC: That's so hard for me to imagine. You strike me as being such a natural actor. For some people, all the world is a stage because they understand how to play, and they play anywhere and everywhere. I think of you as one of those people.

JW: I have many moments of that. There are times when I really am fearless. The one who is really fearless is Joe [Sears]. If stage fright dared to approach him, it would get its beads ripped. He doesn't have time for that. He's Joe Sears. [Laughs] So I guess going on with him, you figure, "He's not scared, why should I be?" But at times it does come about, and with this I had so much personally invested, and that afternoon I had enormous stage fright that was just numbing. And then I just showed it to the door. At some point, I just said, "There's too much at stake here. Personally. This is not about money. You are saying these things because you have a need to say them, because you hope they are universal, because you hope that maybe someone will relate to that farm hand that saved your life or that teacher that you couldn't relate to that caused you pain and that you learned to forgive 40 years later or that deathbed experience with your mother or other family members or those moments when you went to the bottom and you don't know why." And I just didn't want to be afraid. So much of our lives is about fear. Am I going to be able to do this or do that? Am I going to be able to pay the taxes or whatever? There is that fear everywhere, and it's just like being in hell. Only it is, I think, a matter of choice; I can choose not to be afraid. And I just chose not to be afraid, and it was amazing. That first audience, I felt it in the first seconds. I felt it in the first sentence. And I just love Austin so much, in spite of what Tom DeLay is trying to do to us. I love this place so much, and I felt it coming from them. I realized they're not here to watch you fail. I don't know how to describe it, but it's been pretty grand. Pretty grand. end story

"I'm Not Lying" runs through Aug. 3, Thursday-Sunday, at the State Theater, 719 Congress. Call 469-SHOW for info.

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Jaston Williams, Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, Red, White and Tuna, Vera Carp, Petey Fisk, Didi Snavely, Arles Struvie, Stanley Bumiller, Helen Bedd, "I'm Not Lying", State Theater, Scott Kanoff, State Theater Company

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