The actor and playwright Jaston Williams grew up in the small towns of Olton and Crosbyton in the Texas Panhandle, but he is best known for his portrayals of a different small town—the fictional hamlet of Tuna. The award-winning play Greater Tuna, which he wrote with his co-star Joe Sears and director Ed Howard, has been gracing stages across the state and beyond since its premiere at a theater space on Sixth Street in Austin in 1981.
With a rotating cast of misguided yet endearing characters, Greater Tuna both celebrates and lampoons life in small-town Texas, in this case the “third smallest town in Texas,” located somewhere “between San Angelo and Hell.” The production was so successful that it traveled to an Off-Broadway theater in New York, spawned three humorous sequels, and has remained a perennial favorite for audiences far and wide.
Outside of Tuna, Williams keeps a busy schedule of writing and performing. This June, he’ll debut the solo production Clear to Partly Crazy at The Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston. And he’s developing another one-person show, I Saw the Lights, inspired by a rash of UFO sightings in Lubbock in 1951. In the meantime, Williams is directing a new incarnation of Greater Tuna with new actors. The show is touring throughout the state.
Q: How do you explain the enduring appeal of Greater Tuna?
A: The play crosses boundaries—even people with different viewpoints can enjoy it. In the audience, you’ll see someone in an Armani suit next to someone in overalls. I think some people are drawn to the characters and are oblivious to the political content; others see the play as satire. We wrote it in the early Reagan years, and it was originally about book banning and burning Buddy Holly records. The play is still very relevant. Everything old is newish again.
Q: How are you taking a different approach with this revival?
A: We started Greater Tuna when we were young, and it was time for us to let it go. By directing, I still maintain quality control, and we’re restructuring and updating it, adding some new material. I’m using three actors [Ryan Bailey, Tim Childers, and Will Mercer] instead of two, and they are quite marvelous together and funny as hell. These people are introducing the play to a new generation.
Q: Is Tuna based on a real Texas town?
A: No. We used to joke that it was in Reagan County in the desert in far West Texas—just keep turning right until you run out of road! I love the isolation of West Texas. Part of my heart will always be out there. Last summer, I stayed at the Hotel Saint George in Marfa, and in Alpine I had great Mexican food at El Patio, a restaurant right next to the railroad tracks with a patio and live music, and saw a poetry reading at Front Street Books.
Q: What are some of your other favorite Texas small towns?
A: I went to high school in Crosbyton. It’s right up on the caprock on this bizarre border between farm and ranch country. It was one of the first communities to take root after the Comanche were driven out. Quanah Parker did his vision quest just outside of Crosbyton. You’ll find all this history at the Pioneer Memorial Museum there.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: I moved to Lockhart with my partner and our son in 2009. It’s about 30 minutes south of Austin, and it’s known for barbecue. They barbecue anything that holds still in this town! I’m a Black’s Barbecue loyalist, but the ribs at Smitty’s Market are like nothing I’ve ever had. The town square and courthouse are also charming. We have a community theater, the Gaslight Baker Theatre, which always has something going on.
Q: What’s Clear to Partly Crazy about?
A: It’s a one-person solo show that deals with cheerleaders, tornadoes, and mental illness. Part of the inspiration for the play is my mother, God bless her. When we were living in the Panhandle of Texas we didn’t have a basement or cellar, so she accepted invitations from every kind lady in town to go to their cellar whenr go to the same cellar twice. We nearly died because we couldn’t go to the same cellar twice. Image was everything for momma. The people at The Grand Opera House in Galveston are like family to me, and any time I have new material, they always give me a venue to help create it. If your readers haven’t been there, it’s well worth a trip. It’s a wonderful place to see a show.
Q: Where else do you go in Texas to see good theater?
A: In Austin, the Rude Mechanicals are amazing and creative; they have a Fixing Shakespeare series, where they take Shakespeare plays that don’t quite work and “fix” them. I have connections with people at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, and Austin finally has the facility it deserves with the new ZACH Theatre. Quite often you’ll find good theater at the University of Texas at Austin. The best place for musicals is Texas State University in San Marcos. It excites me to go see what the young people are doing. I enjoy dropping in on the Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera, and of course the Alley Theatre and the Dallas Theater Center are important. But it’s also important to keep your ear to the ground. Theater is everywhere.
Q: What do you hope people take away from the new Greater Tuna experience?
A: This is a fun play that should make people laugh and think, and take people’s minds off the world. That’s what art is good for, and that’s the one thing I’ve always loved about the theater. I hope people come see it. We’re going to be all over the state—all roads lead to Tuna!