TheaterTheater Interview

Exclusive Interview: Jaston Williams of ‘Greater Tuna’

Jaston Williams, the co-creator and co-star of Greater Tuna, has managed a successful solo career for quite some time now, with works that include A Wolverine Walks Into a Bar and Is There Life After Lubbock? On June 7, he starts a ten-day run at the Classic Theatre of San Antonio with his vintage solo show, I’m Not Lying!

In getting ready for the performance, Mr. Williams was kind enough to provide ArtScene SA with a lively interview about the history of I’m Not Lying! Hilarious and heartfelt, it reflects his own personal history, and his enduring affection for the Alamo City.

I know you’re not performing in Tuna anymore since you’ve been working on solo projects, but are you still involved with it?

I’ve directed a couple of editions and I’ll be directing a regional version of A Tuna Christmas. I’ve found a number of really good actors here in Texas. Texans can’t get enough of it, you know. There’s life in the old girl yet!

How frequently are you in touch with Joe [Sears]?

I talked to Joe about ten days ago. He’s heading this way. I haven’t seen him in a while; he lives in northeast Oklahoma. We talk and laugh and rant about politics every two weeks.

Is this the first time you’re performing I’m Not Lying! in San Antonio?

Yes. I performed a version many years ago, but new sketches were added because some of it was dated. So San Antonio will be the first stop for this piece, and then I’m taking in to Galveston. I have half a dozen of these one-man shows, so if anybody needs one, I just dig it out and perform it. But I’m really pleased with this one.

So you freshened and updated it.

Yeah, I did. As you get older, you kind of go back to your roots to find out why you ended up the way you did (laughs)!

How does a guy who’s spent his life in show business, and comedy in particular, come out of the farm fields in the Panhandle? I used humor as a defense mechanism when I was growing up. There are some of the finest people in the world who live out there, but then there are some who put the fertilizer tank too near the house. If you’re a little guy like me out there, they just hate you for it. Beating up little people passes as a hobby for some of them. I discovered early on that if I could make people laugh, that was my protection — my shelter. “Don’t beat him up — he’s funny. Beat up that egghead who’s good at math instead!”

So I deal with that [in the show], and I deal with my parents sending me to a very conservative university, Texas Tech, which is very close to where we lived, and where they went to school. Mistakenly, they didn’t think there were any crazy people in Lubbock — but I found ‘em! Great, great lifelong friends. You know, you find the most colorful characters in the most unusual places. I might as well have been in New York or Paris, as happy as I was. Crazy people, including a poodle groomer and smuggler of wild animals. He could obtain any animal and smuggle it to Lubbock, Texas. It led to some problems. Like I tell people, “You learn not to walk around naked in a house where a bobcat is running loose!”

In the show, in the middle section — you know, the counterculture in the sixties had a reason, but the counterculture in the seventies was just showing off. There was nothing to protest, but I still had a hell of a good time. I ended up in Taos, New Mexico, with a radical feminist theater troupe. Some of them ended up being friends with the Dalai Lama, and some of them got presidential pardons for overzealous political activity.

Dennis Hopper had a place in Taos, and he threw a renaissance fair. Everyone local was supposed to come in renaissance garb. We all had animal costumes from a production of Jack and the Beanstalk, so I came in a big yellow chicken suit, and we had quite a romp.

Some years ago, I came to stay at the same house when I was visiting Taos, and this woman said, “Have you ever stayed at the Mabel Dodge Luhan house?” I said, “Years ago, when Dennis Hopper lived here, I came to a renaissance fair in a chicken suit,” and she said, “Was that you?!” So nice to be remembered (laughs)!

And I deal with the nature of comedy. That’s the main part of this play. You know, laughter is so healing. It’s how I’ve made my living. What started as a defense mechanism is how I’ve made my life.

I worry about the state of laughter in this country and in the world right now because we have what I refer to as the “post-truth America,” where people are told what they can and cannot laugh at.

We had a woman, God bless her, at Greater Tuna, come up to me and say, “Why did you change your show?” She was really mad. I said, “We haven’t changed a word!”, and she said, “Yes, you did! There’s some really liberal stuff in there that didn’t used to be in it.” I said, “No, there isn’t. What’s happened is that you’ve lost your ability to laugh.”

I may not appreciate everything that somebody does, but I do appreciate someone who can laugh. Someone may agree with me on politics and someone may not, but at least we can all sit and laugh together. It’s important. That’s why I’m doing this play, and hopefully they won’t turn on me for it!

You know you’ll have a receptive audience in San Antonio.

You know, I lived in San Antonio in the seventies, and that’s where a lot of this takes place. I had a lot of friends who were named after Disney characters like Bambi and Thumper. Not necessarily stable people, but a hell of a lot of fun! I have such an affection for San Antonio. It’s really America.

Joe and I got in such trouble in San Antonio one time. When Gerald Ford was running for re-election, he tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on it in front of the Alamo. It made the papers everywhere, him gnawing on the tamale that’s got the shuck on it. So they dragged out Betty Ford, his wife, who was extremely popular [to make up for the gaffe] and got her to be the grand mistress of the river parade.

So we’re all down there, and everybody is elevated, to say the least. We’re waiting for the parade to start, and everyone is getting drunker and higher and wilder — and it still won’t start. Finally, Joe and I started shouting, “Float ‘er down! Float ‘er down!”

The whole crowd picked up on it, and they did indeed float ‘er down. But as soon as she got in sight, the Secret Service surrounded us! And they followed us all the way to the bar afterward.

Hilarious! Have you had the chance to see other San Antonio theater?

I have. I have a lot of old friends there, and I’m glad they’re there, because they represent a solid and amazing talent base. And then there’s this brilliant young crowd that I knew nothing about. A couple of months ago, my friend Linda Ford was in a production of Wit in [the Cellar Theater]. I had just been in Washington, D.C., a week before and saw some plays, but then I saw Wit in San Antonio and I was so moved. I was so impressed with the cast, all the way down. And I got really nostalgic. I wanted to call Joe, because we did Greater Tuna in that space when we first started.

So down in that little space in San Antonio, they’re doing better theater than they were doing in Washington, D.C. And I had seen Wit in New York with the original cast, but I didn’t appreciate it remotely as much as I appreciated it there.

Good theater can happen anywhere. It doesn’t need your permission and it doesn’t check your geography. It takes talented people and a good plan.

I recently saw The Cherry Orchard [at the Classic], and watching Kathy Couser, whom I’ve known since we were 20, 21, I thought, “She knows exactly how to play this role; she wears it like a glove.” She’s got a voice like a bell, like it’s been cast in metal. And watching George Burnett curl up at the end of the play, oh my God. And I knew George when we were kids! And I love the moment in the play when the crowd is passing through, and Linda comes through and says, “My dog eats nuts!” Now, that’s Chekhov.

So yes, I’m grateful to the Classic, too.

I’m Not Lying! plays June 7-17 at the Classic Theatre of San Antonio, 1924 Fredericksburg Road. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (210)  589-8450.

Photos by Kirk Tuck.

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