Richardson — From the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant in Lockhart (just south of Austin), the prolific and hilarious actor-writer-director Jaston Williams—it's pronounced "Jayston," with a long A—took time recently to talk by phone with TheaterJones. We talked about, among many other things, Williams' latest one-man show, Maid Marian in a Stolen Car.
It plays for five performances this weekend at Richardson's Eisemann Center, following successful runs in Austin, Galveston and Lubbock. Maid Marian hasn't played outside the Lone Star State, yet, but Williams says he's getting feelers from Washington, D.C., and he hopes to take it to other U.S. and international audiences in the future.
The comedy chronicles Williams' life in the theater starting as a West Texas teen, then continuing with his years as a student at Texas Tech University, then on to international fame as the co-author (with Joe Sears) of the mega-hit Greater, Tuna, several Tuna sequels and a bevy of one-man shows. He's also starred in productions of The Fantasticks and The Foreigner.
TheaterJones: Let's start with the obvious. Do you ever get tired of being called "one of those Tuna guys"?
Jaston Williams: Oh, no, I loved doing it, every minute of it. We had so much fun. ... We did Tuna shows for 30 years, and now they're being done by theaters all over the world. I hope seeing the Tunas will attract people to see my other stuff. ... Our community theater in Lockhart is doing Tuna, and they're doing it with 22 or 23 people doing the characters [rather than the traditional staging, which has two men—originally Jaston and Sears—portraying every resident of Tuna, the "third-smallest town" in Texas]. I'm their advisor, and we donated our sets to them. I'm real excited about it.
Do you even like tuna, the fish?
I love it, especially sushi. But I'm a little embarrassed ordering it. My father asked me once what sushi is, and when I told him raw fish, he just started making what I call cowboy noises, sounds of disgust.
Did you have a collaborator in shaping Maid Marian?
Sarah Richardson, who's one of the founders of the [Austin ensemble theater] the Rude Mechanicals, is my director. It was really just a collection of monologues, and she shaped it. ... She made it into a seamless evening of theater.
We assume there will be cross-dressing. Tell us what else you can about Maid Marian, without ruining it, of course.
It starts with me as a kid in West Texas, dreaming of being an actor, and follows me all the way to today. I talk about the creation of Tuna, the affect that Shakespeare had on Joe and me as performers, that kind of thing. It's been a crazy life, and I realized, "You need to write this stuff down."
It even has those trust exercises every actor has to do—we had a woman in one of my classes that didn't trust anyone. Turned out she had multiple personalities, and she made us so nervous we kept dropping her. God knows which one of her we actually dropped.
[We spend some time chatting about the Benedict Cumberbatch production of Hamlet at the National Theatre of Britain.]
You know, my first job was in a production of Hamlet, with a really talented group of people in San Antonio—that was where I eventually met Joe. We performed for schools, and we [unknowingly] booked two schools that turned out to have Hispanic gangs that were blood rivals. And both schools showed up on the same day to see Hamlet.
Let me tell you—a bunch of white, liberal actors never worked with an audience that got it more and challenged us more. We called it Hamlet con Queso. That was as good a day as I've ever had in theater.
Oh, I played Osric, whose only job is to keep the poison swords and goblets at the end in the right hands. He's an evil little character. The following fall, Joe and I did A Midsummer Night's Dream together—I was Puck [he tells us, completely unnecessarily] and Joe was Francis Flute and Thisbe. Joe and I are still friends. He's in pleasant retirement in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
You did Tru, Jay Presson Allen's one-man show about Truman Capote, at Theatre Three early in 2015 in Dallas just a few months before T3 co-founder Jac Alder died. What are your memories of Jac, who was so beloved in local theater circles?
Oh ... Jac—well, I just thank God I got to do that show with him. ...Jac was amazing. He would do anything, literally anything to make a show work. [Alder directed, acted and designed for T3; he designed the sets for Tru]. ... When I needed a dresser, he showed up and dressed me every single night of the run. That was Jac; he'd just say, "Oh, I'll do it," and that was that.
What do you like to do when you're in Big D (or Richardson, as the case may be)?
I have so many firends here, it's always a bit of a homecoming for me. The Eisemann Center is a terrific place to perform. I love to see my theater friends here. [Late local actor] Larry Randolph was my first teacher in college, one of the greatest teachers of all time. He was practially born on a stage. ... I'm so sorry that I didn't get to see his matinee series before he died [One Thirty Productions at the Bath House Cultural Center].
[Somehow we get onto the topic of a show he did with Vera Miles, who starred in The Birds, at a theater school in Florida. A conversation with Williams is hard to keep up with.]
We got to talking about how one of our students was this beautiful ingenue, and she'd better take advantage of that while she could, because those roles dry up. Vera said, "Oh, poor ingenue, isn't she gorgeous? When they get their first wrinkle or gray hair, you might as well just take them out and shoot them."
Who is the Maid Marian of your current show's title?
I was doing radical feminist theater in Taos, New Mexico, in the 1970s, and this one actress—she came to the theater one night in such a state of ... well, let's just say it, stoned, and we didn't have anyone to replace her so we just tied her to a chair and said her lines for her.
She had this VW and she told me that it had been stolen and somehow ended up in her driveway. So one day we dress up as clowns to go into town and drum up business, and she jumps the curb and tears through the underbrush. She told me she'd seen a cop and it freaked her out because the car was stolen. I told her that jumping the curve might have struck the cop as suspicious. ... Some hippy eventually drove that car down to Austin, which seems appropriate. [The interviewer asks the obvious question.] No, it wasn't me.
How's your love life and such?
JW: I'm married [to doctorate-level musicologist Kevin Mooney], and I have a special-needs son, Song, who's 18. I adopted him from China when he was 7. Song was abandoned as a child and he has a cleft palate. We've been spending a whole lot of time in Dallas for his surgeries at Medical City Dallas.
And Kevin—Kevin is so collected and scholarly, Mr. Pipe in His Mouth With a Labrador Retriever, and here I am with my history. You know. It's amazing; I never looked for anyone who wasn't on a post-office wall until I met Kevin.
[At Williams' suggestion, we segue into Actors Studio-type questions to end the interview.]
Favorite curse word?
All of them!
What kind of tree would you be?
Oh, a Texas live oak. Joe and I used to literally walk up to this tree and participate in a behavior that's now totally legal in Washington State and Oregon. And that's where Tuna was born, while we were stoned in that tree in San Antonio.