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‘Greater Tuna’ Success Quite a Fish Story : From a Shoestring in Texas to Its Own Theater in S.F.

For most people, being thrown out of work can be a tragedy.

For Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, the creators and stars of “Greater Tuna,” it was the kick that propelled them to the big time.

“We started writing this play in Austin, Texas, in 1982, the day after we lost our contracts with the theater we were working in,” Williams said by telephone from San Francisco, where he and Sears completed a “Tuna” run Sunday at Marines Memorial Theatre. “We rented the space from a theater owner. We told her the second act was being printed, but really it hadn’t been written yet. Within three weeks, we completed eight rewrites.”

Seven years later, Williams, 37, and Sears, 39, will have completed close to 1,800 performances of the show, including an HBO special, a hit run at the Kennedy Center and off-Broadway, where it played for 500 performances despite a pan from the New York Times. (The two begin a four-week run at the San Diego Repertory Theatre today.) That puts them close behind “Sugar Babies,” the Ann Miller/Mickey Rooney vehicle for the longest-running road show. But “Greater Tuna” is, as they say, a different kettle of fish.

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“Greater Tuna” calls for the pair to do 20 characters--male, female and canine--in Tuna, Texas, the third smallest city in West Texas--with anywhere from five to seven dizzying seconds to shift costumes, wigs and personalities. And they have to give the quick-change movements the illusion of being s-l-o-w, because nobody from Tuna does anything quickly.

So how small, or small-minded, is Tuna? It’s the place where one can tune in to Station OKKK to get news about UFO sightings and the activities of the

local chapter of the KKK. It is where Vera Carp, fighter of smut, vows to eliminate words like “deflowered” and “nuts” from the dictionary and Bertha Bumiller, the town book burner, wants to remove “Romeo and Juliet” and “Roots” from the library because the Shakespeare classic encourages teen-age sex, and “Roots . . . only shows one side of the slavery issue.”

Williams hails from West Texas and Sears from Oklahoma, but both agreed that life in their small towns was pretty much the same. They each wanted to take on the members of the Moral Majority they grew up with; at the same time, these were their neighbors and family and they care about them. That is why when people do “Tuna” and try to caricature the characters, it doesn’t work, Williams said.

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“Chekhov said only write about things you know,” Sears said. “We wrote about people we know and love. It comes across as a tender spanking.”

The production turned into a Cinderella story when two critics from New York who were in town dropped in on that first show in Austin and loved it.

“One day you’re wondering where the $300-a-month rent is coming from,” Williams said. “The next day Variety gives you a rave and William Morris is on the phone. Within a year we were in the top tax bracket.”

“We’d been in the business for 10 years,” Williams said. “If I’d known what was going to happen, I’d have put that dress on years ago.”

“Greater Tuna” played San Diego in 1985--at the Old Globe Theatre--but not with the original cast or its director, Ed Howard, who also shares a writing credit. (Larry Drake, now famous as Benny on “L. A. Law” co-starred with Phil Reeves under the direction of David McClendon.)

While the show’s birthplace is Texas, its home away from home is San Francisco, where it continues as the longest-running show there. After the most recent departure of Williams and Sears--who require frequent breaks between performances--two new actors will take over their parts in the former One-Act Theatre there, which producer Charles Duggan has renamed The Tuna Theatre in their honor.

The homage is fair enough. Duggan, 35, one of the youngest and most powerful producers in San Francisco, scored his first big commercial success with “Greater Tuna"--to which he retains all professional rights--and has already committed to producing Williams’ and Sears’ sequel, “A Greater Tuna Christmas Carol,” in October. Williams and Sears said they haven’t finished the script yet, but it will flow naturally out of the arguments they have in character between the acts of “Greater Tuna.”

“We’re dressed as Aunt Pearl and Aunt Vera during the intermission, and they fight like snakes,” Williams said.

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The new script, which will add 12 characters and show them at Christmas time, probably won’t include material as topical and, therefore, datable as what they gave a television interviewer in San Francisco recently.

When asked how Bertha Bumiller and Vera Carp felt about “The Satanic Verses” and John Tower, Sears, who plays Bertha, said: ‘We wouldn’t have ‘Satanic Verses’ in Tuna. We don’t read anything foreign.”

Vera, when she was asked about John Tower, pooh-poohed reports of his drinking: “He can’t be an alcoholic; he’s too short to reach the bar.”

But big Aunt Pearl Burras, played by Sears, disagreed.

“I’m in favor of reducing the national debt, and if you cut off his liquor bill, that’ll save it right there.”


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