Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Tuna Christmas (Feature article)

Some twenty-five years ago, some friends called me to tell me about a show they had just seen.

“You HAVE to see this show,” they started, giggling instantly at the memory.

They tried to tell me about the show, but each time, broke out into paroxysms of laughter. I still wasn’t sure what the show actually was, but I knew that it was so funny that my friends were rendered all but speechless ... and so I went to see the show.

It played at a little theater in San Francisco and it had the strange title, “Greater Tuna.” And it was, indeed, very funny.

Twenty-five years later, most theatrically aware people have heard about “Greater Tuna.” It has become a little theater phenomenon and, in fact, by 1985, it was the most produced play in the United States, with schools, colleges, community and professional theaters all anxious to add the hit comedy to their repertoire.

In 2001, Jeff Kean, Artistic Director of the Woodland Opera House and Bob Baxter, Producing Director of Runaway Stage Company, brought “Greater Tuna” to Woodland. The show became the most popular and best attended non-musical production the Opera House had done to that time.

Now the two men are returning with “A Tuna Christmas,” the second in the “Tuna” saga, as its holiday offering (there are two more shows, “Red, White and Tuna” and “Tuna Does Vegas”).

“I’m slapping myself in the head constantly, saying ‘what in the world are you doing?’” laughed Kean

“Greater Tuna” came into existence when creators Joe Sears and Jaston Williams were asked to provide entertainment for a friend’s party. Drawing on their mutual histories in little Western towns, they created a skit in which they delivered news reports from a reactionary radio station in a profoundly conservative market. When their little broadcast from station "OKKK" proved enormously popular, they decided to develop it into a play.

A friend, Ed Howard, collaborated on the script, directed the two actors, and drained his savings account for the $10,000 to mount the production which opened in Austin, Texas in the fall of 1981.

The response was immediate and strong: People loved the show, loved it enough to warrant a second run in December. That run extended into February, during which time it was seen by a critic from “Variety,” who raved about the show in the national press. Within a couple of months, “Greater Tuna” was booked for runs in Hartford, Conn., and in New York. Just over a year after it first opened in Austin, “Greater Tuna” was playing off-Broadway, where it ran a year.

Sears and Williams continue to tour the country with productions of one of the four plays and, in fact, the rights to “A Tuna Christmas” only became available in California and Texas a couple of years ago.

“Greater Tuna” is an hilarious comedy about Tuna, Texas' third smallest town, where radio station OKKK is the best place to get the news, the Lion's Club is too liberal, a local pastor wants to pull books such as “Roots” off the library shelf (“because it only tells one side of slavery”), and Patsy Cline never dies.

The eclectic band of over twenty citizens who live in this tiny town are portrayed by only two performers, making this satire on life in rural America even more delightful as they depict all of the inhabitants of Tuna -- men, women, children and animals.

“What does it say about us that when guys dress up as girls everyone loves it?” asked Kean “A hundred years ago it was funny for men to dress as women, and it’s still funny today” he said, adding, “I am one ugly woman. It’s a good thing I was born a man.”

Though Kean is known locally mostly for his work in set and lighting design, he started life as an actor. (“I started at age 15, as a mugger in a play.”) But he quickly realized that the real fun for him was in working behind the scenes.

“I realized what the life of a professional actor would be and it didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t like that the pinnacle of your career is doing the same role over and over again. Just imagine doing the same role year after year and when show closes you’re back on unemployment again.”

So he got his degree in design and has been much happier since. “You get a lot of variety. Every 4-5 weeks the show changes.”

But every now and then he gets the acting bug.

The 2001 production was not Kean’s first association with “Greater Tuna.” He had directed a production of it when he was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Greensborough. He knew what a funny play it was and when he ran into Bob Baxter at an Elly awards presentation in 2001 he had a crazy idea that he could bring the show to Woodland – and play the roles played by Jaston Williams.

Baxter remembers their discussion “He asked if I ever did anything outside my own theater,” he remembers. “I said ‘Of course – what did you have in mind?”

Kean told Baxter about the “Greater Tuna” script and asked if he would consider it. Baxter had never heard of the show, but there was, at the time, a production running at Garbeau’s Dinner Theater, which he went to see. He loved it and could easily see the prospects of the two men working together. He agreed to do the show with Kean.

Bob Baxter is one of the founders of Runaway Stage Company founded twelve years ago by five state workers who did theater at night. Their first production was an original melodrama, produced at the Eagle Theater in Old Sacramento. When the production was a success, the Railroad Museum, which owns the Eagle Theater, invited the group to continue to do the show on an ongoing basis.

“The five of us met at a Lyons Restaurant to think up a name for our company,” Baxter explained. They chose “Runaway Stage Productions” because of the association with the Railroad Museum. Though they have now moved into the 24th Street Theater, they kept the original name because of its brand value.

Baxter has been the Producing Director since the company began, but also acts on a regular basis as well. “I perform quite a bit, when a role comes up that I’m suited for and I can’t find anybody else to do it. I enjoy performing. I’m an equity actor and a Screen Actors Guild actor and have worked professionally over the years, but now it’s about performing for the love of it.”

Getting two very busy men, running theaters more than twenty miles apart, to rehearse a very demanding two-person show was quite a challenge, but they were up to the task. “We both have our own companies to run and trying to find time to work together is interesting,” said Baxter, though he admitted that “If you want to get something done, ask the busiest person.”

It has been seven years since that successful “Greater Tuna” production, but the rights to “Tuna Christmas” have only recently become available in California. Many of the characters from the original show, such as Didi Snavely (who owns the Didi’s Used Weapons Emporium), Vera Carp (acting leader of the Smut-Catchers of the New Order), and the DJs Arles Struvie and Thurston Wheelis reappear in “Tuna Christmas,” though there are some new characters as well.

In the interim there have been some physical changes to the acting duo. Baxter, who played the hefty roles originally created by Jaston Sears has dropped 60-65 pounds. (“I just decided that the feeling of being hungry is not a bad thing. It’s a new philosophy I adopted. My body changed with that and I guess the mental does focus on what the physical needs to do.”)

“He’s lost so much weight that the dynamics have changed and we’ve had to pad his costumes,” said Kean, who noted that the roles call for one character to be thin and the other to be heavy. “We’ve had to change one line of dialog,” he added.

“I have to wear a fat suit for one character now,” says Baxter, adding that “we have fake bosoms that we use for the female characters, but the bosoms are sewn into the costumes.” Both praise the expertise of costumer Laurie Everly-Klaussen for making it all possible.

Kean and Baxter have allotted two weeks just for rehearsing costume changes, which must be done sometimes in as little as 15-20 seconds. There will be two sets of three costume changers, one set for each actor, in addition to other backstage help. “It’s necessary for things to go smoothly,” said Baxter “You have to walk on stage confident what you’re doing as an actor. You throw on a costume, look down and see what character you’re doing and go on side and go out and perform.”

Kean feels that “A TunaChristmas” is a more interesting script than “Greater Tuna.” “There will be those moments when we walk out and look silly, but I think people will come to appreciate the characters more. There’s a bit of pathos in the whole thing. The writers really do love Texas. They’re from Texas and these are their people and they understand them. They’ve known these people and have developed these characters over many years.”

What’s next after “A Tuna Christmas”? Will the Kean-Baxter duo bring us “Red, White and Blue Tuna” next July? Kean is doubtful. “I’m getting a little long in the tooth,” he says.

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