PROFILE: Big Fish in a Big Pond - Tuna titans Joe Sears and Jaston Williams discuss their ongoing theatrical phenomenon.

Austin-based acting/writing partners Joe Sears and Jaston Williams are two of the most successful men in American theatre. They met at an audition for a Shakespeare company in 1973, years later collaborated on a party skit about a couple of hick deejays, and voilà: Greater Tuna (initially bankrolled by director Ed Howard's $10,000 life savings) went to Off-Broadway in 1982, is now a staple of regional and community theatres, and was the most produced play in America in 1986. The creators recently completed their 10th national tour of the sequel, A Tuna Christmas, which played Broadway in 1995.

Tuna is in fact an artistic/business phenomenon that most actors can only dream of, garnering multiple writing and acting awards for the hard-working team. The 22 Texans (both male and female) that Sears, Williams, and Howard created have spawned a lucrative cottage industry of T-shirts, totebags, and what-not, providing additional income.

But Sears and Williams have not let business concerns distract them from their craft. They are serious actors who deeply respect the assorted misfits and eccentrics they portray onstage, and that respect pays off in genuine artistry. As in the two previous installments, Red, White, and Tuna, currently at the Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco prior to a continued tour and a New York opening, is a hilarious and touching portrait of life changes in small-town America.

Now in their late 40s, Sears and Williams have acquired a perspective that has emerged, hard-won, from experience in the business, from the maturity that comes with age, and even from personal tragedy. In separate phone conversations the morning after a preview performance, they were both warm, open, and expansive in discussing their work. Here are some excerpts.

Back Stage West: Were you trained in any particular acting technique?

Joe Sears: I had a lot of outdoor drama training in professional theatre. I learned breathing exercises with acting. Knowing how to use the diaphragm onstage makes such a difference in character acting. I guess my training was in listening and observation. I go for details. I'm not a Method actor, I'm technique. The technicalities are 75 percent of acting. You've got to look good onstage first, or else you're just doing reader's theatre.

Jaston Williams: I studied the Method and I learned a lot about technique. It's a fine balance between the two. I know people sometimes cringe when they hear that. But when the Method isn't working for you onstage, you have to have something you fall back on. One thing we have to be constantly aware of in our travels is the size of the house. You can play the realism and subtlety in a small house. But, for example, at the Denver Center, which is a massive house, you've got to push things out a little farther, go for the more theatrical. I love the small houses, knowing people can see your facial expressions, but the big houses are the money houses, and the business end becomes an issue.

BSW: You play all your many comic characters with such dignity. How do you know where to draw the line that separates character from caricature?

Sears: It's impossible for me to go into caricature unless it's melodrama. If Jaston and I were to write a caricature, I would find a way to make it real.

Williams: In order to keep the characters honest, you have to take them to that place they feel inclined to go. In many ways, you start on the outside and find out how they walk, sit, where they physically have pain, how they breathe, what is their posture like, does life weigh on them in a way that they carry it on their shoulders? Then you can go inside.

When you're playing 12 characters in one sitting, the little tics and differences are very important. I have two characters who smoke imaginary cigarettes. Didi Snavely craves nicotine. I know what brand she smokes: Raleighs, because she gets those coupons on the back. Stanley, on the other hand, smokes as a crutch, he doesn't love it as much; when he feels real tension, feels threatened, when he sees an injustice, he takes out a cigarette.

BSW: It's a clich that fast is funny. Yet your rhythm as actors is wonderfully slow.

Sears: A lot of it comes from the fact that we've been friends for 25 years and we know each other. We're not afraid to take that extra beat.

Williams: When I first started doing this show I had considerably more nervous energy than I carry these days‹the urge to entertain. I think the Oriental thing has finally come through to me‹slow it down. It's important for [audiences] to hear the words.

BSW: Which of the characters is closest to the real you?

Sears: Leonard the cussing mayor. I'm the type of person who would really love to just cuss the world, blame everything on the situation, but that's no way to live. So I let it come out on stage with Leonard.

Williams: I find myself relating more to the men as I get older. A lot of what I love in Red, White, and Tuna is that we deal with change, something we couldn't have written about 15 or 16 years ago. We had to go through life experiences. I've had to lose the people in life who were dearest to me [both his son and his mother in recent years]. How you deal with [that loss] becomes the memorial to the person who has passed. At times I want to scream out, "This isn't fair!" But it's life. You have to take those experiences and let them work for you in your profession. We're not only trying to entertain people, we're trying to help them: make them deal with change and tragedy and the fear of death.

BSW: Any special tricks to keeping a performance fresh over the years?

Sears: Having fun backstage. Having a sense of obligation‹you're in a Broadway series, you have to act like it. There's always someone in the wings who can take over your part. Every night, I make sure I give a Broadway performance.

Williams: You've always got to be attuned to different audiences' responses. And you've always got to keep in mind that you're only as good as your last performance. That's what I love about stage acting: You've got to go back out and do it again eight times a week. There's something wonderful about that. It's a real job.

BSW: Have your thoughts about the characters changed over the years?

Sears: Bertha [a middle-aged housewife] is experiencing love. I don't have relationships; I don't have time. So it's good to let Bertha have one. She's an extension of me and she's really having a good time. How she experiences her love is what I'd want mine to be like. You let that empathy come through.

BSW: Are the writer/actor hats confusing at times?

Williams: The writer hat can sneak in when you're onstage, and it makes me crazy. I tell myself, you're an actor right now, so get with it.

BSW: What roles would you eventually like to play?

Sears: I've been saving myself for Big Daddy forever. Also Willy Loman. I love Shakespeare. The James Stewart part in Harvey. The Man Who Came to Dinner, someone mean and hateful, that would be a stretch for me.

Williams: Malvolio in Twelfth Night. He's funny and he's tragic. Before I get much older, I'd like to do George in Of Mice and Men. Shakespeare, anything by Chekhov, Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Beckett, and my favorite playwright, Ionesco.

BSW: What other projects do you have going?

Sears: I'm working on a brand new play, a drama, a historical piece. I'm having a lot of fun and at the same time I have my artistic dreams and goals. Some day I want to do films. I did a film with Tommy Lee Jones a few years ago. I'm planning to start my own summer stock company some day, somewhere... I'm a teacher, a painter, a writer, an actor‹I don't know what the good Lord has in store for me next!

Williams: Joe and I are doing the book for a comic opera [to workshop in New York and then premiere at a Mozart festival in Oklahoma next year]. I'm in my fourth rewrite of Romeo and Thorazine, a comedy about mental illness in show business. I want to give it to a theatre company and watch what other people can do with it, stand back and be the writer in this one! BSW