The fabled town of Tuna, Texas, may not exist in real-life, but “on the fictional maps, it puts it just right about here in Killeen,” said Lane Richins, guest director for Vive Les Arts Theatre’s gender-bender comedy, “Greater Tuna.”
Richins was invited to helm the production at the behest of the VLA board, no doubt as a tryout for the vacant position of artistic director of the taxpayer funded nonprofit.
Currently living in Salt Lake City, he is on the board of the Pymalion Theatre Co., described as a 501(c)(3) company that produces plays “that reflect issues, concerns and shared experiences in the lives of women,” and has 20 years of theatrical performing and directing experience.
Fitting, then, that Richins chose a woman, VLA veteran Hayley Dugger, to share star billing with Jonathan Spear for his Killeen directorial debut.
“It brings a completely different take — this is not like a ‘Greater Tuna’ you’re likely to see,” he said.
Dugger, a fourth-grade teacher at Fowler Elementary, has appeared in VLA’s
“Hairspray” and “9 to 5 the Musical” as well as directing Children’s Theatre shows including “Cinderella,” “Pinkalicious” and “A Christmas Story.”
Spear, another familiar face to VLA audiences, lists “Oliver,” “West Side Story,” “Hairspray” and “Around the World In 80 Days” among his VLA credits. His portrayal of nine separate characters in “80 Days” may have something to do with the ease he displayed with the 10 roles he’s taken on in “Tuna.”
The play is one of four “Tuna” plays written by original director Ed Howard and stars Jaston Williams and Joe Sears. Set in the fictional “third smallest town in Texas,” and alternating from affectionate to satirical, 20 characters display their onstage quirks, attitudes and Southern charms. Dugger and Spear are the only cast members and will bring to life men, women, children and animals in a virtuoso display of voice and body language. Nanosecond costume changes were being choreographed down to the last velcro-ripping detail at a recent rehearsal, as the VLA pit crew received coaching by Richins.
Sue Morrisey has the overloaded honor of being “Greater Tuna” costume mistress.
“It’s a costume-heavy show,” said Katherine Quirk, stage manager. “I thought it would be a walk in the park — no props, no set changes, but with all these costume changes it’s been a challenge.” Consulting her stopwatch, she issued her report to Richins: “That (costume change) was 35 seconds,” and the director nodded his satisfaction.
Careful allocation of the half-dozen backstage dressers provides for two or three dressers per actor, depending on the difficulty of the costumes. “Organization is the key,” Quirk said, clutching her ever-present clipboard and pen.
Sponsored by Purser Homes, “Greater Tuna” was “a new casting direction,” Dugger said. “I read for the Vera Carp, Petey Fisk, Arles Struvie, etc., characters — which is what I got.”
And about those warp speed costume changes? “The wigs are a constant challenge,” she said, adjusting the skull cap she wears throughout the show.
Seven large painted flats from 8 to 10 feet tall fill the sides of the proscenium stage. Designed by Richins, the small town scenes were painted by Steve Culver and feature a white border on all four sides, “like a post card,” Richins said.
Though the play was written in the 1980s, “I wanted this (production) stuck in ’62, design-wise, with popular music from 1952 to ’62; Texas born singers — except for Patsy Cline. But Willy (Nelson) wrote the song she sings.” Richins even claims to be listening to KCLW-AM, an old-time country music station broadcast from Hamilton in order to channel the Tuna-like vibe. “This show lives or dies with the details.”
For Richins, the VLA experience has proven rewarding.
“I’m so impressed with Hayley and Jonathan — they could be cast in any production, anywhere. The VLA staff is just a pleasure to work with.”
And those difficult costume changes?
“That’s the magic — and why audiences will love this show.”