Texas Tech University

Alumni Spotlight: Jaston Williams

Rachel Shipley

October 25, 2022

Jaston Williams

Jaston Williams (Speech Major, 70'-73') is no stranger to Lubbock, Texas. He spent his childhood summer afternoons playing on his grandparents' West Texas lawn just minutes away from the Texas Tech campus. The third generation Red Raider explored everything the campus had to offer during his early years, but it was a high school summer camp that introduced him to the theatre department. Not long after this formative experience, Jaston Williams enrolled at Texas Tech as a Speech major. Though there was not a theatre degree available to students at the time, Williams took advantage of any theatre classes the university had to offer. 

When recalling his days at Texas Tech, Williams' warm regard for his time on campus is evident. Throughout our conversation he often burst into laughter when recounting the antics of his fellow classmates, but he also had an air of reverence for what he learned here as a student. One program that Williams found particularly impactful as a student was the summer repertory theater program where students were challenged to mount three shows in a month with the help of faculty and staff.

After only three and a half years, Williams made the difficult decision to leave Texas Tech for personal reasons, and he left his home here in Lubbock for Houston, Texas. Shortly thereafter, he began his lengthy career in San Antonio, Texas at First Repertory Company.


Why did you find the repertory theatre program so impactful? 

The department would build on the stage where the Maedgen theatre is now, an arena with stands four rows deep and would seat about 120 people so we could learn how to perform in the round. I love performing in the round. Any chance I have to perform in the round, I do it. I love being surrounded by what sometimes is “the enemy.” We would do three shows in a month, and if you were acting in one, you did tech in the other two. It was an intense program, but that is what I loved about it. It helped me in my career. We learned to perform with little, but that is what the “real world” is like. You must learn to work quickly and under circumstances that are less than perfect. Those plays my first summer in the program were so good, and the next three were bombs. (laughs) But I learned a lot from that too.”

What was your time at First Repertory Company in San Antonio like?

We were a small company of about 12 actors with incredibly low pay. We kept each other alive. There was a little Mexican restaurant we ate at every day. You could get a taco and two enchiladas and rice and beans for 80 cents. That is what I lived off (laughs), but it was a fun time.

Where did your career take you next?

I moved everywhere. During that period of my life, you could find me in one of four places: San Antonio, Austin, San Francisco or Taos, New Mexico. If I was not in one of those places, I was back in West Texas visiting my mother. I learned a lot from being on the road. I was a free spirit. I also learned a lot from my friend Jo Sears, who did the Tuna plays with me forever. He moved to San Antonio and had a government job. We were friends for 10 years before we started writing the Tuna plays and if we had not known each other that long, I doubt it would have worked. We were like family, and our families were like family.

What was it like to have the Tuna plays take off after being a struggling artist for 10 years?

I kept thinking that this is an elaborate dream—the most elaborate and realistic dream I had ever had. I thought I was going to wake up one day and be forced to get a job at a dinner theatre or something. (laughs) But we got a lot of lucky breaks. There are those who were as talented as we were who never made it as far for no other reason than they just did not get the breaks. I have told this story many times. There were some New York critics who were in Austin on vacation, and a friend of ours, Gary P. Nunn, called and asked us to do [Greater Tuna]. We did, and they loved it. One of the critics wrote for Variety, a major arts business paper, and he told us that he was going to write a rave review and recommend us to different agents starting at the top. He went to the best agent at the William Morris Agency, and we signed with him in five weeks. Everything changed. We were on our way to New York.

Where did the project go from there?

There was a ton of work to do. We rewrote that script 17 times in less than a year to get it to New York. One of the tips I have for writers is: if you have a character that is not cutting it or you do not like them, just kill them. Create a scenario where they go to a very humorous death. We killed off the husband after just one year for that very reason. (laughs) It was a whirlwind. Less than a year after we had opened in Austin, we were on Letterman and an HBO version was in the works. It was crazy. Then we started the tour. Everyone told us that it would only last a year, but we ended up touring to the tune of 36 years total. We broke every show business rule, and it worked. So, you know, the truth is there are no rules.

Why do you think audiences enjoyed the story so much?

You know, we had a lot of people who liked Tuna, who did not necessarily agree with what we were saying. But we played the characters affectionately. I have affection for people who I do not agree with. For all the crazy aunts, grandmothers, cousins, and nephews with a felonious streak, we just played them honestly. People understood that, especially in Texas.

Though Williams admits that they suspected the phenomenon would die off eventually, it never ended. And while some would say that the Tuna plays made the biggest impact on both his life and career compared to his other projects, Williams would disagree. 

What is the most impactful project you have had the opportunity to work on?

I was fortunate to be cast in Zach Theatre's production of The Laramie Project, which was a life changing experience. It changed my way of thinking and played a big part in me deciding to adopt a child. My whole family got together and said, he has gone nuts! He has cracked up and wants to adopt a child. But I did not listen to anybody. I made it to China and adopted a boy with special needs. The emotional release from doing The Laramie Project made me think of what good I could do in life. It showed me what else was out there. I really love doing what I do, and my life has been so crazy, I could not begin to write it all down.


Jaston Williams is still preforming, writing, touring, and making people laugh. He will bring one of his newest endeavors, a casual one-night-only one-man show, to Lubbock's Cactus Theatre, November 12, where the only rule will be, “Everybody has to be nice.” He is also finishing his second novel and is writing a children's musical that will perform in Austin, Texas next year.