There are two stars in this Christmas story, and they’re actors Spencer Meyers and Derrick Phillips.
The first wave of the Tuna, Texas two-man laugh-a-thons roared through theaters in the 90s, drawing tons of attention to the original actors, Jaston Williams and Joe Sears. The guys concocted a series of stage plays about a fictional town and its deliciously eccentric inhabitants, traveling the country with Greater Tuna; Red, White and Tuna and the Straz Center’s current holiday gift to you, A Tuna Christmas. Two of the Tampa-area’s own comic geniuses—Spencer Meyers and Derrick Phillips—tackle the daunting script of 20+ characters. Caught in the Act grabbed a few minutes of their time to gab about the show.
Caught in the Act: What in the world made you audition for a show that has more than 20 characters but only two actors?
Spencer Myers: I love playing multiple characters in a comedy. I get such an adrenaline rush.
Derrick Phillips: These types of shows are dreams for actors. It is a wonderful challenge to take your training and apply so much of it into one show. Each character has a different physical, vocal and mental space. To be able to showcase that into one show is amazing. And who doesn’t like to do a show like this that is filled with so much fun and laughter as well as heart?
CITA: How many total characters do you play in the show, and which are your top two faves to play? What is it about those two characters that make them your favorite to perform?
SM: I love all my characters in some way. My favorites are Bertha Bumiller and Inita Goodwin. Bertha’s storyline is wonderful and fully fleshed out. It’s nice to have one of my characters have a story arc and hit all the emotions. Sometimes I just want to give Bertha a big hug.
DP: I play 11 characters in the show. As the play has progressed, my favorites seem to change on a daily basis. They all have a special place in my heart. If I had to pick two … I think they would be Vera Carp and Petey Fisk. Vera is a favorite to perform because of the multiple layers of her personality. I have met this lady, not in Texas, but I have met her. She has sharp edges and interacts with not only the other actor on stage but the people who live in her house whom the audience does not see. Once you see the show, I think you will understand why Vera is fun to perform.
SM: Inita is just plain fun—a fantastic and energetic way to start Act Two. She’s mentioned in the first scene of Act One and not actually seen until the top of Act Two. Act Two is a whirlwind of quick changes for both me and Derrick. Fun and fast comedy in the beginning to then settle into some of the more heartfelt storyline conclusions of the characters of Act One.
DP: Petey Fisk is a pure and loving soul that has a lot of heart in this show. I enjoy performing as this character because he is different than the rest of the town (other characters even say that). He has a lot of hilarious lines, but they come from such an honest place. He’s quirky and will not only fill the audience with laughter but also warm their hearts. He is like an adult Tiny Tim.
I have to also mention how enjoyable it is to play Helen Bedd. She is one of the waitresses in the Tastee Cream and she is just a delight to play. Her demeanor and physicality are so fun to step into and live out.
CITA: Seems like this would be an easy show to blunder … have you ever gotten your characters’ lines confused, accidentally saying Helen Bedd’s line while you were playing Didi Snavely type of thing? Have any identity crisis stories or funny mix-up moments you’d like to share with our readers?
SM: Oh, now you just want me to give away secrets? Yes. The accents have blurred before. You sometimes have 15 seconds to change your costume completely before barreling onstage as another character. Bertha and her Aunt Pearl are very similar, and sometimes I have started the scene as the other. If it happens it’s usually a word or two. This has also happened in the rehearsal process with one scene where two of my characters fight with each other off stage. You can also imagine the looks people gave me while I was rehearsing this scene quietly to myself in public.
DP: This is a show that if you didn’t have your backstage costume changers you could easily get mixed up. Sometimes the character changes are so fast that I have to really think about who am I next, where is my physical and vocal placement, what mental state am I at this moment. These are all considerations that the actor ha to make in 10-15 seconds. Most plays you have a moment off stage, not this one.
DP: There have been times as Vera, where I have meant to talk to Virgil (son not seen) and shouted at Lupe (the maid, also not seen). The dynamic of backstage and onstage really help not having any mix-up moments. There is a choreography on and off the stage that is necessary for a show like this.
CITA: What’s your favorite line in the show?
SM: This is too hard because I have so many. Bertha’s lines are some of my favorites. They have that Mama’s Family cadence to them. Okay, let’s see if I can choose one.
Bertha: “Oh Didi, it’s so hard to hold up when the entire town knows my husband is as useless as an ice tray in Hell.”
DP: This is a tough one – and I am sure it will change as the play continues.
Charlene: “I don’t want to waste my artistic integrity on a pathetic little shrub” … but to be honest, this is a very hard question. There are so many.
CITA: Let’s say you have to move to Tuna, Texas. Who are you going to get along with best? Who are you going to steer clear of?
SM: I think I’d get along with Thurston and Arles. I WANT to be friends with Aunt Pearl and Dixie! There’s no way I could be friends with Vera Carp. We all know a Vera, bless her heart.
DP: I would absolutely hang out with Helen Bedd. I would probably steer clear of Vera Carp at all costs [laughs].
CITA: Finally, the major drama in A Tuna Christmas happens around the unholy desecration of the annual Yard Display Contest. If, since you’re imagining living in Tuna, you had to create a yard display for this esteemed event, what would yours be?
SM: Let me tell you, there is some stiff competition in Tuna. I would love to see some of the displays that are mentioned in the show, especially Aunt Pearl’s display from the previous year.
I wonder if I could pull off a Christmas Haunted House? I wonder if that would stop the Christmas Phantom.
DP: Think National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but with sound synching to the lights. I also would want it to be as inclusive as possible. Maybe even a snow machine.