Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Femulating on Stage

By Jeanette Johnson

Jeanette Johnson (center)
Greater Tuna is a comedy in which two actors play 20 roles. Tuna, Texas is described as the third smallest town in Texas and we were to portray most of the town’s residents. The show had toured the world for more than 20 years before the two actors that had conceived and written this comedy retired and allowed community theaters to buy the rights to perform it. It is a funny show with the actors changing characters in breakneck speed (one of my character changes took seven seconds).

My partner (Joey) in Greater Tuna played three women and seven men. I played two women, seven men and Yippie the dog. Each character needed to be distinct from the other characters so we had 6 ladies back stage helping us with costumes and wigs. All the characters had their own voice and demeanor.

Half of my stage time was performing as Pearl Burris (an octogenarian chicken farmer who poisoned any dog getting in her yard that might kill her “babies”) and Bertha Buemiller (the only high C member of the First Baptist choir, mother of three and a community activist as a member of the Tuna Helpers).

I am giving you this background to get to the main reason I am writing this. I want to show that allowing others to know about your feminine side can turn out wonderfully.

Three years before Greater Tuna, I conceived and performed in a show we called Pridescape at Creative Life Center in Spring, Texas. The shows proceeds would benefit a college fund for transgender youth as part of Gay Pride month. The members knew nothing about my feminine side (though I am sure some suspected). They would meet my other half big time as I planned to do the first act of the show as Jeanette and the second act as John. I was outing myself and was concerned about how I would be received. I decided to let the chips fall as they may and just concentrated on creating a strong show.

I had confided to my singing coach. I am so glad I did. She became one of my dearest friends. She joined with me in the Pridescapes show. She is so incredibly talented and perhaps the best example of a real Christian I have ever known. She had quit acting because of some “couch casting” proposals when she was trying to make it on Broadway. I got her to join me in auditioning for a show later that year where she dazzled the audiences.

I realized I was in over my head trying to sing 14 songs and also getting the staging correct, setting the lights and adjusting the sound. There is a wonderful lady (Carole) who had directed me in a play and in two concerts. I sent her a long email with pictures explaining the Pridescape show and asked her if she would be willing to help me with staging. She couldn’t have been nicer. Her husband added that he looked better in a dress than me. He is an incredible actor and later became my partner in Greater Tuna. I still think I am prettier than him, but I digress.

Community theatre is always working with a tight budget. Some shows have elaborate sets and costumes. Others come with a full orchestra (the only people receiving money in a show). The set for Greater Tuna was very simple. Joey and I built and painted it over the course of two weekends. Our biggest expense was going to be clothes and wigs.

The director and costumer took Joey and me to a couple of resale shops in Conroe, Texas. The two ladies would grab women’s clothing off the racks and bring them to us try on. The lady running the store was very confused until we explained what we were doing. She became very enthusiastic and actually was sitting on the front row on opening night.

As a side note, I went to another women’s resale shop on my own. I explained my needs to the two employees and they started pulling items for me to try on. One customer also got into the act. I bought two dresses. My favorite of the two was vetoed by the director because she said the color would get lost in our set colors. The other she loved and I wore it as Bertha in the show.

I went back to this shop later to thank them for their help and to ask if I could put a poster advertising the show in their window. The owner was there and asked “Is that the show where men dress as women?” I affirmed that it was. She told me she would not put a poster in the window and that I was not welcomed in her store. As I was leaving, one of the ladies that had helped me a couple of weeks earlier quietly informed me that she already had tickets. I suppose you can’t win ‘em all.

Our wardrobes were coming together, but we still did not have everything. It turns out that Joey and I have the same petite shoe size. It is all but impossible to find used women’s shoes in a size 11 at the resale shops. I knew I had more than enough styles for both of us in my Imelda Marcus closet but showing my supply would involve telling the costumer about Jeanette.

The costumer is a lovely woman. She is also the person who plays piano every Sunday in the church her father pastors. Her denomination is not known for being liberal when it comes to transgender people. She is also a wonderful singer and actress. She and I had shared a stage in my very first performance a few years earlier (Sanders Family Christmas). I should add in that first show, my hair was well past my shoulders. We tried having me wear a man’s wig over my long hair, but the director said it looked like I was wearing a huge hair helmet.

So I had my reservations about letting her in on the secret that was already known by the director and the other actor. However, I could not see spending a lot of money on shoes when they could be had for free. I told her and her reply was “I suspected.”

We then had a great time going through my closets picking out shoes, some more clothes and several wigs I owned (my long hair had been cut back a bunch so I would be more appealing to more directors during auditions). We still had to buy several wigs, but we still were way under budget.
She and I already had a good relationship, but it became much more substantial after confiding in her. She asked me to play guitar and sing as Conway Twitty to her Loretta Lynn over the next couple of years in charity shows. We always share a hug whenever we meet.

Greater Tuna turned out to be a tremendous success. Two different theatre critics praised my acting noting how naturally I moved about the stage wearing heels and how authentic my female voices were (thanks to a couple of years of voice feminization lessons years ago). The show set records for revenue for the theatre and was chosen the Show of the Year at the end of the season’s Award Show.
Theatre patrons still kid me when they see me. I have been told that I have the best pair of legs they have ever seen on the Conroe, Texas Owen Theatre stage. Others tease that I should have auditioned for some leading lady role in a show. It is always in good fun.

Greater Tuna was so well received by the audiences that we did another version of the good people of Tuna and their lives during the Fourth of July celebrations (Red, White, and Tuna) a couple of years later.

So there you have it. I asked a talented director to help me stage a show and it resulted in me getting cast in Greater Tuna and she and her husband becoming two of my closest friends. Despite my fear, I performed in front of 200 people at the Pridescape Show and received nothing but love from the members attending. I told a costumer about Jeanette and our cordial relationship became a true friendship.

Many folks do not have the freedom I possess. My family knows and I owned a business where I had employment security. All I can say is I have made the best friends by being honest. I don’t tell everyone, but I suppose I am a good judge of character or very, very lucky so far.

I began thinking as I was writing this story that seven of my closest friends would not even be in my life had I not been honest about who I am. And these are all people outside of the large LGBTQ umbrella. Not a week goes by that I don’t speak to at least a couple of them. It made me realize just how lucky I am.

Source: DressBarn
Wearing DressBarn

Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell
Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell femulating in the 1997 film Good Burger.


  1. Thanks for the great article, Jeanette!
    The dress shop owners comment is so typical of what happens in conservative areas. Here in our small town, 'nobody drinks', and they refuse be seen in the counties "ABC" liquor store. They do, however, buy their bottles out of the trunk of the "bootlegger's" car.... at twice the price!

    1. Just to add to Velma's commentary, there's a term, "thirty mile Baptist". They have a local veneer, but in the next town nobody know them when they go to the liquor store.

    2. I love Jeanette's story. I'm old enough to have seen the several original "Greater Tuna" plays. They packed The Kennedy Center in DC. What a hoot! The almost instant character/costume changes are amazing. Anyone who can pull that off as Jeanette has done is truly a serious actor -- not to mention a gorgeous lady! Now that she's "qualified" as a quick change artist maybe she would want to take a shot at "The Mystery of Irma Vep".

    3. Mikki,
      I saw the original guys many years ago in Galveston doing Tuna Christmas. I had not even thought about acting at that point in my life. Had someone suggested that I might someday play those roles, I would have laughed

    4. A pastor friend explained the difference between a Presbyterian and a Baptist: a Presbyterian will say hello to you in the liquor store.

  2. Wonderful article. And I am so stinkin' jealous! (giggle) As an actor, doing any TUNA show has been on my bucket list for years. I have auditioned for 2 different theaters' productions (CHRISTMAS TUNA and GREATER TUNA) and didn't get either one. Sounds like your experience was fun - and I wish you all the best as you continue on stage. Break a leg!

    1. Julie,
      Greater Tuna stretched my acting ability far beyond what I thought was the snapping point. Finding 9-10 distinct voices took weeks of rehearsals. Unfortunately, as I get older, really good roles are harder and harder to get. I've told directors that I can play age 35 in a large enough theatre...Grand Canyon would work. I am certainly not a Diva but I can not devote 4 months of my life for the part of "The Man in the Brown Hat".

    2. Understood! I have been to a few auditions recently, and when the question appears on the audition form, "Are you willing to take any role?" I now answer an emphatic No. If I'm going to devote my time and effort to the production, I would like it to be for a role I WANT to do. (Unless it's a paying job - then I'll take whatever they offer! ~~giggle~~)