Dallas — Texas-born playwright Del Shores, best known for his romp Sordid Lives—first a play, then movie and TV series, inspiring a film sequel—arrives in North Texas in February to bring his new one-man show, Six Characters in Search of a Play. There will be four performances (Feb. 1-4) at Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas, and another (Feb. 11) at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth. Circle is where the play Sordid Lives had its DFW debut in the late 1990s—with Leslie Jordan (now famous for Will & Grace) playing Brother Boy.
The 90-minute show Six Characters, directed by former Dallasite Emerson Collins, is inspired by Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 absurdist play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, about the relationship between writers, their characters, and the actors and directors who bring them to life.
We talked with Shores, who lives in Los Angeles, via phone about the new work.
TheaterJones: On your web page, you say you’re a “self-proclaimed thief” in borrowing Pirandello’s title for your new monologue. His characters argue with the director and fight among themselves. Can you do anything like this in a one-man show?
Del Shores: The quote means I don’t create characters, but I steal them from life. I was encouraged to lie by my mom who was always asking me to tell more, so I made up stuff to make the story longer. The Pirandello borrowing is really just the title. I thought these are six people I have known in my life at some point. Some are family, some are people I’ve worked with and other or people met in the briefest encounter. The waitress is from a café in Dallas. I tell people I know that they might end up in a play, and then one day, they’d say, Del Shores was telling the truth.
I love doing the show, but it’s one of the hardest things I've ever done. I have conversations with two different characters in my single body. Emerson Collins, my producing director, did Buyer and Seller, a one-man show with similarities and he has been amazingly helpful. It was great to have somebody you trust as a director. Helps so much in getting technical aspects right, like what hand to hold the cigarette in. How is one smoker’s style different from another smoker’s, and vocally how different do they sound. My Aunt Bobby Sue was really loud. She took over a room when she walked in, and never learned an inside voice. that voice defined much of the character for me
You also note that the characters are “inspired by real-life encounters.” Can you comment on where you met these characters? Are your characters mostly observed or mostly invented?
My characters are mostly observed, but I do allow myself to lie. I have to say it’s my version of the truth coming across in these people. To quote Mark Twain, “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.” A couple people are based on brief encounters, and in the show, I tell how I met them. Some are based on family. One character in the show is my mother, who I’ve used in Daddy’s Dyin’ (Who’s Got the Will?), and also as a character in Sordid Lives. There was a period in her life when she lost her mind right before she died that I’ve never written about before, but I include it here and this character is the emotional center this show.
You grew up in Winters, Texas, and the Ingram family in Sordid Lives hails from a small Texas town. Do any of your new characters have a Texas drawl?
Winters, Texas, is 40 miles south of Abilene, and has fewer than 2,000 population. I lived there as a young child, and then we moved to Brownwood and later to South Texas. I think I return to Winters for my stories because my parents would just drop us off there with my great grandmother and my Aunt Sissy for a month or two in the summer. I was the outsider and I just watched. These were people I felt were worth writing about, as Aunt Sissy would say, “We’re just colorful.”
Characters like Brother Boy (the aging homosexual who channels Tammy Wynette in Sordid Lives) in your work are often hilariously exaggerated and satirized, and yet also come across as touching and sweetly vulnerable. How do you create such a character? How do you approach the role as an actor?
First of all, just being a friend to the amazing Leslie Jordan (the actor playing Brother Boy in the TV series Sordid Lives) is a great help with a character like that. I’ve seen the part performed as a cartoon, but you have to go for character, not just laughs. I wrote this way before the terrors of conversion therapy was in the news, but the character has a comic side in the obsession with being a country singer. Jordan was so brilliant in that role. He was also good in Southern Baptist Sissies. He hears exactly what I hear, and I have to do so little direction. He has that ability to play the truth. It’s funny and you’re laughing and then suddenly you’re crying.
You’ve worked in a number of theaters in Dallas. Having worked nationally in film, television and theater, how do you view the Dallas theater scene?
I’ve been working off and on for Uptown Players for many, many years. Because it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day [the day of our interview], I want to say how proud I am that I won an NAACP Best Playwright Award for The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, which Uptown produced when they were at the Trinity River Arts Center, the same space Kitchen Dog Theater is using. The show is darker than the title sounds; it’s a play about spousal abuse. The racial theme was based on the friendship between the wife, which played by the amazing Cindee Mayfield and a black woman played by Octavia Spencer. Octavia, of course, has gone on to win an Oscar [for The Help] and is nominated now for another [The Shape of Water]. Circle Theatre in Fort Worth produced two of my plays, Daughters of the Lone Star State and Sordid Lives.
The talent pool in Dallas is as good as any city in the country. I never have to worry about casting when I have a show in Dallas, and my work has been very successful there. Critics have not always been the easiest, but audiences come. I’m actually thinking of coming to Dallas to premiere my new play, which is about half-finished. It’s called This Side of Crazy, and I guess I’d say I hop from one side to the other. [Laughing]. The show is about four women, and is set in the Bible Belt.
Theater, like film and politics and other venues, is undergoing an intense scrutiny of policies concerning inappropriate sexual behavior or bullying. Sunday’s NY Times’ lead story focuses on male models and their accusations about sexual predation by famous photographers they worked for. Have you personally ever felt bullied or the victim of inappropriate sexual behavior? Can you comment on this scene in the entertainment industry?
When we all started thinking about this, I thought back—I’m 60 now—and remembered that I had one handsy casting director, a big name, now passed, when I was 24. He put his hand on my thigh and talked and I felt queasy, but nothing happened past that, and he never cast me, either. I have worked with a lot of handsome men in my career, and I have never been tempted to make the slightest such overture. It’s so repugnant and unprofessional to cross the line.
I applaud the men and women who actually came forth and spoke out against such behavior. I have two daughters, and though they are not in the entertainment business, the youngest one said “me, too.” I wholeheartedly support this movement financially and with my voice and in in any way I can.
Other than touring with your new one-man show, what else are you working on now?
I’m working with Emerson Collins on a TV series in development, and we can’t talk too much about it. I can say it is a celebration of small-town life and all those characters I adore, and it is set in Tennessee. We’ve chosen a great producing partner and the next step is going network. I’m hopeful we’ll start shooting by mid-year. It’s shaping up to be a great 2018.
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 1-3, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 4 at the Trinity River Arts Center in Dallas, presented by Kitchen Dog Theater
3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11 at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth