Driving Out Demons

Texas-born Del Shores and his Southern-fried humor—peppered with a dash of angst—seem to go together like biscuits and gravy. Yet his five plays have all premiered locally, so Los Angeles can truly claim this popular country-boy playwright as its own. In Shores' latest play, Southern Baptist Sissies, the suffering is sprinkled on more liberally, as the daredevil playwright bares his soul in a highly personal semi-autobiographical piece. This gripping and intelligent new play examines Shores' struggle as a gay man trying to come out of the closet amid a strict Baptist upbringing. The engaging Shores recently met with Back Stage West at Hollywood's Zephyr Theatre, where Sissies recently opened to generally ecstatic reviews.

Shores has likewise won deservedly high critical praise for his past stage works, which include a trilogy of sorts (1984's Cheatin', 1987's Daddy's Dyin'... Who's Got the Will?, and 1996's Daughters of the Lone Star State). Besides Sissies, his other play is 1996's Sordid Lives, which Shores just adapted and directed as a film to open in February, starring Olivia Newton-John, Beau Bridges, and Bonnie Bedelia. His plays share some common elements: a Texas setting, sardonic humor, and undercurrents of despair among the bucolic set. His most recent theatre triumph in L.A. was as producer of the magnificent 1997 Theatre/Theater revival of Dan Gerrity and Jeremy Lawrence's masterful tragicomedy Melody Jones, the last show helmed by the late, great director Ron Link.

Back Stage West: When I spoke to you during the run of Melody Jones, you said that you love theatre that's dangerous. Can you elaborate?

Del Shores: Theatre that pushes to the edge. I like people to think. People have e-mailed or called me and told me they couldn't sleep after seeing Sissies. Polly Warfield was one of them. I want Polly to get her sleep, I really do. But I'm glad the play shakes people up. Last night, some friends of the producers (Baptists) came to the show and said they stayed up till 2 a.m. talking about it. Also, there was a beautiful boy sitting in front of me, probably in his mid to late 20s, and when the character Andrew gets driven out of a gay club by the preacher and Andrew says, "Oh God, please take it away," the kid broke down. I hugged him and said I'm really sorry. And he said no, it was very cleansing for him. He's from a town in Tennessee and said that for four years, he prayed every day for three hours straight for God to take his feelings away. I like that the show pushes buttons.

You go through your life and think, Oh I've dealt with this—I'm not angry with the church, nor with my folks. But I had been through therapy for five years, and when I suddenly started writing about these experiences, I became increasingly angry, having to write the words that I heard my brother say to me very recently. I put those words in the character T.J.'s mouth.

BSW: Have your other plays drawn from elements of your life?

Shores: Of course. I keep getting closer to me in all of them. In Cheatin', I wrote about this quiet little town my mother had described, where wife-swapping went on. Daddy's Dyin' was really about my mother and her brother and sister, and my character was talked about. Daughters of the Lone Star State was more about my passion for countering racism. It never delved as much into my own experiences, and interestingly enough, it was my least successful, though I really like it. And when Sordid Lives came out I was coming out of the closet, and it was about my relationship with my mother and her reactions to my gayness. When I wrote Sissies, I really believed each of the four boys was an extension of me.

BSW: With all due respect to both you and the wonderful Ron Link, do I sense a Ron Link sensibility in this show?

Shores: Ron, who I had a sort of love/hate relationship with, liked this play. He was so inspirational for me as I directed it. I felt him here sometimes. Melody Jones totally gave me permission—not just Ron but Dan and Jeremy's script—to write monologues to the audience. Of course, plays like Love! Valour! Compassion! and Wit and How I Learned To Drive use this dramatic device. I had never done it. With Cheatin', I had a narrator, but not all the characters spoke to the audience. In this one, they all do except for the two barfly characters and the mothers and preacher. The four boys all do.

BSW: I've heard a couple of fellow critics complain that the script is too didactic at times. Yet I see this as an intentional irony—sort of a counterpoint to the genuine preaching that goes on from the church pulpit in the play and from the Laura Schlessingers among us. What can you say about that?

Shores: It is intentional. You'd think that T.J. probably became a very good preacher, because he very naturally stepped right up to the pulpit.

BSW: Most of your plays have a veneer of darkness beneath the humor, and this one seems your darkest to date.

Shores: I don't know that I consciously plan that. It just happens. I choose a subject that is pretty serious and write a comedy about it. Would you say this is a dramatic comedy? It has belly laughs.

BSW: It's difficult to categorize. I'd say perhaps seriocomedy or tragicomedy. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is loaded with huge laughs, but how many plays could be considered darker than that one?

Shores: There are no laughs whatsoever in the last 20 minutes of Sissies. The funniest characters are the most tragic, except maybe Andrew. Especially Peanut and Odette. [These are the two barfly characters, who serve as sort of a sardonic Greek chorus.]

BSW: How did you get into playwriting?

Shores: My dad was a Southern Baptist preacher and my mother was the high school drama coach. She started college when I was in the first grade, so she took us to all the college productions. I developed a love for the theatre and wrote my first play when I was in the sixth grade. It was called Strange Visit to Uncle Johnny's—a horror play. I came to L.A. to act, and my writing became an extension of the acting. I was doing a regular role on Days of our Lives and a lot of commercials. After the movie version of Daddy's Dyin' was done, I got sucked into TV, which paid me nicely. There was a really long time between Daddy's and Daughters. I wrote Cheatin' so I could be in it. It was at the Mainstage Theatre on Riverside Drive in the Valley, which is now a chiropractic office. Then we moved to McCadden Place, where it played for eight months. It was a success, but we had to work it. The other night we had a wonderful audience, including Lynn Redgrave, and we got a standing ovation. And I went up to Tate Taylor who plays T.J.—it's his first play—and I hugged him and said, "Don't ever take this for granted," and Newell Alexander, who had been in Cheatin' [and plays the preacher in Sissies] came up and said "Yes, Del, and I sometimes played to fewer people than we had onstage."

BSW: Tell me a little bit about the Texas settings of your plays.

Shores: The first three are in a little town called Lowake—it's a real Texas town. I have more people in my plays than exist in that town. I wanted to set the first play in a little town called Novice, where my Aunt Shorty lives. I asked my mother if she would take pictures of a bar in Novice, and she said they have none. You'd have to go to Lowake to get liquor. The first three plays stand alone, but they have characters who reappear to link them together.

I set Sordid Lives in Winters, where I was born, a small town, 40 miles from Lowake. When we were doing Sordid in Fort Worth in 1997, I hung out a lot with Leslie Jordan [who plays Peanut in Sissies] in the gay bars in Dallas, and I was just coming out, having a great time. My friends and I would listen to this gospel group called the Rambos sing in a gay club, and we sang gospel songs all the way back and forth. I started thinking of this collision of the sexuality and the music. That made me remember the church, which led to the inspiration for this play, set in Dallas.

I loved the church as a kid—especially the songs and the covered dish fellowships—and it killed me to have to abandon that. I thought to myself right before this play opened, What have I done to my heritage? I'm about to completely betray my entire family. I'm sure they would feel that way, though they won't come see this one—there's not really a reason for them to come unless I want to kill them. I still have a hard time watching it. Yet it's been very cathartic for me, so I'm glad people are finding it and being touched by it. BSW