“Sordid Lives” Creator Del Shores Talks About His Plays, Films, and Bringing His New Play to Sonoma

Del Shores has written, directed and produced successfully across studio and independent film, network and cable television and regional and national touring theatre.

Shores’ career took off with the play “Daddy’s Dyin’ (Who’s Got The Will?”) in 1987, which ran two years, winning many Los Angeles theatre awards, including LA Weekly’s Best Production and Best Writing.  A movie version of Daddy’s Dyin’ was released in 1990 by MGM starring Beau Bridges, Tess Harper, Keith Carradine and Beverly D’Angelo.  Shores wrote the screenplay and executive produced the film.

“Sordid Lives,” his fourth play, opened in Los Angeles in 1996 and ran 13 sold-out months.  The play went on to win 14 Drama-Logue Theatre Awards, including three for Shores for wring, directing and producing. There have since been over 300 additional stage productions of the play.

In 1999, Shores wrote and directed the film version of “Sordid Lives” starring Beau Bridges, Delta Burke, Olivia Newton-John, and Leslie Jordan along with most of the cast from the play. Opening in only eight theatres across the country, the little film that could took in nearly two million dollars in its limited release. The movie became a cult phenomenon and became the longest running film in the history of Palm Springs with a record ninety-six weeks.

Del will bring his new one-man show  “Six Characters In Search Of A Play” to the Rotary Stage in Sonoma, Sunday July 22. Shores is inspired by Pirandello’s classic play to bring you six characters inspired by his real-life encounters that haven’t quite made it into one of Shores’ plays, films or TV shows.  The show is directed by Emerson Collins.

Get tickets here:  https://tickets.vendini.com/ticket-software.html?t=tix&e=79ae9d4e6d8720948502afa1dc005282&vqitq=c3e253b3-bbce-4930-aa4a-a76314f6c99c&vqitp=d3a9f389-9295-4630-9912-60941f99c00a&vqitts=1525383739&vqitc=vendini&vqite=itl&vqitrt=Safetynet&vqith=935717f98892906d362cf67dc1fc1ee4.

Gaysonoma’s Gary Carnivele interviewed Del about his life, work, a wacky, beloved characters.

Gaysonoma: When did you first become interested in theatre and film and when did you decide to pursue a career in the arts?

Del Shores:  My mother was a high school drama teacher, so as a child, I grew up in the theatre.  It was home.  My mother’s passion became mine.  I was the ‘star’ in all the school plays.  I was also obsessed with television and film as a kid.  When I went to Baylor University, I decided to not major in drama, but instead got a degree in journalism and Spanish.  But my senior year of college, I visited my friend Beth Blackstock in Malibu.  She was in grad school at Pepperdine.  Well, that trip changed the game plan.  I decided to move to LA after college to pursue acting.  I am an actor at heart and the writing and directing came as an extension of that.  I wrote my first play “Cheatin’” so I could be in it.  My second play came out of “I have another story to tell” but there was no role for me in “Daddy’s Dyin’ (Who’s Got The Will?)”  That play was a huge hit in LA, got me an agent, a TV writing deal at Warner Brothers and a movie was made of the play.  My path changed.  “Six Characters In Search Of A Play” brings me full circle, back on stage — as an actor.  This feels right for this time in my life.

GS:  Talk about your formal education and how you developed you playwriting skills?

DS:  I never studied playwriting formally.  Or screenwriting.  Or television writing.  I learned by reading plays, watching film and television.  I’m self-taught.  Again, my mother was the big influence, paying my brother and me to read.  We’d get $1.00 for every play or book we read.  Pretty soon she couldn’t afford my obsession.  I was reading a play or book a day.   I recently taught playwriting at Northwestern State University.  My students were required to read and report on three plays — then write a short play or part of a full-length play.  It was amazing how much they learned — and I learned — by simply reading plays.  Whenever someone asks me where to study playwriting, I tell them to read a play a day until they feel ready to write.  Start with Williams, Albee, O’Neil, Hellman and Miller.

GS:  Who inspired you?

DS:  My mother Loraine Shores, first and foremost.  The list of playwrights I gave in the last answer, especially Tennessee Williams.  Preston Jones, a Texas playwright was a huge influence.  Other favorite writers:  Horton Foote, Beth Henley, August Wilson, Terrance McNally.  I’m also inspired by heroes and activists such as Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King, Dan Savage, Barney Frank.  

GS:  Your career took off with “Daddy’s Dyin’ (Who’s Got the Will?)” in 1987.  What was it like to experience such success?

DS:  It was a crazy time.  One moment I’m this actor, making about 40K a year, mainly with voice-over work, then my play opens to these crazy reviews, the LA Times calls me a new voice in theatre, Warner Brothers signs me to an overall deal, in a bidding war with Sony and 20th Century Fox, and Propaganda Films and MGM made the film version of “Daddy’s Dyin’” — and my income is over ten times what it was the previous year.  I was flying high, a bit overwhelmed, but adjusting to a new life as a writer, the new kid in town.  It was pretty amazing. 

GS:  How did it feel when Hollywood came courting?

DS:  It was complicated.  I loved the opportunities, the money — but I really had to adjust to how Hollywood wants to control your creativity.  I was used to being in control of my work in the theatre, then suddenly I was getting “notes” on my work.  I wasn’t expecting that, not prepared.   Gary David Goldberg (creator of “Family Ties”) was the first person to ever hire me in TV and gave me the best advice, that I still subscribe to.  He told me that television was a collaborative medium and for me to always return to the theatre to reclaim my own voice.   I’ve added independent films to that advice.  He also told me to keep one of my plays on my desk at all times to remind me that I am a playwright.  Best advice I ever got.

GS:  You wrote the screenplay for the film, which starred Tess Harper, Keith Caradine, and Beverly D’Angelo, as well as executive produced.  Talk about the process of turning your award-winning play into a script.

DS:  The adaptation of that play came easily for me.  I actually wrote the screenplay while the play was running and the screenplay was optioned by Propaganda, then MGM came on board.  I had the luxury of having the play on stage, a huge hit.    My manager also represented Sissy Spacek, so she invited Sissy and her husband Jack Fisk to the play.   Jack wanted to direct the film version, had a deal with Propaganda, so when he expressed interest, I said — “Oh, I already have the screenplay”.  It was so fast.   He took the movie to them, they said yes.   My manager had also invited John Goldwyn (MGM) so she “married” Propaganda and MGM and bam, we had a greenlight.  I was suddenly meeting with Tess, Beverly, Keith, Judge and Beau.  It was my first film and my only studio film.  They shot the film as written, I was on the set while shooting and it was a whole new world for me.

GS:  Your fourth play was “Sordid Lives.”  How did you come to write a play that featured gay and lesbian characters?

DS:  I came out after a nine year marriage and two amazing children.  All that Baptist damage!   I couldn’t hide this deep secret anymore and with my career just sailing, I was hurting deeply inside, in so much turmoil.  Finally, after a lot of therapy, I claimed my true self and “Sordid Lives” was my coming out play.  It was the first time I was completely free to write uncensored.  I told my story (“Ty” was me, “Latrelle” was my mom) and the rest of the play unfolded from my twisted mind.  That play truly was a gift to myself, allowing me to really feel love for myself and acceptance for that part of me I had hated.  The laughter, the applause, the tears, the standing ovations each night showed me that I was loved,  just as I am, as I was created.

GS:  Are there actual folks on whom the characters are based?

DS:  Besides “Ty” and “Latrelle”, my real Aunt Sissy was a huge inspiration for me.  I talk about that in “Six Characters” and also the huge influence my mother had on the character of “Latrelle”.

GS:  How did you come to write and direct the screen version of “Sordid Lives?”

DS:  Beau Bridges had a lot to do with that.  We had remained friends after “Daddy’s Dyin’” and he brought his entire family, including Lloyd, Jeff, his mom, Wendy, his wife, and some of his kids to see “Sordid Lives.”  After the play, he said, “Del, this is a movie.  And when you make it, I want to wear that black bra.”   The wheels started spinning, I adapted the play easily and my producing partner Sharyn Lane and I called every rich friend we had, asking them to invest.   We made that little movie for about 500K.   It was another life changer.

GS:  Any interesting stories you care to share about working with such a stellar cast that included Delta Burke, Olivia Newton-John and Leslie Jordan?

DS:  We truly do not have time, I have so many.  That trio is wonderful and I have also been so blessed to work with so many amazing actors, legends.  Let’s not forget Rue McClanahan was “Peggy” in the series and Whoopi Goldberg was in “Sordid Wedding.”    Leslie, of course, I’ve worked with since 1985.  I wrote “Brother Boy” for him.  My favorite Leslie Jordan story is the one about closing night of the play “Sordid Lives”, when I asked Rosemary Alexander (“Dr. Eve”) to not wear panties.  She complied and when she got to that iconic scene where she she spread her legs and Brother Boy said, “Dr. Eve, you don’t have on any panties!”  Well before he got that line completely out, he screamed and was barely able to recover to utter the “enchilada” line.  After the show, he said, “Delferd, that’s the meanest thing you’ve ever done to me.  I haven’t seen one in YEARS!  It looked like an angry animal.  I swear to God, it snarled at me.”

GS:  Were you prepared for the huge success of the film and its lengthy run in Palm Springs?

DS:  Not at all.  It was shocking the first time we all went down to celebrate the long run — I think it was the year anniversary.  People were dressed like the characters, shouting out the lines, wearing lug nuts and rubber bands, they popped right along with “Sissy” on screen.

GS:  Did you approach Logo TV about you producing the prequel episodes on “Sordid Lives:  The Series?”

DS:  I did.  I took it to Dave Mace, who was the executive in charge of programming.  He said yes, then after a long process (over 2 years) of getting producers and all the financing, we shot the series.

GS:  What was it like imagining the backstories of your beloved characters and fleshing it out in a 12-episode series?

DS:  It was amazing returning to the characters.  Easy, really to write for them.  The creative part was amazing.  I could have done that series for many, many years, but unfortunately, a greedy producer decided to not pay us our residuals, lawsuits happened that ultimately killed the series.    Here was my lesson — never work with assholes!  And please don’t interpret that as a Logo bash.  It’s not.  They were not the producers, they were the network and supported the series.   They ordered a second season that fell apart because of the greed of the producer and his company that owned the show.

GS:  Then came: “A Very Sordid Wedding.”  Did you feel this was a way to say ‘goodbye’ to the characters you created and tie up loose ends?

DS:  Yes, and it was very healing after the horrible demise of the series.  I realized I was NOT mad at “Sordid Lives”, I was angry at the producer who stole from us and ultimately destroyed our show.  With the help of Emerson Collins, my producing partner, and my delicious cast and crew, we made what I feel is my best film.

GS:  Talk about the creation of you one-man show “Six Characters In Search of A Play.”

DS:  I was on the road promoting the screenings of “A Very Sordid Wedding” with Emerson Collins and some of the cast.  In my hotel rooms, I wrote this play.  I was talking to Ann Walker (“LaVonda”) one day, telling her about my Aunt Bobbie Sue and a visit back to Winters, Tx for my Aunt Sissy’s memorial service.  She was howling and said, “Oh honey, you have to tell that on stage.”  My mind started whirling and the play just poured out of me.  The concept — these are six people I have met, who have inspired me, but have not yet made it into one of my plays, films or TV shows.

GS:  Did you always know that you would perform the show?

DS:  Me as opposed to casting an actor to perform it?  Oh yes, it was always intended for me.  I’m one of the main characters, so an actor would have to play “Del Shores”/Writer.  Frankly, that could happen in the future, but for now, I’m very right for the role and love doing the play.

GS:  We’re thrilled you’re bringing the show to Sonoma. Talk about what will make this an amazing evening of theatre.

DS:  Well, lots of gays will be there for Out In The Vineyard — so I know the material will work!   I’m excited to play that beautiful theatre — The Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall for Sonoma Community Center. With this show, I believe we all need some laughs these days — and there may be a few tears as well.

GS:  Will you be able to enjoy some quality time here, before moving on to the next date?

DS:  I’m coming in on Friday and leaving on Monday, so yes, I’m there for the weekend!  Very excited.  I love my job where I get to visit amazing places and events as well.

GS:  Are you working on something new?

DS:  I am.  I have a new play I’m finishing right now called “This Side Of Crazy” and I also have a TV series in development that once again celebrates small town Americana with a whole new slate of characters.