Del Shores tackles his greatest challenge: Acting in one of his own plays

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
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Fans of Del Shores — and he has a lot of ’em, especially in North Texas — know him best as a playwright, screenwriter and director of such shows as Sordid Lives (in its various incarnations), Southern Baptist Sissies and Queer as Folk. Some more will know him for his standup comedy, which he plies regularly at the Rose Room. But few may realize that Shores initially trained as an actor — indeed, writing was a secondary pursuit; he wrote to give himself parts to perform.

But that seems like a lifetime ago. Shores has become more famous (or is it notorious?) for his perfectionism, for monitoring how his plays are performed, for his exacting requirements from his actors.

And now, the tables have turned.

His latest piece, Six Characters in Search of a Play, is a solo work, a showpiece for a single actor to embody six major (and a dozen minor) different characters in 80 furious, touching and hilarious minutes, which will play in Dallas Feb. 1–4. And this time the actor is Shores himself.

In many ways, it was inevitable.

“Del Shores shows his Pride with a tattoo inspired by his activism.

“I never remember how a concept comes to me, but I thought I would love to do a show that wasn’t just me and a mike doing standup,” he recalls. “I had these real-life characters that I’ve known in my life who were just waiting in the wings to make it into one of my scripts. Originally I was going to [write a play telling] how I met them and then do monologues. But as a writer, I go a little nuts; they just took over from me.”

Shores always knew he would perform the piece but didn’t realize how daunting it would be until he started to mount it. Even with his standup, he had always been the only director; he knew for this piece, he’d need someone to help him navigate it as a real play. And he naturally tapped Emerson Collins, his longtime business partner and actor in many of his projects, to be director.

It would be an exaggeration to call it sweet revenge for Collins, but it was an eye-opening experience for both of them.

“I was challenged by Emerson, my great director, to memorize the full script, and it was the hardest fucking thing I’ve ever done,” Shores laughs. “I am not unfamiliar with memorization, but there is a big difference in memorizing a scene and performing all the dialogue in a full-length play. For years actors have praised and criticized me [saying], ‘I never worked so hard at memorizing a monologue.’ I’ve always been the asshole saying, ‘You have to speak it as I wrote it!’”

“Now he understands what actors go through [delivering his lines] — he’s suffering the way so many of us have!” jokes Collins, who makes his directorial debut with this show. “But I know what Del  likes as a director and how he thinks as a writer and his strengths as a comedian, so I know what he wants to convey to the audience best.”

Collins also has unique insights into the process; three years ago, he was the first actor to perform a regional production of the one-man play Buyer & Cellar, a role originated by another former North Texas, Michael Urie.

“The experience of doing a one-person show — how to memorize, how to rehearse it, how to be a specific and plot your energy—  helped me work him through the process of breaking it apart and pulling it back together. [You’d be surprised how important] planning your breathing is, something  that you don’t have to think about in a normal play. You have to worry how you expend yourself so you don’t carry the mania of one character into another.”

“He’s wonderful at directing me,” Shores gushes.

“I would say directing Del has done far better than one would have expected. He’s an artistic control freak in the best possible way, but when you’re the person ceding your own control, ‘it’s difficult,” Collins says. “But we’ve been working together for more than a decade, and we don’t fight. I hope what I’m doing the best is serving him as a writer in directing him as an actor. I’m translating him for him.”

Translating it, yes, but the stories are pure Shores. He pulls from personal experiences, so fans will not be seeing variations of Brother Boy or Noleta or Ty, though some may recognize a few of his impersonations.

Sordid Lives fans will recognize Sarah Hunley, the elderly actress devoted to drinking and smoking herself to death before Trump got elected,” Shores says. “And she succeeded. But there’s also a waitress I met in Dallas, a redneck I met in Mississippi and my mother, who I used for inspiration for many years [for Latrelle in Sordid Lives and Lurlene in Daddy’s Dyin’, Who’s Got the Will?]. Near the end of her life, she really lost her mind, which is something I have never really talked about. It was so painful. But it was so cathartic to perform.”

Six Characters was essentially workshopped for two performances last year in Palm Springs, but Dallas audiences will see the refined, polished two-point-oh version.

“We’ve seen a lot of stories on the Sordid Lives characters and how he as a writer encounters the world around him, from his family and finding comedy in things that are painful or mundane” Collins observes. “But I think this is different. People will be uniquely surprised.”