Speakeasy with - Del Shores

Playwright, Southern Baptist Sissies

When the Process Theatre and Whole World Theatre team up to stage the dramedy Southern Baptist Sissies (April 12-May 12), they’ll be worshipping at the church of Del Shores. Born in rural Texas, Shores became a writer for theater and television, but became a cult figure by directing and adapting his play Sordid Lives as a campy Southern indie comedy (with Delta Burke and Leslie Jordan), which has become an enormous word-of-mouth hit on DVD. In 2007 Shores plans to direct a film of Southern Baptist Sissies, reuniting with Burke and Jordan, and to develop a prequel series of Sordid Lives for the Logo network.

Where are you?

I’m walking through an alligator habitat in Sanibel, Fla., on the way back from breakfast. I’m not on tour at the moment – I’m actually going to be the preacher for Delta Burke and Gerald McRaney’s 20th commitment ceremony tonight. I’m going to start out with talking about how inspiring they are: “They’ve survived 2,370 tabloid articles – and that’s a low estimate!”

Southern Baptist Sissies is about the difficulties of four men growing up gay and Baptist in the South. How autobiographical is it?

My father was a Baptist preacher, and he passed away almost three years ago. My brother still is one. The whole play is my journey. I always say that each of the four “sissies” in the play is part of me. I love church and the feelings it brings out, but it’s like a line from the play: “How do you embrace something that doesn’t embrace you?” How do you separate spirituality from religion? I still haven’t really worked that out in my life. There’s a couple of break-up scenes in the play, but none is as painful as breaking with the church.

How funny is the play?

People are always surprised by its tone. I think the title lends itself more to comedy than is actually in there. Sordid Lives is 90 percent comedy, maybe more; the comedy in Sissies is more about equal to the drama. The four sissies are all very different: Mark, the hero, is out and proud, one remains in denial, one ends tragically. But there are also these two hysterical barfly characters.

Do you see the Baptist Church improving its attitude toward gay people? Sometimes it seems like it moves one step forward, two steps back.

I think there’s still a lot of danger in the rhetoric. There’s always a philosophy of “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” but I do see progress with people coming out and putting a face on “gay.” I think it made a big difference when Ellen DeGeneres came out. Everyone loves her, and she doesn’t seem like someone who’s “sinning” every night. I’ve gotten some really great letters from Christians saying they’ve changed their minds. One said, “We taught our children wrong. I’m taking them to your play next week.” I still get a lot of hate mail, too. If you Google “Baptist Press Southern Baptist Sissies,’ you’ll definitely see what they think of me.

When did you realize Sordid Lives was developing a cult following?

The phenomenon started in Palm Springs, where it showed at a movie theater for two years, and people were saying favorite lines or showing up in costume. It was shocking to me! It has been such a wild ride, and I feel blessed for it. I don’t think we really realized how popular it was until we took the play on a national tour with some of the film cast last year. The play usually lasts for two hours and 20 minutes, with the intermission, but opening night in Florida went on for three hours, with people laughing and shouting out lines. I told the actors “You better get your lines right, because they know them, and they’ll correct you!”

Why do you think Sordid Lives struck such a chord?

The humor is intense for people. I think they identify with characters to a certain degree, or have relatives just like them. Brother Boy, as embodied by Leslie Jordan, is one of the most hysterical characters ever. The gay community found something that was theirs. And they need to laugh. The best letter I got last year was from someone whose house was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, who said he watched Sordid Lives every single day afterward, because he needed to laugh.

When do you expect your next projects to finish?

This summer we’ll finish shooting Southern Baptist Sissies, then go right into production of “Sordid Lives” the show. The first season will have 13 episodes and I’m writing all of them. There’s still some deal-making, but the universe has lined up nicely for it. I think the movie will come out in fall of 2007, maybe delayed to early 2008, because of film festivals, and Logo should have “Sordid Lives” ready by early 2008.

You were one of the writers of the U.S. version of “Queer as Folk,” and Leslie Jordan had a recurring role on “Will and Grace,” two landmark gay shows that have gone off the air. What’s next for gay television?

“Sordid Lives.” (Laughs) I really believe we should be mainstream. It’s important, and I hope the networks create more shows. “The L Word” is still on Showtime, and “Brothers and Sisters” has a nice gay arc. Even if you don’t have a “Queer as Folk” or “Will and Grace,” those shows still knocked down doors for gay characters. The great thing is that we’re not just seeing the funny sidekick stereotype any more. “Queer as Folk” was the first show showing real characters living real lives. And having sex.