Del Shores is used to being uncommon. The award-winning playwright, director and writer of productions including Sordid Lives and Southern Baptist Sissies is an openly gay man from the South, after all.
Palm Canyon Theatre is producing Shores’ newest play, This Side of Crazy, from Nov. 18-21.
“This is actually only the third production of the play—and I directed the first two,” Shores said during a recent phone interview. “It premiered in San Francisco at New Conservatory Theatre Center, and that was back in September of 2019. Immediately after we closed there, we went to Los Angeles and opened there at the Zephyr Theatre, and just barely escaped the pandemic; the rumors and all the buzz about it were swirling our last couple of weeks of the run. The play was supposed to open in Dallas shortly after; we were starting rehearsal on March 8, 2020, and you know what happened two weeks later. I’m excited that it has some new life, because it will always be my pandemic play.”
Shores explained how he came up with the plot of This Side of Crazy.
“Being a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, I’ve always been obsessed with gospel music, and I became very obsessed with this gospel singer named Dottie Rambo, the most prolific songwriter in gospel music history,” Shores said. “She’s been recorded by everybody—Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston—and has over 4,000 published songs. Shockingly, this country gospel singer loved Sordid Lives, and back in the day of MySpace, I got a message from Dottie Rambo. She sent me all these gifts, (including) a Dottie Rambo doll, but she didn’t realize that I was also obsessed with her.
“We were doing a national tour, and we were playing Nashville, and Dottie Rambo came. I was just like, ‘Whoa,’—but quickly, I found out that she truly was the most narcissistic Christian I think I’ve ever met, and maybe deservedly so. She did write a song, ‘Build My Mansion (Next Door to Jesus),’ and I was always like, ‘Do you really deserve that real estate?’
“Around that time, a fan sent me this recording on YouTube of these three little girls called the Peasall Sisters, and they were like little superstars for Jesus. They were a pastor’s kids, and they were the voices of George Clooney’s daughters in O Brother, Where Art Thou? My mind started going: ‘What if I took Dottie Rambo and made her the stage mother for these three little superstars for Jesus?’ My twisted mind took over, and one (sister) was in a mental institution; one was an atheist lesbian; and the other one was living with their mother, and there’s a big secret that created a very big rift of 19 years of not speaking.”
The Palm Canyon Theatre knows Shores well, as the theater has produced his plays multiple times.
“Our theater has a nice relationship with the playwright Del Shores,” said Richard Marlow, who is directing the production. “This Side of Crazy is more recent and more serious than Sordid, and has seen fewer productions. It is a tour-de-force for four female actors of a certain age to tackle, and I was immediately drawn to its blend of comedy and pathos, both rooted in true human behavior.
“We chose it because of the quality of the writing and the way it touches your heart. That’s the ideal formula for a great evening of theater.”
Many theaters are producing shows with smaller casts due to the pandemic. However, Marlow said a smaller cast can actually create a challenge for a director.
“I’m always looking to keep the stage picture interesting, which is easier when there’s lots of people to dress the stage,” said Marlow. “Smaller scenes can become static so easily, so I try to think cinematically when blocking actors, so the audience’s focus is always in the right place, and the scene is never visually boring. Since the audience point of view doesn’t change, it’s important that the spatial relationships between characters do.
“The playwright does the hard work, creating intriguing characters and great dialogue, but if the audience misses key moments due to poor focus, even a great play can fall flat. The director’s one big job is to make sure that the finest details get conveyed clearly. I’m always amazed and, frankly, dismayed at how often that’s missed.”
Not only is Marlow a director; he also works in scene design, though his design work is always credited to his alter ego.
“I’m very visually oriented and prefer to design the sets for shows I direct,” Marlow said. “My ‘nom-de-scene’ for design has always been Toby Griffin. I started designing under that name over 30 years ago to give the impression that more people were involved in a small production. It’s funny how many people who enjoy a play I’ve directed don’t realize who Toby is. It’s become more than just a gag for me, because I take both disciplines very seriously and am able to keep them separate.
“Unfortunately, the local league refuses to acknowledge Toby Griffin, so I have design awards with my actual name engraved on them, and that seems wrong to me.”
Much like Marlow likes designing his own sets, Shores likes the uncommon practice of directing his own plays—which is why Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of This Side of Crazy is the first that’s not directed by Shores.
“It’s interesting, because I’ve been so fortunate to work in three different mediums—television, film and stage—and they’re all so different, because it’s very accepted for a writer to direct his own film, but it’s not that accepted for a playwright to direct their own play,” Shores said. “There came a time when I just decided that I wanted to do things my way rather than the way people told me they should be done. I’ve been happy with the results of it.”
Still, Shores said he’s looking forward to seeing a production of This Side of Crazy that was put in someone else’s hands.
“I really love this play. I’m glad that they’re doing it down there, and I’m excited to see how it will be directed,” Shores said.
This Side of Crazy will be performed at 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 18; Friday and Saturday, Nov. 19 and 20; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 21, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $29.50; student tickets are $15. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit palmcanyontheatre.net.