Southern Baptist Sissies
Actor Emerson Collins
Opposite Photo: Emerson
Photo Credit: Alan King
Del Shores’ ambitious play,
Southern Baptist Sissies, has been given
the motion picture treatment via the stage version
filmed before a live audience, with Shores directing,
and the result is a funny, moving and, at times,
pretty powerful experience.
The work focuses on four born-again
Baptist boys, growing up in Texas, and trying to
reconcile being gay with what they’re spoon
fed in Church.
Emerson Collins and Willam
Photo Credit: Albert Jasso
“This is where we learned
to hate ourselves,” comments Mark (Emerson
Collins), the writer/activist of the group and our
master-of-sissy-ceremonies, so to speak, referring
to their Southern Baptist Church.
Mark spent his formative years
crushing on TJ (a moving Luke Stratte-McClure),
who is hell-bent on leading a “normal”
life which means denying his feelings for guys,
in general, and Mark, in particular.
Benny (the fabulous William Belli)
is the most accepting of his sexuality. He’s
also the most flamboyant and, deep down, doesn’t
love himself nearly as much as he’d like the
world to think he does.
Rounding out the quartet is sweet
Andrew (heartbreaking Matthew Scott Montgomery)
who wants to embrace his true nature, but is surrounded
by people who refuse to let him—mainly his
devout, misguided mother.
Shores dares to weave a non-traditional,
multi-genre theatrical mosaic. His writing is honest
and refuses to capitulate to bullshit notions about
people meaning well as they destroy other people.
The filmed play approach here
works quite well as Shores keeps the action moving
and juxtaposes certain scenes to great effect.
Willam Belli, Matthew Scott Montgomery, Luke Stratte-McClure,
Photo Credit: Albert Jasso
The kickass ensemble includes
Leslie Jordan and Dale Dickey providing a fascinating
subplot that I won’t give away. Suffice to
say, Dickey has a revelatory moment near the film’s
end that is right up there with the best of Tennessee
Southern Baptist Sissies
is grounded by the central performance of Emerson
Collins as Mark who acts as a narrator--our guide
through the lives of these damaged people—specifically
the four boys. Collins’s rich, nuanced and
painfully real performance heightens the work. His
Mark is angry, tortured, lonely--struggling to make
sense of the hypocrisy all around him—but
Rejected by TJ, who has decided
to ‘live his life for Jesus’ and get
himself a girlfriend, Mark utters, in almost a whisper
to himself, “Bet she’ll never love you
as hard as I did.” Collins’s delivery
is both devastating and cathartic.
Emerson Collins wears both thesp
and producer hats on Southern Baptist Sissies,
which has been playing festivals the past few months,
receiving rousing reactions from audiences.
Collins is an actor to watch.
Beyond his dashing movie star good looks is an intelligent,
committed, perspicacious artist who should have
a hell of a career ahead of him.
Luke Stratte-McClure and
Photo Credit: Albert Jasso
Frank J. Avella:
The success of the stage version of Southern
Baptist Sissies is pretty staggering and now
the filmed version seems poised to continue on that
road, so far winning audience awards and receiving
standing ovations at many festivals. Why do you
think it resonates so much with viewers?
Collins: Unfortunately, I think the subject
matter is incredibly relevant in our current social
climate. Also, Del’s writing shares the discussion
in a way that makes it relate to a greater audience
on a level of universal love and acceptance. Everyone
can relate to being judged and rejected –
whether by family, community, classmates, religion
or for any number of reasons. The piece is extremely
honest about the experience of many growing up in
the church, and the combination of Del’s gift
with comedy in the hands of brilliant actors and
the intensity of the dramatic portions of the narrative
connect with a wide range of audiences.
J. Avella: Sissies doesn’t
pull any punches about how the bastardization of
Christ’s teachings fuck a person up for life—if
they allow it to. Mark (your character) says, referring
to the Church, “this is where we learn to
hate ourselves.” Many gays can relate to that.
What has the reaction from individual LGBT folk
Collins: The greatest reaction from those
who grew up this way is appreciation. They like
seeing their experiences growing up in the church
shared in the film because for so many it was a
very isolating experience – they felt incredibly
alone dealing with the rejection, guilt and shame
they felt. It is a way to show others what the experience
was like. From the LGBT community who did not grow
up in the church there is an expression of a greater
understanding. Many identify with one particular
Sissy, or parts of all of them. We also hear from
those who have found accepting churches that give
them a spiritual home as well where they can celebrate
their personal beliefs while being proud of their
identity. The most challenging reaction is from
those who have not resolved their issues on the
subject, or who considered suicide as an escape
option at some time, but the most overwhelming response
is thanks for telling this story.
J. Avella: There’s a wonderful, if
hair-raising scene between Mark and his mother—filled
with lunatic assumptions about people who aren’t
Baptist. Anyone who’s grown up in an extreme
Christian home can relate. But how do you go beyond
preaching to that eager Choir. How do you reach
those who would benefit most from seeing the film?
Collins: Del often says that it’s important
to remember to preach to the choir – they
need to hear it, too! Of course the comedy in the
more ludicrous statements provides a respite from
the drama, but underneath that is the horrifying
realization that this is actually what some kids
are being taught. We also believe the message of
love and acceptance regardless of spiritual philosophy
is universal even though the narrative is specific.
We are playing a number of “straight”
film festivals as well because we do believe an
important part of the dialogue between the film
and audiences is taking it as wide as we can to
reach audiences that will be challenged by the message.
Our goal is a conversation about the way churches
communicate their beliefs so they understand the
truly damaging impact it has on impressionable youth
and young adults sitting in their pews.
J. Avella: Mark wants to change the world.
Can you discuss similarities between Emerson and
Mark and why you were so drawn to the role?
Collins: I find Mark inspiring, and by far
the most challenging role I’ve ever been asked
to play. To consider playing a character from age
eight to an adult, and in a way that does not seem
like a caricature on film was amazing to dig into.
Through that process I was able to really consider
how the conversations of his youth directed his
action as an adult. Mark’s admission of “I
do want to change the world, I do. But I want to
stop feeling this hate,” I find impressive.
Both the desire to have an impact on the world and
change the things he sees wrong in it, and at the
same time acknowledge the need to resolve his own
turmoil first – this I can relate to. I think
any artist has a desire to change the world, if
only in some small way. I feel fortunate that having
the opportunity as a producer to make Sissies
happen and as an actor to help tell the story, I
am doing my little part in my little corner of the
J. Avella: You’ve played both the flamboyant
Benny as well as Mark. Can you tell us about the
different approaches to each character and which
one holds the warmest place in your heart (and no
Collins: It’s almost like doing two
completely different plays. As Benny, the action
never stops. Every time I ran offstage I was changing
from being a boy to one of the drag performers or
back again. When Del decided I should play Mark
and I started my own personal script work, I realized
there were huge sections of Mark’s dialogue
that I had never heard anyone say in a performance!
It gave me the opportunity to create my Mark without
the influence of those who played it before me.
These roles are both special because they are the
two most challenging I’ve ever played, and
at completely different ends of my talent spectrum.
Benny will always be special because I was terrified
to play him, and overcoming that fear changed my
life and brought me to Los Angeles. But I choose
Mark. The opportunity to play the narrator and central
character and do my best to pull all of the threads
of this important story together – my greatest
acting experience so far!
J. Avella: You have worked with Del Shores
before, on Sordid Lives: The Series. Can
you tell us how that partnership started and what
has allowed it to flourish?
Collins: When Del saw me in Sissies in
Dallas and asked me to move to LA to be in his revival,
I quickly joined the production team. When we did
the national tour, I had worked in large-scale theatres,
so I handled the producing part of making the plays
happen in each city. That lead to him bringing me
on to the series and then Blues For Willadean.
I started essentially doing some assistant work
and moved up from there. It has flourished because
he has allowed me to continually take more responsibility
through each project. We speak the same language
in work mode. He has taught me an enormous amount
about the industry, and through it all he respects
me as an actor first and foremost. The result is
we have a great relationships as producing partners,
actor/director and most importantly – as friends.
J. Avella: Has there been any backlash against
SBS so far?
Collins: Not yet this time, but we are early
in the film festival journey. As we expose it further
and gain more attention I can imagine it happening.
Unfortunately, people who strongly believe, behave
and speak at the most extreme end of the religious
ideology Sissies exposes are out there
and spewing hate. I hope they come for us. Del is
a preacher’s son, and we believe the importance
of protecting the kids who are being treated and
taught this way is absolutely worth the fight. Bring
J. Avella: Why was the decision made to film
the stage show and not open it up into a full screenplay
Collins: We tried a film adaptation a number
of years ago and the project fell apart two weeks
from shooting over funding issues. The reality of
independent film is that funding is challenging.
When we discussed starting our own company and how
relevant this piece is today, we talked about how
to capture the communal theatrical experience that
so many people have enjoyed with the play productions
and share that with a film audience. That, combined
with realizing how much more manageable the budget
would be, lead to this unusual idea of shooting
it as a play onstage with a live audience, while
shooting it as a film with close-ups and mixing
the two together. We didn’t know how it would
work when we came to edit, but we are thrilled with
the results. Because of the incredible support of
fans of the piece and the subject matter, we raised
the budget through Indiegogo.
J. Avella: Tell us about the transition to
producer and how that’s impacted your life
and work as an actor. Is producing work you act
in a challenge?
Collins: The producing sort of happened on
accident. I was raised the philosophy of “if
you see something that needs to be done, do it,”
and I did that when I first arrived in Los Angeles
to work with Del. It turns out I have a skill set
that suits it, and it fits well with the idea that
if you want to work, create your own. And yes, it
is absolutely a challenge to act in something I
produced. I was fortunate to have an incredible
crew who gave their considerable skills to the project
so I could set everyone to work and step in front
of the camera to act. Of course, as soon as Del
called “cut” it was right back into
producing. It was the most challenging task I’ve
ever set myself, and I could not have been happier
to be doing both for this project!
J. Avella: You’re a blogger with a
wonderfully sardonic edge. I’ve read your
Top 10 Liberally Biased Movies of 2012—among
other pieces. Would you consider parlaying that
talent into writing scripts?
Collins: I’ve been challenged since
early on to write. I started blogging this year
for my own amusement to consider it. I have a tendency
toward soap-boxing at times, so it gives me an outlet.
I like having writing as a hobby, because at times
when your art is your work, or you need it to make
money, it can feel like business. So, currently
I use writing as the artistic element in my life
that I don’t need to be successful –
J. Avella: When did you first know you wanted
Collins: I was in Christmas pageants as a
child and then plays and musicals in high school.
When I headed for college I was told not to waste
my intelligence on activities that should be hobbies.
I was also worried about why I wanted to perform.
If it was for money or fame, I knew that would feel
empty. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in
college that I really felt comfortable that I wanted
to do the work, and if it meant working a day job
my entire life to be able to, I would be fine with
that. It was then I truly decided I wanted to be
J. Avella: You were born and bred in Texas.
Were you raised Baptist? What are your feelings
when you return home now?
Collins: I am a born and raised Texan and
grew up in Southern Baptist churches. I think suburban
Texas probably felt a lot like suburbia anywhere
else. We just had rodeos at times. The southern
hospitality interaction still makes me happy when
I go home.
J. Avella: Where did you train?
Collins: I was a University Scholar at Baylor
University. It was a specialized degree program
that allowed me to create my own program so I did
a lot of the vocal performance and theatre performance
degree plans separately. After Baylor I spent a
summer in New York doing an intensive program with
the Atlantic Theatre Company to see how my newly
formed skill set stacked up against a completely
different group of students.
J. Avella: You’ve done quite a bit
of stage. : If you had to select one medium (film,
theatre, television) to work in, what would it be
Collins: I think small films with fascinating
and quirky storylines will always appeal to me,
and I started in theatre and will want to do it
my entire life. However, I would love to do television.
I love the unique concept of having a character
and getting to develop and build them for such a
long period of time and watch them grow through
experiences. I love the challenge of that and am
most inspired by actors who do it well. Really,
of course, I want it all.
J. Avella: Since this is
newyorkcool.com, a few questions about our great
city. What do you love most about New York?
Collins: I lived in Singapore in high school
and have traveled a great deal in Asia and Europe,
and nowhere in the world is the energy quite like
New York--that electric sense of promise and excitement
any hour of the day or night. And being a theatre
geek, standing outside the great theatres still
takes my breath away.
J. Avella: Would you return and under what
Collins: Absolutely, and frankly, whenever
someone wants to hire me to do something!
J. Avella: Favorite NYC acting experience?
Collins: My favorite New York acting experience
isn’t actually onstage performing and it’s
ridiculously cheesy and I don’t care. At 18,
on my first trip to NYC, my first Broadway experience
was Les Miz. As I legitimately sobbed at
the end of the show, I was finally old enough to
truly understand the transformative experience that
live theatre can be, and realized how much I wanted
to be a part of giving that to an audience. Least
favorite…well, that would be kissing and telling!
J. Avella: Favorite place in the city?
Collins: Don’t Tell Mama’s.
J. Avella: NYC vs. LA. Discuss.
J. Avella: Only New Yorkers really care about
the “NYC vs. LA” thing. They’re
different spaces, with different energies that fit
different kinds of people better. I love them both,
but to me, where you are is always more about who
you are with than the location.
J. Avella: Who are your heroes?
Collins: Oprah, Jesus and Cher. I’m
kidding. I don’t really have heroes in that
“this is the person and this is why”
sense. I tracked once through my life the people
who did a large or small thing that changed the
course of my personal journey, and those people
mean more to me than heroes. I’ve told some
of them that I am able to find, and thanked them.
J. Avella: If you could work with anyone,
living or dead, who would he/she be?
Collins: Oscar Wilde. His limited body of
work is still some of my favorite, and I think had
he not been arrested it would have continued to
be one of the most important bodies of work since
Shakespeare. I have a particular affinity for great
wit that doesn’t need sarcasm to be effective.
Wilde, Noel Coward, Tom Stoppard, Aaron Sorkin.
J. Avella: What is up next for Emerson Collins
as actor and producer?
Collins: Like every other actor, looking
for work! As a producer, we have three other projects
we know we want to do with Beard Collins Shores
Productions, so as we move through the process of
getting Sissies into a release far and
wide, we’ll look to those!
J. Avella: Where do you see yourself, ideally,
ten years from now?
Collins: I’ve stopped living my life
trying to make a plan that rigid. I’m sure
it’s great for accountants and lawyers and
entrepreneurs, but too specific a plan gives you
an ability to judge yourself on a scale of success
and failure. I don’t believe that’s
healthy for those trying to create. You can’t
control the outcome, you can only do the work. Already
my life doesn’t look like I thought it would
growing up, and I love that. I think it’s
important to plan for your future, so you are moving
forward, but as an artist, giving yourself the freedom
to say “yes” to unexpected opportunities
often leads to the most exciting moments. As long
as I’m working – I’ll be happy