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Film

Frank J. Avella’s
Film Column:

Southern Baptist Sissies

Actor Emerson Collins



Opposite Photo: Emerson Collins
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 Belli
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.


The Sissies:
Willam Belli, Matthew Scott Montgomery, Luke Stratte-McClure, Emerson Collins
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 Williams’ heroines.

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 still hopeful.

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 Emerson Collins
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?

Emerson 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.

Frank 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 been?

Emerson 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.

Frank 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?

Emerson 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.

Frank 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?

Emerson 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 world.

Frank 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 choosing both)!!!

Emerson 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!

Frank 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?

Emerson 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.

Frank J. Avella: Has there been any backlash against SBS so far?

Emerson 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 it on.

Frank J. Avella: Why was the decision made to film the stage show and not open it up into a full screenplay adaptation?

Emerson 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.

Frank 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?

Emerson 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!

Frank 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?

Emerson 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 – just fun.

Frank J. Avella: When did you first know you wanted to act?

Emerson 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 an actor.

Frank J. Avella: You were born and bred in Texas. Were you raised Baptist? What are your feelings when you return home now?

Emerson 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.

Frank J. Avella: Where did you train?

Emerson 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.

Frank 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 and why?

Emerson 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.

Frank J. Avella: Since this is newyorkcool.com, a few questions about our great city. What do you love most about New York?

Emerson 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.

Frank J. Avella: Would you return and under what circumstances?

Emerson Collins: Absolutely, and frankly, whenever someone wants to hire me to do something!

Frank J. Avella: Favorite NYC acting experience? Least favorite?

Emerson 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!

Frank J. Avella: Favorite place in the city?

Emerson Collins: Don’t Tell Mama’s.

Frank J. Avella: NYC vs. LA. Discuss.

Frank 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.

Frank J. Avella: Who are your heroes?

Emerson 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.

Frank J. Avella: If you could work with anyone, living or dead, who would he/she be?

Emerson 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.

Frank J. Avella: What is up next for Emerson Collins as actor and producer?

Emerson 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!

Frank J. Avella: Where do you see yourself, ideally, ten years from now?

Emerson 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 with that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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