As the opening credits begin, you will find yourself tapping along to an infectious beat. Then, the song begins, “Get into the groove…Stick it up your duke…” Wait, did I just hear that correctly? Yes. Yes indeed. Welcome to the world of SKANKS, a documentary that follows a wildly talented and highly inappropriate band of mischiefs as they begin rehearsal for Theatre Downtown’s latest show, a drag musical entitled “Skanks In A One Horse Town”.
We talked to director David McMahon about chronicling this hilarious and heartfelt family of amateur actors, who defy the odds in bringing their flamboyant show to life in the football-obsessed Bible Belt town of Birmingham, Alabama. We are thrilled the bring SKANKS into the Rooftop Films family. Join us on Saturday, June 28th for a night of fabulous performances and glittery madness!
RTF:What drew you to this project? Were you a fan of musical theater and/or drag performances before working on this film?
DM: I grew up in Birmingham and did a lot of community theatre. What initially drew me to the project was both that experience as well as the irreverence of Theatre Downtown in relatively conservative Birmingham. In some ways community theatre was a lifesaver for me, and it was a joy to discover the positive effect it still has today.
As far as musicals, I love big splashy musical and always have. And I had not been too interested in drag, but both the experience of making “Skanks” and of course Rupaul’s Drag Race have changed all that.
RTF: The setting of the film, Birmingham, Alabama, is steeped in a history of racial discrimination. How do you think this history affected the creation and performance of “Skanks in a One Horse Town”, especially considering the similar discrimination against the LGBTQ community that still happens today? Do you think the musical would have been different if the conservative community hadn’t been such a driving force?
DM: This is tricky. I think anytime you make a film about Birmingham the issue of race comes up, and it is something that we needed to touch on in the film. Birmingham is obviously a radically different town then it was fifty years ago, and a much better town.
I do think more so than the issue of race, religious conservatism and fundamentalism played a role in the formation of the play. Billy Ray and the cast have a pretty rebellious streak and certainly like the thumb their noses at convention. I suspect if they were in a town where convention wasn’t so embedded that the play would have been different or perhaps never have been written.
RTF: An interviewee in the film states that “art and theater is not (religion’s) territory anymore,” in Birmingham, Alabama. Can you speak a bit more of the relationship between religion and theatre in this setting? Many of the performers in the film have rejected religion altogether, but did you encounter anyone who could peacefully co-exist within both communities?
DM: Joel Busby, the preacher that we interviewed, was speaking about the rise of Evangelical and Fundamental Christianity in the US and it’s relationship to the arts and the artistic community. He was genuinely saddened that a divide has developed between the communities. In Birmingham in particular, there has been an explosion in megachurches over the last twenty or so years. I would say there is a sharp disconnect between those kind of churches and the theatre and arts community. Nick Crawford, one of the actors in the film, says that if Baptist churches in town knew this type of theatre- an original drag musical- was happening that they would not like it, and I think he is right.
As far as peacefully co-existing between the communities, I’m sure that there are some people who might do so, but I didn’t find any. I think many of the actors had a faith but as far as I know none were members of a fundamentalist church. Those who were members of more liberal churches in town didn’t and would’t have a problem, but I’m not sure how it would be possible to live in both the fundamentalist world and the theatrical world when the values of each seem so contradictory. I think we see the struggle play out most clearly with Chuck Duck and his family, and ultimately the pain that struggle has caused for both.
RTF: Have any of the performer’s more conservative families seen the film? Have their opinions of the musical changed over time?
DM: At this point, no. However they should get the opportunity to see the film in the next few months. I hope that it will be eye-opening, as it was for some members of the cast.
RTF: How does it feel to have the film’s New York premiere at Rooftop Films, and in the height of NYC Pride? How do you think the film will be received by a community that tends to be much more liberal than the Birmingham community?
DM: I’m over the moon about premiering at Rooftop, and during Pride week to boot. Rooftop is such a spectacular organization and a perfect place for “Skanks” to debut in NYC. It is an honor for me and for the members of the cast who will be in attendance.
It will be very interesting to see how the community receives the film. Down south audiences have been very amused by it, and relate strongly to the struggles that the characters are going through. I suspect the film will have a bit more of an exotic quality up here, but I hope that the film defies people’s expectations. While we certainly were influenced by and pay homage to “Waiting for Guffman”, I hope the film influences the way community theatre is perceived and the effect and importance of that theatre in the participants’ lives.