By David Michael Newstead.
Steven Perkins is an artist and playwright based in Oregon. Recently, I had an opportunity to speak with him about his latest play delving into issues of masculinity aptly entitled Men Run Amok. Our conversation is below.
David Newstead: What experiences help to influence your current work?
Steven Perkins: We make snap judgments of people all of the time. To a casual observer, I am a fat, old, white guy. Folded into that description is a helluva lot of unearned privilege, fairly or unfairly, and with that comes responsibility as well as opportunities to make change. Let’s break that down: Fat as in comfortable. I have food on my table. Good—often great—food on my table. A roof over my head. A happy, healthy family. I have the freedom to do work that I love rather than work that I must do to survive. I’m fat in all those regards, and many more that I try to acknowledge every day.
Old as in I get unsolicited mail from AARP. I get senior prices at movie theaters. The bulk of my life experiences are behind me—my death is closer than my birth. White, genetics of skin color, also white hair, what’s left of it. Guy. Man by birth. Mine by passive acceptance of that birthright in a paternalistic society. Also masculinity thrust upon me with an entire value system whether I accept or challenge it.
I’m sure that’s the profile that I present, but as with most everything, what is truly interesting is under the surface, and between the lines. Life experiences that influence my work would be all of them but I’m clearly shaped by: Nomadic, working class parents who inched their way into lower middle class, first with the military, then university study for my dad, and teaching jobs which sent us moving all the time. Seemed I was always the new kid in class because I was. By the time I was twenty years old, I’d lived in 22 places.
I was sexually abused by an uncle. It took my mother’s death for me to find the strength to step away and separate once and for all from my uncle. My mom died of cancer when I was 16 years old. Watching her wilt and die, as well as the reactions of others around—with sincerity and insincerity—would clearly be one of the most influential experiences of my life. Whatever carpe diem that I had before then, suddenly went into overdrive.
My father was devastated by the death of his life partner, my mother. He was suddenly a 35 year old single parent with four children between 16 and 4 years old. His consuming grief didn’t allow for the grief of others including his children. At eighteen, disowned by my father, with no financial support for school, I joined the military (follow in Daddy’s footsteps?), serving three years as a criminal paralegal including assignment in (West) Germany. My assignments included a half dozen murders, many rapes, and even more domestic abuse and drug cases. It was full-immersion in race, class, and the deadly game that passes for justice.
I married young, had a daughter, and then got divorced while in the Army. The acrimonious divorce allowed my ex-wife to keep my daughter and I apart (rights of fathers, anyone?). I was to reunite with my daughter some 19 years later. During undergraduate studies, I became actively involved with the local chapter of the National Organization for Women. I marched for the Equal Rights Amendment on the DC Mall in 1978.
After a life that included construction work with redneck Kentucky hillbillies, farm labor with migrant workers from Latin America, retail sales, and military service, stretches where I was on food stamps and unemployment, when I couldn’t make a withdrawal because my balance was below the minimum denomination of bills the ATM machine dispensed, I completed an Ivy League graduate degree.
As a working professional artist/director/teacher, I’ve designed Wall Street web sites, produced corporate and educational videos, taught at universities and high schools, and had commissioned work in Thailand, China, Taiwan, India, and Turkey. Now happily married for almost 30 years, with two teenage daughters, and recently re-located to Portland, Oregon. That’s the thing about reducing anyone to a simple line like a fat, old, white guy: there’s always something more to it if you dig deeper.
Threads are woven throughout this biography that point to recurrent themes in my work: willfully righteous anti-authoritarian rebellion, particularly against men in power positions; distrust of establishments making arbitrary decisions that are justified in the name of precedent; identification with the “unseen” manual labor workforce; mentoring creative young minds; and finding beauty in the everyday. This long-winded answer to a seemingly simple question hints at the depth of my passion for the topics that I develop as an artist. Experience colors everything. Without it, you’re simply blowing smoke.
David Newstead: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about being a man?
Steven Perkins: Listen. Listen more than you talk. Even this format, of me expounding on a question, seems uncharacteristic for me. I much prefer to engage others through their interests, rather than elaborating on my own. I learned by the example of my mother who was a great listener. She was a 1950’s housewife mother of four kids, with me the oldest. I recall spewing long, rambling re-countings of whatever I was reading at the time while my mother patiently listened. Hers was not passive, but rather an active listening, attentive, encouraging of my passions, no matter how fleeting or inane.
The other thing I’ve learned is to be particularly wary each time I think I’ve got someone or something figured out. It’s at those moments that I unconsciously shut down, stop working as hard, or think I can somehow be on autopilot. Wrong! I tell myself that if I have it ‘sussed out, things could change on a dime. Don’t get too comfy or you’re going to miss the next signal to change because those signals are fast and furious.
David Newstead: How do you think toxic masculinity can be addressed?
Steven Perkins: My focus is on the ways that younger men relate with one another—and with others who are not like them. I think our only hope is to look carefully at how boys communicate, verbally and nonverbally. It’s the only way to break the cycle.
David Newstead: What kind of responses has Men Run Amok gotten?
Steven Perkins: Responses to Men Run Amok have been overwhelmingly positive. In Portland, I believe it was largely preaching to the choir, yet at the same time I did meet a few people who were clearly moved. Over the past 35 years, I’ve had lots of different reactions to my work—mostly laughter to comic bits, or melancholy to the more melodramatic—but not like this. A couple people told me that they cried through the whole show. Now putting aside that those individuals may have been otherwise emotionally troubled, they were vulnerable and responsive, especially to FAIRY/TALE, which was subsequently produced in Madison, Wisconsin. The Madison production was by a queer theatre group, so again, a self-selecting audience predisposed to be favorable to my liberal ideas.
There was one Portland reviewer who didn’t like the show at all, but then, I don’t think she liked the seating plan, which required the audience to shift seats between short plays. I hope to have an opportunity to work with a more balanced demographic especially with FAIRY/TALE. It is written as a construct. I’d love to do a series of workshops with teens to develop it, maybe even in a high school gym instead of a theatre.
David Newstead: What do you hope your work accomplishes?
Steven Perkins: Hmmmm. Is there really a cause-effect relationship with art? I think it’s much more subtle than that. It’s arrogant as hell to talk about accomplishing anything via art. I mean, as an artist, I can put it out there—“it” being an idea, a protest, an appreciation, etc.—but that doesn’t necessarily mean the receiver-audience gets “it” because they very well may get it-x or it+x, or maybe not it at all, instead all they get is cat.
I don’t see that as binary: I’ve either succeeded or failed as an artist because “it” was or wasn’t accomplished respectively. I talk with my kids about how one presents one’s self as being the only part of the equation that we can control; how we are perceived, or what others do with that, is beyond our control. I guess that the only way I can answer your question is that I hope my work accomplishes a truly genuine, honest, direct, and immediate expression of my feelings when I make it.
Sure, I hope my efforts speak to others, maybe even spurs them into action, at the same time, after 35 years of making art, I realize that an audience is something never to take for granted. Long gone are my days of thinking I’d have a massive effect on an oversized portion of the world population in one fell swoop. It’s not how I think. It’s not how I create. It’s not why I create. To connect with one person, to build an audience one-by-one seems a realistic goal.
David Newstead: What’s your next project?
Steven Perkins: Typically, I work in parallel rather than in series. As an interdisciplinary artist, I bounce around mediums depending on the best approach to the subject matter. It’s not uncommon for me to have numerous works of writing in-progress, at the same time shooting video or photographs, and research planning for The Next Big Thing. By that I mean the next thing that will consume my time to the exclusion of others temporarily until completion.
I’m writing a TV pilot for a series about my experiences in military law, a sort of cross between M.A.S.H. and A Few Good Men. There are several directing (theatre/video) projects being floated such as a piece about Artificial Intelligence with the main character being a 70-ish retiree who has lived abroad for 30+ years only to find out he’s completely out of touch, unable to log into anything, and can’t collect any of his social security entitlements. A new series of visual art is titled Polyglot Enso, using language to connect via the Buddhist enso as a symbol for the unity of the human race. And I’ve begun collecting writings and images for a book on the theme of men and masculinity for a publisher in Taiwan.