He represents both the Renaissance in his work with current roles in Murdering Marlowe and his ongoing gig as an actor in the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis’s touring shows (more on that below) and the idea of a “renaissance man,” with everything else. He told me he had determined to make a living in art and has found a way to do that. I think you’ll find him as fascinating as I did. I began by asking what he’d been doing before our chat:
Michael Perkins (MP): Just relaxing after doing our touring show. It’s called Cruel to be Kind. It’s been very successful, so we do that show, then talk to the students [about bullying].
Andrea Braun (AB): Do you get good discussions with them?
MP: Yes. I feel like it’s an extremely important and relevant issue that they deal with every day, and so the discussions are born not only out of the “right answers,” that is, what they want us to hear; rather, they tell us about situations they encounter in their everyday lives. I think the most common issue is the advice they get to confront bullying with violence, the old “hit ‘em back” response, which doesn’t solve anything. We use situations from the play (adapted from Shakespeare’s work) to define roles in a bullying situation. There are various roles—the one doing the bullying and the target plus the bystander. My role as Shakespeare is “Bystander.” He’s the teaching figure.
AB: Did you write this one?
MP: No, it was written by Chris Limber, and I’ve been performing in it since February. We toured in the spring, took the summer off and I taught in several summer camps for the Shakespeare Festival, then we resumed in the fall when the Hazelwood School District booked us to tour all six middle school in the district. We perform at the first of the week, then spend the rest of it doing our workshops for every student in the building.
AB: So, you’ll take this show around as long as schools want it?
MP: Yes. We’re taking December off, then we’ll bring this back, and in the new year and add a 50-minute adaptation of Othello that will help promote the show in the park, and I’ll be playing Iago in this one. (The 2012 Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis production is Othello.)
AB: You also play Shakespeare in Murdering Marlowe (currently coming into its last weekend at the West End Players Guild).
MP: It’s a weird thing to play the same character at the same time but in such different ways. (The film) Anonymous has added to the conversation actually because I always have a lot of people asking about Shakespeare—who wrote the plays, why do them, all that stuff. (For the record, he doesn’t think much of the movie, but he has seen it twice.) I went to a midnight show with John Wolbers (Marlowe in Murdering Marlowe) It was weird to have Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe going to see what this hack Edmund de Vere has to offer (laughs). I consider Anonymous ‘cinematic junk food.’ So tasty, but so bad for you. We (he and the other actors) know that it’s not real; it’s like science fiction.
AB: I’d like to talk more about Murdering Marlowe.
MP: I was approached about the show several months ago by Bob Mitchell (the director) and asked me to audition. We’d worked together on the Shakespeare Festival Tour together for three years, so we have a history, and he knows about my affinity for Shakespeare. I told him that I thought John (Wolbers) should play Marlowe, so he tested too, and then his wife (Elizabeth Henning) was brought in as assistant director. It all worked out that we could “get the gang back together.” We love this time period—it’s like living out a great fantasy. I read this script, and thought “This is brilliant.” This is a side that Will Shakespeare that isn’t explored really. Mostly when we see him, he’s depicted as very sure of himself, a success. In Cruel to be Kind, he is unrivaled in Elizabethan Theatre. He can observe and write freely. In Murdering Marlowe, he is unable to write what he wants and get it produced because of Marlowe. He says in the show, “I labor in the shadow of a giant.” He feels he has to get rid of [Marlowe] because otherwise none of his own works will survive.
As soon as the casting was official, we just dove in, like ‘Let’s go crazy!’ I did a lot of research on the time period and some of the other characters with whom I was unfamiliar. Every character in the show was a real person. We saw more of Shakespeare’s works referenced in (Charles) Marowitz’s play—Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello (Iago)—a lot of stuff is packed in there. I literally have blood on my hands, which I take a measure of pride in making (laughs). Getting the mixture just right was important, and I take my whisk and mixing bowl to make up a batch for every weekend. John and I both end up leaving really sticky at the end of the night.
AB: It is absolutely clear that all of you are having fun, and that’s one of the reasons we enjoy it so much.
MP: I can say that we’re just all having a blast, especially John and myself who are just so familiar with these roles. We came in really stoked. Our first table read was at John and Elizabeth’s house and we had Elizabethan food to set the mood. I just think that everyone got excited and I’m so grateful they came along on this freaky ride. We all do it because we love it. I do hope people see Murdering Marlowe because it brings these mythical figures to life. It is accessible; people tend to put Shakespeare on a pedestal. This is such a well-written piece and all the characters are three-dimensional. It brings the Elizabethan world to life in a way that is relatable, in much the way Shakespeare does [in his own plays]. His, and Marlowe’s, character and motivations are still understandable. And it’s just fun. Everyone gets a good laugh, and then audiences are shocked by the more dramatic moments. I don’t think the play can be confined to one genre—maybe a dark comedy or a cloak and dagger thriller. It sounds cliché but there IS something for everyone. It’s written in “Shakespeare’s language,” but it’s easy to understand.
AB: Another thing I wanted to talk about is that I’m seeing a lot of your visual art around. I know you studied theatre at Lindenwood [University], right?
MP: Yes, I graduated (in 2007) with a major in directing.
AB: Are you self-taught in these other areas?
MP: I am self-taught in video production, graphic art, and web design. These are things I’ve always been into. My dad had a Photoshop program, and eventually I got the full Adobe package. Lindenwood gave me a lot of space to try that stuff out. Adobe even has this series called “Classroom in a Book,” where you can learn to do all of this stuff at home. I got a lot by trial-and-error. I’m the guy who watches all the DVD extras because I want to do those kinds of things too (laughs). I’ve had a lot of jobs doing projections for plays that really stretch the boundaries of what Microsoft Powerpoint can do. You need to integrate that with graphic design and I want to have a tool belt, a metaphorical tool belt of all the things I can do for any given show—acting, visuals, sound design, promo. My goal has always been to be employed in some kind of theatrical endeavor all the time, and I’m proud to say I’m quite busy. There’s so much stuff to work on, and I’m learning that time management is a valuable tool! (We also talked about his well-received projections on the current Muddy Waters production of How I Learned to Drive.)
AB: I know you’ve been involved in a project with Joan Lipkin (That Uppity Theatre) that took you both to Yale recently. Can you talk a bit about that?
MP: Joan was hired to come to Yale to devise and produce a piece for something called “The Kaleidoscope Project” about diversity. We were to be there in late August-early September, so all throughout the summer Joan and I came up with sets of questions to ask them: ‘What’s it like to have a roommate?’ or ‘Is this your first time away from home?’ or ‘Is this what your impression of the Ivy League was like?’—these were some examples. Through their answers, we generated a script that was about 80% finished. Then when we got to Yale, we filled in that 20% with movement pieces, some little vocal tags—this was the first time we’d met the students in any other way than by e-mail. It was an amazing experience and I’m very grateful to Joan for hiring me to go with her as associate producer. It was a little adventure we got to go on together. The Dean’s office gave her an assistant, a student liaison, and she asked if she could bring “someone else,” and they said “Sure.”
The administration at Yale was so generous. They put us up in guest suites in one of the colleges, so we got almost the full “Yale experience,” over a space of three weeks. A part of my job was to document this, and we made a 15-minute documentary piece, which Yale is now using as a recruiting tool. I’m really excited! (Michael sent me the film, and it’s excellent.) It was an awesome experience and I’m so flattered she invited me along, especially since we didn’t know each other before this and she approached me based on reputation (which I didn’t really know I had until then—laughs).
AB: I believe you have another project with Joan in the works?
MP: Joan and I are now involved in a St. Louis project coming up February 24-26, 2012, called Briefs: A Festival of Short Lesbian and Gay Plays. The Uppity Theatre and Darin Slyman and The Vital Voice are co-producing. Playwrights were asked to submit short works for consideration, and Joan, Paige Russell and I read something like 25 scripts that are 15 or 20 minutes long and chose 8 to be part of the production. And while there is a common thread, these aren’t just “lesian and gay plays.” They depict diverse people of different ages, ethnicities, and so on in different situations. We expect they’ll have universal appeal. Directors are Edward M. Coffield of the Rep, Ed Reggi, Annamaria Pillegi, Bonnie Black Taylor, Vanessa Roman, Seth Ward Pyatt, Joan and me. We’re involved in casting now.
This sort of project has never been done here before, so we’re thinking it could become an annual event or even move on to other cities. Those large markets like New York and London that have done similar festivals have all had great success with them. We’re looking for a non-traditional venue in which to perform, and while the plays are the main focus, it’s also going to involve music, and drinks—a whole experience for everyone, not just the LGBT community, but sympathetic theatergoers, local artists, small business owners, everybody really.
AB: Is there anything else you’re involved in you’d like to discuss?
MP: John Wolbers is the youth coordinator at the Jewish Community Center and he’s hired me to direct plays for the 4th and 5th graders. We’re doing Around the World in 80 Days right now, and then we’re doing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory next spring. John and I work together a lot, and he’s just a tremendous talent, as is Liz. I like to say we make a pretty nice team. We make some magic and mayhem. I’m just very excited about everything that’s coming up. I always tell my students that theatre is a team sport, and there are so many roles to fulfill and they’re all interdependent, from the producer to the actors to the crew.
AB: And the audience without whom it’s just dress rehearsal?
MP: Or just masturbation (we’re both laughing now). And seriously, we do need everybody and no one should ever think that their part—onstage or off—is ever too small. It sounds corny, but we all have to work together, and if everyone does their level best, then that makes great art.
NOTE: And I believe he just had the last word. Thanks to Michael B. Perkins, and do keep your eye peeled for much more news to come on “Briefs.”
To learn more about Michael B. Perkins’ various services, visit his website at www.michaelbperkins.com.
For information on the touring shows for schools, visit The Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis website: www.shakespearefestivalstlouis.org.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT