As far as f-to-m transgender goes, Sam Peterson's story isn't all that odd. He was born Samantha and, as an adult, realized his software didn't match his hardware and transitioned to male. What stands out is how open—public, even—Peterson is with his trans identity. Not only does he welcome a conversation that is, by its very nature, intensely personal, but he also invites it.
On Feb. 10, Peterson presents his one-person show, F to M to Octopus, as part of UNC's Solo Takes On 3 festival of student solo theatrical pieces. This isn't the first time he's brought this dialogue to a major local venue: In 2010, he held a benefit at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro to fund chest reduction surgery. But that event, with multiple entertainers and a raffle, had an almost carnival air. F to M to Octopus is Peterson himself.
"I've always been this guy who's always been very vocal about whatever he's been doing. I'm an artist, so it usually gets turned into something," he says. The 51-year-old Peterson makes easy conversation, whether he's discussing the many octopus figurines scattered around his Carrboro home or body image issues in the trans community. His usual mode of activism—a term he embraces—sees his cheery, disarming manner applied to the potentially difficult case for male and female as "mistaken sacred idols," as he puts it.
Yet, as he wrote F to M to Octopus, Peterson found his natural goofiness took a backseat. Under festival curator and UNC Performance Artist in Residence Joseph Megel's tutelage, Peterson learned to transform his natural essay-style writing into something more dramaturgical.
"I wrote and wrote and wrote and I've probably edited out more than was in the show," Peterson says. And though he's performing in front of an enormous aquarium, thanks to video designer Laura Melosh, Peterson ended up focusing on decidedly un-silly themes of heartbreak and grief, which he says are vital to any real human connection.
"In the show, there's definitely some anger. I was surprised that there was a lot," Peterson says. The usually chipper trans activist admits some things bother him deeply, mentioning intolerance and violence toward trans people. And as it came together, F to M to Octopus took on a more feminist tone than he anticipated.
"A lot of the show became about the way that women get treated and how doubly painful and offensive it is to be treated like a woman when you're not," Peterson says. "For one, you're a second-class citizen. And I say in my show that nobody deserves that and, Jesus Christ, I'm not even a girl!"
Peterson's alternating humorous and frustrated message is in good company with the other four shows on this festival. And in its three years, Solo Takes On has focused on autobiographical accounts of social barriers: social, racial, sexual. This isn't a rule by any stretch, but it's still a discernable thread.
I Was the Voice of Democracy is Brian Herrera's recollection of his own 15 minutes of fame. At 17, Herrera entered a patriotic speech contest on a whim. This show explores the fleeting national fame that followed, as Herrera, a visiting University of New Mexico theater professor, contemplates keepsakes from this strange experience. UNC Performance Studies doctoral student Kashif Powell, who played freedom rider Stokely Carmichael in PlayMakers Rep's The Parchman Hour, brings Sketches of a Man, a solo adaptation of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. No One Hurts You More than S/Mother is Shannon Wong Lerner's comic ode to first love (i.e., her mother). The singer's repertoire and performance history ranges from jazz standards to vaudeville and song in three Asian languages, though No One Hurts You is a solo opera. And the experimental, often-absurdist Performance Collective's Stories Are Lies is a collection of 60 short stories, condensed and presented dramatically in 70 minutes.
This all fits within Solo Takes On 3's stated themes: story, identity and desire. Peterson, particularly, explores identity. He's the same person he was as Samantha, he says, referring to his pre-trans days as "back when I was a lesbian," and says since transitioning he hasn't tried to change his speech patterns or mannerisms. Yet he's particularly aware of social constructs pertaining to physical notions of male and female.
"When you transition it gives you not only this hyperawareness of social constructs and the physical body but it gives you a lens to critique all these kind of separations," he says. And he does that—he has fun knocking down what walls he can, though his new solo show also sees him venting a bit. And it may be that Solo Takes On is the perfect vehicle for Peterson's blend of genial goofiness and devastating, though tempered rage. He has perfected the first and learned to control the second. And now he's inviting the public to view the world through his eyes. "My kind of activism is like, 'Hey, come on into my playground! We're going to spin around on these octopus tentacles! And then slide down the jellyfish slide!' and that's my show."