Memoir Shows American Conservatory Theater's Perloff
Is a Force of Nature
By Lou Fancher
Stand barefoot on a coastal shore during a storm and you will know what it’s like to encounter Carey Perloff, artistic director for over 20 years at American Conservatory Theater.
Pounding surf overriding one’s own heartbeat, gritty sand between the toes, invigorating wind with the smell of salt so strong it can be tasted — the elemental impact is a natural metaphor for Perloff’s energy and intellect.
“Carey is a force of nature,” says theater director Jon Moscone. “Her intellect is only outpaced by her tireless passion for the arts. She is fearless in every way.”
Moscone is the incoming chief of civic engagement with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, after 15 years as artistic director of Cal Shakes.
Separately, Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone weighs in with a parallel evaluation.
“Carey is a force of nature,” Taccone says. “She's been influencing the weather pattern in the Bay Area arts scene ever since she stormed onto our shores.”
Momentum, velocity, elastic, electric — borrowing terms from the world of physics is another way to explain or understand the influence she’s had on actors, playwrights, and theater colleagues. Add to the measure the students enrolled in A.C.T.’s M.F.A, program, arts educators, audiences, businesses that draw revenue from the theater’s presence, and A.C.T.’s fine reputation bolstering San Francisco’s civic pride and cultural profile — it could be said that Perloff is poised atop a small mountain of her own making.
That is why it is breathtaking to meet the more intimate, humble, personal Perloff in a new memoir, Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater (City Lights, 2015).
Perloff’s memoir deviates from a coastal storm in that there is no bluster and any ferocity is channeled into proclaiming art’s value. In candid, concise detail, she skips over how she came from Washington, D.C., to study Greek at Stanford, fell in love with Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett (and British husband Anthony Giles) while on a Fulbright Fellowship to Oxford, and rescued New York City’s Classic Stage Company. Establishing the East Coast theater as a gutsy, indie-style fore-runner with boldly re-envisioned classics and new works, Perloff was intrigued when offered the chance to become A.C.T.‘s third director in 1992.
Accepting the challenge and “storming onshore” — to paraphrase Taccone — that is where her memoir picks up and tells the tale of A.C.T.‘s checkered history, its currency, and more.
Inheriting a theater “torched” by internal strife and teetering (literally —The Geary was in ruins after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake), Perloff writes in her book that A.C.T. was “twisted around its own pathologies” and the atmosphere was “grim.” Beautiful Chaos describes a remarkable journey. Touching on leadership, gender, arts education, community investment, imagination, risk, technology and more, Perloff digs into her failings as often as she raises the flags of A.C.T’s victories.
“It’s an interesting thing to come of age within the embrace of an institution,” Perloff says in an interview. “Olympia (Dukakis) once told me, “It’s a good fit for you because the institution is the envelope that allows you to engage in your own search.’”
Searching in an atmosphere of constant surprise and a fertile environment in which she never felt barricaded, Perloff says she was encouraged to stay true to her live-theater-encoded DNA. But she’s frank about the difficulties of raising children and directing a behemoth theater organization while battling as a member of a minority (female directors) amid a majority (male directors).
Fortunately, San Francisco’s “small town compared to New York” setting offered bolstering collaborations (“Kronos Quartet — I couldn’t believe we had them in our pit,” she says) and the promise of provocative stories from populations whose voices she sought to bring to the stage.
“We’re living in a city that’s almost 50 percent Asian. Those stories are richly worth investigating and haven’t been as prevalent since the Asian American Theater stopped presenting,” she says, displaying a tendency to think forward while being asked to reflect on the past.
The development of Middle Eastern work is equally on her mind and generating heat for a soon-to-be-announced project with Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns).
In a field dominated by men, gender parity rarely strays off Perloff’s radar. Opening the window on the subject in her memoir, she avoids grandeur: sexism in her world is something she thought of as “her problem” more than “a women’s problem.” Even so, she lobs well-aimed declarations against male-centric walls surrounding women in theater and cites statistics like a 25-year plateau in the number of women running League of Resident Theatres like A.C.T.
“I think it’s insulting to simplify and say women should ‘have it all,’” she says when asked about achieving balance. “On the other hand, it scares me when I watch women making decisions to opt out of having the career they want or the children they want. The more we don’t accept the way it is the better. For example, if we had subsidized childcare, it would make such a difference.”
The weight of a study A.C.T. is conducting with the Wellesley Centers for Women adds heft to her position. Together, the organizations are looking at bottlenecks in the pipeline to artistic directorship. Perloff says it will be another year before a summary is published, after which a committee will develop action steps aimed at making a concrete difference in gender parity.
Perloff is unsure about the ultimate impact the influx of people from the tech industry will have on the city. Generally, she believes density is good for democracy and embraces technology like Twitter that allows A.C.T. to communicate instantly with audiences. A theater should reflect its surroundings, she says — but she admits rising rents and the invasion of tech companies “unbalance” people who worry about affordability. Programming that adapts to a fluid customer base requires agility, flexibility, and constant diligence to simultaneously retain audiences and attract new patrons.
Flexibility is key and the primary reason behind Perloff’s enthusiasm about The Strand, the long-awaited, second theater A.C.T. is opening this spring.
“The Geary is not a starter theater, it’s like Wimbledon,” she says. “We haven’t had a place to nurture young artists. My hope is that we can keep artists in town and give them real paychecks to develop their craft.”
Ultimately, she’s intending for live theater under her direction to equal the possible, visceral effect of a stormy coastal shore.
“The theater asks people to immerse themselves in other people’s lives, right?” she asks. “It reminds us to have an open heart, to be less angry, to experience life at its most elemental. All this is learned in theater. This is the gift.”