Carey Perloff, now in her 23rd season as artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, doesn’t mince words when talking about the challenges confronting the American theater, a principal subject of her fiery new memoir, “Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater.”
She’s disturbed by the way “many large-scale institutional theaters today have become roadhouses to incubate commercial productions headed for Broadway,” alarmed at the “relative paucity of female voices rising to the top of our profession” and frustrated that funding sources are so heavily focused on new-play development that there is “virtually no support for the training of actors” and not all that much for new approaches to the classics.
If you get the chance to discuss these matters with her, she will forcefully back up her claims, lucidly elaborate the cultural and ethical implications and passionately make the case that the theater, though increasingly marginalized, is vital to the healthy functioning of our democracy. She might even stop for breath, as she did once or twice when we met for coffee this month, though don’t count on it.
These days, in addition to the demands of a book tour, she’s preparing for the opening of the Strand Theatre, A.C.T.’s long-awaited second stage in the Central Market neighborhood between the impoverished Tenderloin community and San Francisco’s new tech corridor. (Ever ambitious, Perloff wants the theater to serve as “connective tissue.”)
And somehow, while leading one of the country’s largest nonprofit theaters and lining up her own projects as a director, she has found room for a burgeoning and somewhat unforeseen career as a playwright. Her play “Kinship,” which had its world premiere last year in Paris in a production that starred Isabelle Adjani, will have its American debut this summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in a Jo Bonney production led by Cynthia Nixon.
An artist and chief executive who is as comfortable in the board room as she is in the rehearsal hall, Perloff cuts a formidable figure. Although she wouldn’t be considered in the first rank of American directors neither an avant-garde visionary nor a Broadway bigwig, she’s the first to admit she’s “never been a darling of the press” Perloff is one of the most principled and dynamic stewards of a nonprofit theater in this country. She is also one of the most articulate.
The daughter of literary critic and Stanford and USC professor Marjorie Perloff and the late UCLA cardiologist Dr. Joseph K. Perloff, she said that culture was the family religion. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Perloff recalls traipsing through the Smithsonian and the Phillips Collection on weekends and training at the ballet barre. The dramatic stage may have supplanted her first artistic loves, but one thing she likes about directing is the way it calls upon “every skill set you’ve learned in your life.”
Proud of her Jewish heritage and mindful of its history (her mother was a Viennese refugee in the late 1930s), she is still practicing the family’s unofficial religion. Whether going hat in hand to the executives at Twitter to ask for money or speaking to students in A.C.T.’s MFA program in acting, she is driven by her secular faith in the theater as a bridge for disparate communities and as a forum for literature that is meant to be lived. The stage, as she observes in her book (much of it written within commuting distance from Silicon Valley), is “the yang of technology’s yin,” meaning “live experience, narrative, character, immersion.”
Perloff studied classics and comparative literature at Stanford, and it was there that she fell in love with ancient Greek theater. A fateful encounter with Aristophanes’ “The Frogs” introduced her to, as she writes, “a universe in which the answer to a population struggling with war and political chaos was better drama.”
“Because I started with the Greeks, I love plays that put the culture on stage,” she said. “I’m drawn to work that’s large-scale, muscular, epic Schiller, Brecht, Tom Stoppard, plays with choruses. But I also have a minimalist side.” Before taking over A.C.T., Perloff was the artistic director of Classic Stage Company, an intimate off-Broadway venue in which she investigated the classics up close, often in bold new translations, while getting better acquainted with the work of Beckett and Pinter, the latter of whom is the source of some of the book’s most vivid anecdotes.
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Out of Carey Perloff's 'Chaos' comes theatrical harmony