The head of the board was a smiling Irish American named Patrick Flannery who was as honest and disarming that first day as he continued to be throughout the many disasters and tribulations that followed over the next five years. Next to him was the imperturbable Ellen Newman, daughter of the legendary Cyril Magnin, who, along with Mortimer Fleishhacker Sr. and Mel Swig, had hand-selected A.C.T. to be San Francisco’s resident flagship theatre back in 1968 when the company first arrived from Pittsburgh. Beside Ellen and her giant glasses were a small, wry man with a cowboy belt and a quick grin who introduced himself as Shep Pollack, and the lively, frank Joan Sadler, whose devotion to A.C.T.’s Conservatory was legendary. I was captivated by the woman across the table from me, a striking Chinese woman with bright eyes, a head like a Tang Dynasty sculpture and extraordinary chunks of jewelry around her neck and wrists. This was Sue Yung Li; a landscape architect with the legendary Larry Halperin, she would become one of the saviors throughout my A.C.T. career. Finally there was Mary Metz, the ex-president of Mills College, brilliant and businesslike, with just a hint of a Louisiana accent and a seemingly endless supply of pointed questions. I began to reply.
A confession must be made right up front, one which will come as no surprise to those with whom I have even a passing acquaintance: I love talking. Bruce Weber, in an interview with me in the New York Times some years later, labeled me a “world-class talker,” and indeed, talking is probably the only activity in the world at which I am world-class. There are so many things in life I have no talent for: I cannot intuit anything on a computer, back into our parking garage, build a fire, remember the passwords for my iTunes or Netflix accounts, read music, analyze data, follow sports or read Brecht in the original. What I can do is set a trail of words in motion and watch them quickly find their way into complete sentences, paragraphs, speeches. I have never shared the primordial fear that most Americans have of speaking in public, because there is something about standing before a group that feels liberating. I love to extemporize, in front of an audience, about any number of things I care about, and theatre and culture most particularly.
So the talking part of my first A.C.T. interview was easy. I believe in the transformative power of theatre, I have a great love of dramatic literature, I revere great actors and I am willing to fight for them, and I know what it is to run an indigent theatre and to fundraise as if my life depended on it. The board asked questions. I replied. We laughed. We shook hands. It was over. Two hours later I was back on the highway heading south toward my mother and my two-year-old. I never expected it would go any further than that conversation in the board room—I was in every possible way unlike the standard profile of the LORT artistic director: I was young, female, straight, classical in bent, noncommercial and way too opinionated.
Two months and several visits later, the phone rang and it was Alan Stein, the gentle and heroic chair of the A.C.T. board. He wanted me to see him in his apartment in New York, could I come up tomorrow? Within two minutes of arriving at West 63rd Street, he offered me the job. He was extremely sober about the current condition of the organization, and extremely passionate about its future. It suddenly dawned on me that I should have been very careful what I had wished for. Because it was about to happen.
The wonderful British director Emma Rice, who has led the experimental Kneehigh Theatre in Cornwall for roughly a decade, is fond of using an expression about theatrical investigation that struck me as invaluable as soon as I heard it. Whether she is talking about a particular actor or about a piece of theatre, she asks, “What do you have for free?” Not “What is your type?” per se, but what qualities exist innately in your being that others can instantly ascribe to you?
When I took the job at A.C.T. I thought I understood what San Francisco had, as it were, “for free.” This is critical when you are thinking about running a major arts institution. Despite the fact that the American theatre is often in danger of becoming, in the words of Steppenwolf Theatre Company artistic director Martha Lavey, a kind of “McTheatre,” in which institutions across the country often produce the same five plays in the same packaging, I have always believed that great theatre grows out of a very specific time and place, with specific artists in service to a specific audience. Repertoire is most interesting when it is determined by the unique geography, demographics, mood, history of the given community.
After all, it was not a coincidence that A.C.T. ended up in San Francisco to begin with. When Bill Ball first conceived of the notion of a permanent company of classically trained actors committed to a highly diverse and entertaining repertoire of plays on a large scale for a literate audience, he traveled across the country looking for the perfect home. Pittsburgh had proved difficult because of power struggles with the Pittsburgh Playhouse; Chicago extended a hand but never closed the deal. It was San Francisco that became Bill Ball’s natural partner-in-crime. In his book The Creation of an Ensemble, John Wilk quotes the Minneapolis Tribune’s Mike Steele about why San Francisco proved to be the perfect match for A.C.T.: “It’s a city of theatricality. Every street corner is a stage and every fourth person seems to be either a manic actor out of Genet or a street musician out of work. It’s the obvious city for the American Conservatory Theater, America’s most flamboyant regional theatre and one of its best. It reflects San Francisco exactly: erratically brilliant, vain, diverse, perverse and very exciting.”
The audacity and elegance of A.C.T. in the late ’60s and ’70s matched both the appetites and sophistication of San Franciscans and elicited the kind of financial generosity necessary for a nonprofit venture of that scale to survive. But A.C.T. never created an infrastructure to match its ambitions, with the result that by the time Bill Ball imploded and departed in the ’80s, there was precious little to hold together the brilliant idea he had created. Ed Hastings mounted a major effort to move A.C.T. forward, diversifying the acting company, stimulating A.C.T.’s commitment to new work through the creation of Plays in Progress, building bridges with small local ensembles and staging major productions of American classics. But for many reasons, many of them financial, it was difficult to keep the ambitious dreams of A.C.T.’s beginnings alive.
By the time I arrived in the early ’90s, A.C.T. was so complicated, so troubled and so dysfunctional that I failed initially to grasp the depths of its paralysis. Ignoring its fraught past (and earthquake-destroyed building) for the moment, I focused instead upon the present day, and tried to envisage what A.C.T. still had “for free” by being housed in the very specific arts ecology that was the Bay Area in the late 20th century. This exercise led to some disastrous assumptions that plagued my first year of programming, but it was not done without real thought. Outside of the hermetic bubble of A.C.T., here’s what I assumed 1990s San Francisco had “for free,” in no particular order:
• A tradition of physical comedy, clowning and vaudeville dating from the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s beginnings in the late ’60s to the inception of the Pickle Family Circus in the mid-’70s and the ongoing presence of such amazing clowns as Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle, Joan Mankin, Sharon Lockwood and Jeff Raz.
• A love for the radical, aggressively acted work of directors such as Robert Woodruff at the Magic Theatre.
• A cultural pluralism that has permitted a wide range of ethnic and cultural traditions to be represented equally around town, from African drumming to klezmer music to Russian orthodox churches to Filipino dance to Asian-American film festivals.
• Gay culture. I assumed this would be a major plus in programming a season: the presence of a politically powerful gay culture that made its presence felt.
• A European feel. I’ve always believed that it’s easiest to make theatre in a place where people can walk in off the street and find it. San Francisco’s origins as a European city can still be felt in its urban planning and in the intimacy of its streets and sidewalks, to say nothing of its population of Russians, Irish and Italians. It is a city where people move on foot and on bicycles. This seemed to me a helpful thing when building a theatre community.
• A highly literate book-reading population.
• A love for the experimental and the multidisciplinary in performance, stirred by the presence of such visionaries as George Coates (whose new take on the Alice in Wonderland story, Right Mind, had just opened at the Geary before the earthquake brought the building to the ground), Chris Hardman, Lou Harrison, David Harrington, Anna Halperin, and so on.
Some of these assumptions proved in the long run to be true and valuable as guiding principles. Others turned out to be misleading. What didn’t occur to me was that although it had arrived in San Francisco as the brash, brilliant and exciting new kid on the block, by the early ’90s A.C.T. had become a bastion of culture, a somewhat intimidating monolith housed in a gilded structure out of another century. Its relationship to the city as a whole was oblique; from the beginning, Bill Ball had wanted to create a national rather than a regional theatre (hence the name “American Conservatory Theater” rather than “San Francisco Conservatory Theater”), and had thus incorporated his board in Delaware rather than in California. Ball was grateful for local philanthropy, but his biggest support came from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and his A.C.T. became a self-contained entity within the cultural ecology of San Francisco. Ball had brought his acting company with him from Pittsburgh, trained them in the confines of his own very private institution, and produced a repertoire heavy on classical literature without requiring much collaboration from the community at large.