Ball’s successor Ed Hastings, by contrast, was an intensely generous community builder who helped spawn many smaller companies, such as Turtle Island Ensemble, the Asian American Theater and Encore Theater. Nevertheless, it was startling to me when I arrived at A.C.T. to discover just how isolated the organization had become.
Trauma leaves its marks on a theatre just as it does on a human being, and A.C.T.’s history was one of repeated glory followed by debilitating setbacks. By the time I arrived, the organization was twisted around its own pathologies like a strange family that had learned to live with its volatile, brilliant but transgressive father; its competitive, angry siblings; and its wary, jealous neighbors. It seemed to be a very male institution. Few women had held positions of leadership at A.C.T. over the years; some talented women directors had left their mark, including Elizabeth Huddle and Joy Carlin, but they were the exception rather than the rule. When I arrived, the atmosphere was grim. It was as if daddy had killed himself, Uncle Ed had left town and the stepmother had arrived.
No one had any idea what to make of me. I remember my first A.C.T. company meeting with horror: I walked into an immense studio in which the entire company, from actors to stagehands to seamstresses to faculty members, had lined up to hear from the new artistic director. They greeted my words with complete silence, and would barely meet my gaze as I looked around the room. It was clear that survival at A.C.T. had come to mean keeping one’s head down so as not to make waves; everything was done by code, there were no policies on anything from maternity leave to sick days to parking, nor any clarity about how decisions were to be reached about play choices, casting or academic admission. If the buzzword of the new millennium is transparency, the buzzword of A.C.T. in the ’90s was secrecy. The anxiety in the air was palpable.
Very few people outside the small circle of the board had any say in my appointment or any knowledge about me or my work. The person most opposed to my appointment was supposed to be my closest colleague, managing director John Sullivan. I discovered halfway into my negotiations that during the search process, John had proposed a new organizational scheme whereby he would be named general director and supervise two directors (Anne Bogart and Robert Woodruff) who would report to him. The board had considered but ultimately rejected his proposal. John had chosen to stay on as managing director regardless, a disastrous decision from my point of view and, probably, from his. He was, perhaps without quite knowing it, deeply invested in my failure, and my year’s “collaboration” with him was among the hardest of my professional life.
Without giving me any real guidelines, Sullivan announced at our first meeting, in November 1992, that I would have to have the following season announced and budgeted by January. If I had been less naïve and compliant I would have refused: It takes at least six months to understand an organization and its culture well enough to begin to make remotely informed decisions about the work ahead. But I said yes, and made every mistake I could possibly have made:
• It all went back to what I thought we had “for free.” Thus, in celebration of an artist whose work had dramatically impacted Bay Area theatre during his distinguished career at the Magic (and to please the above-mentioned John Sullivan), I asked director Robert Woodruff whether he would like to be part of my first season at A.C.T. This seemed like an obvious way to bring younger, edgier audiences into the A.C.T. fold, to salute the city’s cultural history, and to give us license to do more adventurous work. Woodruff eagerly accepted, and chose a classic I loved that had strong meaning for him at the time: Webster’s Jacobean masterpiece The Duchess of Malfi.
• To share my own personal aesthetic and theatrical training with my new audience, I chose to commission a new Timberlake Wertenbaker translation of Euripides’ Hecuba, which was to star Olympia Dukakis in the title role.
• To honor the company of actors who had meant so much to A.C.T. over the past decades, I found roles for nearly all of them in a 1930s American comedy I had always admired, Dinner at Eight, and in a new translation of Molière’s The Learned Ladies that Richard Seyd had directed very successfully for me in New York. These would give me a chance to see how I related to a whole raft of A.C.T. talent (including Peter Donat, Sydney Walker, Richard Butterfield and Frances Lee McCain), and to do a few comedies on the grand scale that Bill Ball had espoused and adored.
• To appease those who felt my tastes were not popular or American enough, I agreed to produce Ken Ludwig’s Broadway farce Lend Me a Tenor, which was not a play that particularly spoke to me but which I thought might appeal to the opera-lovers in San Francisco and balance out my Jacobean drama.
• And finally, because it never occurred to me that Strindberg’s dark psychological landscape might be a bizarre way to usher in a new theatrical era, I chose to begin my tenure at A.C.T. with Paul Walsh’s new version of Creditors, which we had done so successfully at CSC the season before.
Not realizing until I had accepted the job how disastrous A.C.T.’s cash flow was and how complex the union contracts and administrative budgets were, I allowed myself to be railroaded into decisions that had far-reaching consequences. Many of these decisions were shepherded by a “shadow” marketing consultant whose salary was nowhere to be found on A.C.T.’s official payroll but whose Denver-based office seemed to be generating whatever thinking was going on about how to introduce new artistic leadership and how to communicate with the audience (“If your theatre were a vegetable, what kind might it be?” was one of her first questions to me. I think it was this encounter that led to my ongoing antipathy for consultants and my resistance to the kind of marketing-speak so ubiquitous in the field today).
If I was surprised by what I discovered, so was the theatre community when they learned that a 32-year-old neophyte from New York had been hired to run one of the 5 largest companies in America, a once-great company with a destroyed physical plant, a languishing school, a negative cash flow, a dwindling audience and a traumatic history. I was probably the only person foolish and optimistic enough to leap at the chance.
I realize this is a terrible admission, one that today would most likely disqualify me for the very job I have been doing for 20 years, but I know precious little about popular culture. I came of age at a time when live theatre was meant to do something different from pop culture, and when success was measured in ways other than number of people served. The current punishing fiscal climate and the challenge of attracting new audiences has led to a hunger for theatre to aim more and more closely for the pop-culture center, in terms of subject matter, casting and methods of outreach. We have come to rely on metrics that measure success according to the cost per person of producing a given play or mounting a given art exhibition. Obviously, broadening audiences in an era of niche marketing and the ability to self-curate any artistic experience is hard. But lately I wonder if instead of desperately trying to keep up, we in the theatre ought to take a page from the “slow food” movement, which encourages people to savor a meal with time for conversation and contemplation rather than instant consumption of empty calories.
Ezra Pound famously said, “Literature is news that stays news,” and the converse can also be the case: Those pop-culture phenomena that may seem on the cutting edge of cool one year may be obsolescent the next. If part of the mandate of the nonprofit theatre is to try to nurture and cultivate that which may have lasting value, it is worth being cautious about the endlessly seductive pull of the trendy and the transient. Looking back on 20 years at A.C.T., the thing I am proudest of is that we have for the most part managed to fill a large house by programming juicy literature performed by great actors, rather than by desperately chasing every passing trend.
This essay is excerpted from Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater, a forthcoming book by Carey Perloff. In “The Perloff Years: Part 2,” which will appear in AT’s February issue, Perloff details a series of near disasters that marked her first tumultuous season as A.C.T.’s artistic director.
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