What drew me to Mark Rucker from the day I first encountered him was his unique combination of expansiveness and diffidence. As determined as he was never to take the spotlight, never to be the center of attention, never to dominate the rehearsal room but always to leave plenty of space for everyone else to shine, Mark was also the king of the amazing. When I look back on his productions at A.C.T., I think about the outrageous tap-dancing curtain call that ended Once in a Lifetime, the stunning post-apocalyptic Greek-tragedy-meets-the-Simpsons operetta he staged for Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, and a wild Italian mock funeral for Napoli that involved Marco Barricelli playing dead on a mattress stuffed with coffee beans.
Mark took incredible pleasure in the wondrous possibilities of live theatre, in the pleasures of theatricality and the sheer power of play. But I also remember the deep, tender acting work that bubbled up over and over again in Mark’s productions: the exquisite moment in The Rainmaker when Rene Augesen’s Lizzie realized that she was capable of being loved, the ache and longing of Richard Prioleau’s young gay man in Tarell McCraney’s Marcus, the surprising discovery of desire between warring archaeologists that Mark unearthed in my play Luminescence Dating. As quiet and unassuming as Mark could be in person, he was exploding with passion, invention, wit, and longing inside. And he had an uncanny ability to find the humanity in every character, without judgment, without pressure. Both in life and in art, Mark left space around him for other people’s unique human experience to spontaneously emerge. Such an artist is extremely rare.
I had had the joy of seeing Mark’s inventive work all across the country before he came to A.C.T.: from Oregon Shakespeare Festival to South Coast Rep to Yale Rep, Mark’s wit and imagination kept popping up and flooding our national stages. He had such breadth and appetite, and was at home in a wide variety of dramatic literature. In 2001 Mark came to A.C.T. to stage a seriously sexy rendition of Amy Freed’s The Beard of Avon, and we all fell in love with him. We were overjoyed when he relocated to San Francisco to be near his sister and beloved nephew some years later, and, realizing what a perfect fit he would be for A.C.T., we invited him to become associate artistic director.
I remember the day I made him the offer: His big, owlish eyes twinkled merrily, and he proposed that we take a walk and talk about it. Thus it was that my deep collaboration with Mark began with a memorable walk up a mountain. There’s a trail in the Marin Headlands that I love; it ascends quite quickly to a vista where one can see the vast blue Pacific spread below. So off we went one Sunday in 2009 to climb the hill and discuss Mark’s future. As it turned out, Mark Rucker was a man of vast talents, but hiking wasn’t one of them. He always joked later that I persuaded him to take the job at A.C.T. because he was too out of breath to demur. But we made it to the top of the hill, and together we sat and imagined where we wanted A.C.T. to go and how we might play together. As friends and colleagues, Mark and I were the most unlikely combination: I am restless and talkative and external; Mark was calm and quiet and internal. Perhaps that’s why we fit together so well.
I quickly learned that he was passionate about lots of things: screwball comedies, American classics, anything Shakespearean, and many things entirely new. But what he seemed to love most about A.C.T. was the fact that we were also an acting school, and that our training programs were embedded in every aspect of our work. Clearly Mark recognized this model from his student days at the Yale School of Drama; he regaled me with stories of outrageous impromptu productions at the Yale cabaret, and on and off for several years he helped run “the Bar” in the basement of the Geary, where on late night occasions one could find MFA students and the casts of any number of shows singing at an open mic while Mark performed bartender duties and befriended everyone. He had a unique ability to bridge those two sides of A.C.T.: to direct, teach, and mentor young artists, and to give them the confidence and skills they needed to succeed on our mainstage.
And that is exactly what he did. Over five seasons, Mark’s work at every level of A.C.T. was exquisite, but I think what I remember the most is his work with our MFA students. To get real nuance and depth out of Chekhov, Shakespeare, Caryl Churchill, or Feydeau when you are directing inexperienced actors is a feat, but Mark did it. And he did it by leaving room. He never talked too much, he never over-directed, he never got impatient with a young actor’s inexperience; he directed students exactly the way he directed seasoned professionals—by giving them space to explore and by making them aware that he trusted them to chart their own path in their own unique way.
He was the most active listener I have ever encountered. Nothing in the rehearsal room escaped his attention, and he had an uncanny ability to know exactly when to give a note or a nudge, and when to wait and let self-discovery happen. No one was better at giving confidence to a faltering ego, and no one more determined to let other people shine. In the end, it was the work he trusted; he never, ever read reviews or took any stock in them, because that approbation wasn’t why he’d fallen in love with this crazy profession to begin with.
Once in San Francisco, Mark quickly became the glue of the Bay Area. He adored connecting one strand of the theatre community to another: He ran A.C.T.’s Community Space Sharing Initiative and invited everyone from the Awesöme Orchestra to the Singers of the Streets to perform at our Costume Shop Theater; he fought for Shakespeare Santa Cruz to stay alive and directed a joyful As You Like It for Mike Ryan’s “resurrection” season there; he partnered with Jon Moscone and gave many of our MFA students their first jobs in his Cal Shakes productions; he rejoiced in the resurgence of Z Space and looked for ways to collaborate there. Over and over again, Mark linked people up in his kind and expansive embrace, and took so much pleasure when the larger theatre family treated each other as such.
Mark and I never climbed that Marin mountain again, but we often walked as we talked. My last memory of Mark is a stroll we took through Yerba Buena Gardens shortly before he died. He had just returned from England and, knowing how much I loved Greek tragedy, wanted to tell me about a brilliant production of the Oresteia he had seen. It was a cold San Francisco day, and every time we sat down, the sun was swallowed by fog and we had to start walking again, in search of a warmer spot. That is how I will always think of Mark: eyes bright behind his glasses, attention truly and deeply focused on the person in front of him, with the most beautiful capacity to listen and the most generous impulse to share. He made you feel that you were enough, no matter what. He took such joy in the process of making something beautiful. We must all keep trying to do that, every day, in honor of his memory.
Carey Perloff is artistic director of American Conservatory Theater.
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