Carey Perloff is known to pack more words into a conversation than almost anyone outside the National Auctioneers Association. She has also packed an extraordinary amount of accomplishments into her tenure as artistic director of American Conservatory Theater. She’s been at the helm of San Francisco’s flagship theatre and school, founded in Pittsburgh in 1965 by the legendary William Ball and wooed to San Francisco not long after, for half its institutional life. Earlier this year, the theatre announced that Perloff would be stepping down in 2018.
Her very public persona—quick, gregarious, indefatigable—has been so closely associated with the theatre for so long that one imagines ACT’s next phase will be as distinct from Perloff’s era as hers was from founder Bill Ball’s. And yet she leaves the institution on a much sounder footing than he did, to say the least. Looking back after 25 years, her ability to make a go of ACT in the wake of dual disasters—the artistically uncompromising Ball’s financial mismanagement and 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake, which partially collapsed and temporarily shuttered the palatial Geary Theater—looks downright miraculous even to her.
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Philadelphia, Perloff had had some prior exposure to the Bay Area as an undergraduate at Stanford. Indeed, it was while studying to be an archaeologist in Palo Alto that she “fell into theatre by the back door,” as she puts it. She was lured in by the ancient Greeks and professors like Martin Esslin, whose old dramaturgical stomping ground, Magic Theatre, became a favorite destination.
Still, she admits that the town “mystified” her when she first arrived in a professional capacity in 1992 as an intrepid young director and new mother fresh from New York’s downtown theatre scene, charged with resuscitating a storied and much loved theatre-cum-actor-training-program in a financial and physical shambles. The story of those early years, particularly a riotous first season that included a picket by the Catholic Church and exercised critics and season subscribers alike, is now theatre lore, recounted in her 2015 memoir, Beautiful Chaos, which is rich in insights into life at the helm of a major artistic institution. (The book owes its genesis to the urging of American Theatre’s founding editor, Jim O’Quinn, and had its beginnings in a pair of articles published in this magazine in 2013.)
Today there are few professionals at the head of major theatres who know their environment as well as Carey Perloff. It’s not merely a matter of being around for 25 years but being a serious study at every facet of the job. And she’s found a way to excel as an executive while growing as an artist, both a director and a playwright, though that hasn’t been easy.
Next year, when she steps down to pursue a less encumbered artistic life, she will have, among other accomplishments, led the organization back from the brink, overseen the refashioning and expansion of its acclaimed education and training programs, valiantly maintained a core company of actors from 2001 to 2012, opened a long-desired second stage (the Strand, which opened on nearby Market Street in the spring of 2015), introduced Bay Area audiences to some of the leading playwrights and theatre artists of the world—including nourishing notable relationships with Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter—and developed a plethora of new work that has reflected the stories and subcultures of a diverse, complex city and region.
Perloff’s enviable energy and ineluctable enthusiasm were on full display over the course of a two-hour conversation in ACT offices on Grant Street one late afternoon in July.
ROBERT AVILA: Twenty-five years is a rare milestone in the American theatre. But why leave now?
CAREY PERLOFF: This is the best job in the world, and l have been incredibly happy here. It never occurred to me I would stay 25 years. My first year was so fraught I didn’t think I would last 25 minutes! It was a miracle to me that I did get over that hump and we did make a success of the theatre. At certain landmarks in my life I thought, “Oh, this is going to be the end of it.” Like when my daughter graduated from high school. That was the recession of 2007-08, and the world was in turmoil. I thought, I can’t leave the theatre I love in this perilous time. Then I thought, maybe I’ll leave when my son graduates from high school. And the Strand came along. I’ve waited 20 years for a second stage! I can’t leave now. My children are totally launched now. They’re out in the world. So that has left me and my husband feeling amazingly liberated. That’s a piece of it.
Also, I have wrestled my whole career with the relationship between being an artist and being the executive of an institution. I fell into running a theatre when I was 27 years old in New York at CSC [Classic Stage Company], a theatre I also dearly love. But I never said, “My goal is to be an artistic director.” I wanted to do the work I wanted to do, and because I was a woman doing big classical plays, I knew that the only way I’d get to do the plays I wanted to do was if it was my own theatre. Life takes you in odd directions, and you learn what you’re good at and what you’re at home in. I learned that it was glorious for me to have an envelope for my creative thinking; to be able to build work in a place over a period of time with an audience, with a group of actors and artists, with a team—it was for me incredibly congenial. It isn’t for everybody. I loved it, and it worked for me artistically. So I was also willing to spend the untold hours to raise the money, write the marketing copy, hire the staff, do all the things that you have to do—at a small theatre but here even more so. I’ve never, in my adult professional life, had a chance to actually make my own work without carrying the whole institution on my back. I thought, if I’m ever going to try to deepen my own artistic journey as a writer and director, then I have to not run an institution for a while. There’s no other way to do it.
I also think it’s a good thing for ACT. Fifty years of ACT, 25 years of me. Longevity is important and helpful in a lot of ways. But I also think change is a good thing. And the last thing was A Thousand Splendid Suns. It turns out that that show is having a big future life. It’s going to the Old Globe, then it’s going to come back here, then it’s going to Seattle, and then to the East Coast—I was trying to figure out how to do that and be here. So that seemed like a sort of sign: Maybe that’s the ramp, that I should go with a show that I love and that is so unique to ACT, to who we are, and that’s a good way to go.
You’d been an artistic director at CSC, a much smaller institution. Did you know ahead of time what this job really entailed?
No. Now I would love to give artistic director boot camps, because there are so many great artists in America I would love to see pursue this job. You have to figure out how to galvanize a group of people in a broader way than around a given project. Which means you have to be willing to do a lot of public speaking and turn up at lots of kinds of places—people’s college clubs and tech companies and book clubs, whatever. I’ve spoken in front of every kind of group you can possibly imagine. You have to be willing to go out there like the mayor or something, and really talk to people about why you’re passionate about your organization and what you hope to achieve.
And, particularly because ACT was in such a perilous and fragile place when I came, I had to rebuild trust here. That took a very long time. I had to stand in the lobby every night while people yelled at me, told me all the things that were wrong. So over time I had to learn. [Pointing] Those are the Duchess of Malfi letters that I keep very close to my desk. Right here, see: “Malfi complaint letters A through L, M through Z.” And I answered every one of them.
Oh, yes. Anyone who writes me I answer, I do—I really believe in that. I think that is your job, to have that dialogue. I had to learn that.
What else did you have to learn in those first years?
I have to do an enormous amount of fundraising. I don’t think it’s a mystical talent, fundraising. I think you have to be excited about other people, interested in what they’re interested in; you have to find common ground. And you have to follow up a lot and be willing to go through endless rejection. A good development director will keep telling you that no is just a prelude to yes. I had to learn all that.
Is that a serious downside for an artist?
I never resented it, because we live in a country with incredible suspicion about government subsidy. We’ve never been a country that’s been interested, except for a brief moment after the Cold War, in subsidizing the arts. I imagine if I’d been living in the Renaissance I’d be doing the same thing. I’d have my little hat in my hand and I’d be going to some nobles and saying, “I’m willing to make great beauty for you if you’re willing to put me up for a month.” I didn’t resent that. It has become an increasingly greater percentage of time spent by artists. There were times I laughed and thought, wow, for this I became an artist in America? Not just the individual solicitations and the follow-up and everything but writing grants, endlessly.
What aspect of what you needed to learn was most challenging?
Here’s the thing that I learned the hard way, and I don’t mean to say this in a whiny way: People don’t trust women leaders the way they trust men. Particularly young women they really don’t trust. The way I was written about by the press, and the way I was perceived by the public, was that I was a naïve girl from New York. I think men are allowed to make mistakes. Women are scrutinized much more carefully. I don’t think I realized that, because in New York I ran a small theatre where we were lucky to get any scrutiny! The thing I had to learn here, more than anything else, was what it is to run the big organization in town in a situation in which everything you do is scrutinized. Particularly because ACT was in trouble and I was so new, every decision I made was viewed by the press and the public as being an example of everything that I was going to do. So Robert Woodruff directing Duchess of Malfi: Oh, my God, she’s going to do nothing but avant-garde deconstructions of classical plays full of blood! Or she’s going to be incredibly dismissive of the Catholic Church and do a Dario Fo play.
It got easier over time simply because I had a bigger body of work and I have relatively catholic taste. But I did learn you have to be very careful about what you say. You have to be very clear. You have to try not to be defensive. If people are on the attack it’s usually because they have some degree of investment. They were worried that the theatre they loved was going to go in an odd direction, but it didn’t mean they were going to abandon us.
When you arrived the school was in bad shape and you had to figure out what relationship it would have to the theatre going forward. How did you work that out?
I had the good luck to be able to hire a new conservatory director. The first couple of years were rough, and then we did a big national search. I knew immediately when I met Melissa Smith, because she taught a class that included Mac Wellman and Shakespeare. She has an incredible sense of language. She does Meisner work. She’s about being alive in the moment. I just felt we’d be simpatico. She said to me, “I will move out here”—she had a 3-year-old too, a son my son’s age—“if you commit to saying this should be among the top five acting programs in America. If we’re not going to make it that good, then ACT should not have an MFA, because it’s too difficult.” When she came, Denver still had a program. Now Denver is gone. ART’s program is gone. We are the last free-standing MFA program in America in acting. Melissa really committed to that, and it was really hard. I think she is very brilliant.
Maintaining a core company for a number of years was another unique achievement, and also integrated into the school.
Was that a good synergy?
It was a great synergy while it lasted. One of my biggest regrets is that I haven’t managed to figure out a way to sustain a core company of actors. The way I made it work, and it was really complicated, was that they would each do two or three plays a year, or two plays and understudy a play, and then teach and direct in the school. In the end, we were defeated by the cost of living in San Francisco. What I was saying to our core company is, you have to be ours 52 weeks of the year. Even though I felt I was paying them a really good wage, better than anywhere in the country in terms of a permanent acting job, they had to live here, and they couldn’t do film, and they couldn’t do TV. Ultimately it wasn’t sustainable. I couldn’t make the numbers work.
Part of my sorrow is that there is no appetite in the funding community in America to support long-term relationships with actors. Actors are supposed to live on air, or we assume that we don’t have to pay them much because they can also do film and TV. But that is like saying that we, as an industry, don’t even value what they give us. And I think we don’t. I went to Mellon, I went to Duke, I went to Ford, I went everywhere, and said, “Would you support a core acting company?” I got nowhere.
What has been the key to your relationship with your audience?
My goal, my dream, was to develop their trust such that I could take risks and they would go on the journey even if they weren’t sure they were going to like it. Really the biggest test of that, and it’s so ironic in retrospect, was The Black Rider [2004-05]. We could have bankrupted this theatre. We had to raise $2.5 million or something. Had it failed it would have been really bad. [Laughs] My audience had never seen [Robert Wilson’s work] because it is big and complex. When I went to see it at the Barbican, before it came here, it was a mess in a lot of ways. Tom Waits wasn’t there, so the sound mix was a mess. I was absolutely panicked. I came back and I called Tom, and I said, “You have to be part of this rehearsal process. We have to make this work here. I can’t afford to lose this.” And in the end it was the most amazing thing that anybody had ever seen at the Geary. It was extraordinary. Tom was there every step of the way, and Bob Wilson was willing to really rethink and reimagine. It was such a heavy lift, it was incredible that everybody really wanted it to happen. Our core audience went on the ride with great passion, but all kinds of new people came that had never been.
You’ve pursued a lot of crossover work since then.
That’s one of the interesting challenges: How do you get a visual arts audience and a dance audience and a music audience and a thea-tre audience interested in similar things? They’re totally separate audiences. When we did Tosca I really wanted to make sure Pascal [Molat] and Lorena [Feijoo] were in it, because I knew that their audiences would come. You could feel it was a ballet audience. They may never have come back to ACT, but that they went to see. We do have an amazing core audience. Then I keep trying to pull in the readers who will come because they love Khaled Hosseini’s novels, they’ve read him in their book club, and they might never have come otherwise. Or Satchmo at the Waldorf was the jazz audience. We partnered with SFJazz. We did a listening session with [Satchmo writer] Terry Teachout where we listened to a lot of Louis Armstrong. That was an audience that I knew hadn’t come to ACT before.
Partnerships have been amazing. We’ve partnered with almost everybody. The Asian Art Museum, the ballet, the opera. However and whatever we could do we’ve done. Now the million-dollar question and the hardest part—you’ll hear this from everybody—is the tech community. Because, in terms of the people working in the community, this is not a group of people who have had gateway experiences into the arts or who have a predilection for wanting to participate.
A couple of years ago we got this little grant from the Duke Foundation to create an Asian-American council of tech workers, and a group of Asian-American artists meet once a month. Ken Savage runs it. It always has great food; it just started as a social thing: Let’s come together, we all live in the same town, let’s find out what we can find out about each other. Now let’s start coming to shows. Now let’s start citizen-dramaturging shows that we’re working on. Now let’s see what happens when you expand your networks and invite your people in. And that’s been amazing. But it’s a long-term proposition. It’s not easy. It doesn’t mean because the Strand sits next door to Dolby, Twitter, and Spotify, across the street from Pandora, that those people are going to come.
On the issue of gender bias and women in theatre, especially in roles like yours, what progress or lack thereof have you seen in 25 years?
I was incredibly naïve because I have a very brilliant mother [scholar and critic Marjorie Perloff]. I had a father who was enormously respectful of her career. I married a man who was absolutely willing to let me do what I was going to do. So I didn’t realize what an obstacle it was going to be. There were wonderful people who helped me, but it was much lonelier than I thought it would be. I was accused of having a feminist agenda and only doing certain kinds of plays that were about women. It was insulting. It was really patronizing. Now what’s much better is there is much more work by women. Many more plays out there, which is really important. Many more women directors. I have always hired tons of women. I love working with women. My senior leadership has always been female, and I’ve hired loads of women directors. I’ve loved that. And that’s a privilege you get when you sit where I sit.
Having said all that, when I sat down to make a list for my board of who might be potential successors to me, and I said to myself, half this list is going to be female—it’s still hard to make that list. And the list doesn’t work if they have to be people who’ve done this kind of job before because they’re just not there.
All this time you’ve managed to also grow as a playwright. Where does your writing fit into your career? Will it continue?
Originally, when I walked backwards into the theatre, I wanted to write more than I wanted to direct. My first play, which much later we did here, called The Colossus of Rhodes, I wrote while I was an undergraduate at Oxford. I got really fascinated by that story. When I got to New York, Lucille Lortel, this amazing woman who was 80 when I met her, loved the play and she wanted to do it at the White Barn, her theatre, that’s just been torn down. So I started going up and doing work with her. And she died. And then I got the job at CSC. So I had less time to write, though I still wanted mostly to do that.
What I have realized, and it is a dream I have about moving into the next part of my life, is that the brain space it takes to write a play is enormous. It’s hard enough to prepare something like [Hamlet]. I already feel that way about directing great plays. But when you’re writing, when you do the deep dive, and you actually want to live with those characters, it’s really hard to do. That’s why every summer I’ve gone somewhere else. I’ve done Sundance, I’ve done O’Neill, to just do the deep dive to only be working on the play. But I feel like it’s stolen time. I would love to have time that isn’t stolen, where I could really write. Just to see what would happen.
The theatre’s 2017-18 season was recently announced. How did you go about planning your final season at ACT?
Season planning at ACT usually begins with ideas and material that have been in our minds or in a developmental pipeline for some time. Sometimes it’s a new play, sometimes it’s a classic for a particular actor, sometimes it’s a response to the particular moment. For all of those reasons, this finally seemed the season to begin with Hamlet, starring the incredible John Douglas Thompson. JDT and I have been brainstorming about the play for many years, and the hugeness of its moral questions about justice, revenge, death and dying, love and betrayal, political corruption and pollution, seemed utterly necessary and urgent right now. So that’s where we are beginning. As always with season planning at ACT, this production will involve every level, including our MFA students, our amazing company artists like movement director Stephen Buescher, and a company of artists, many of whom I have worked with for 25 years.
Because this is my final season, the other thing I personally wanted to direct on the Geary again was Pinter. I have done the major plays of Pinter over the years and our audience adores them, but I have never done The Birthday Party here, although it is the play I worked on directly with Pinter himself while I was at CSC. This is my chance to bring back Marco Barricelli, who was in the ACT core company company for many years, as well as Firdous Bamji (of Indian Ink fame) and Scott Wentworth, from my beloved Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and to finally get Judith Ivey to the Geary stage. It’s a play about nameless terror, and about individual defiance in the face of that terror, and it’s both incredibly disturbing and hilariously funny. I wanted to end with that!
Planning this season also involved a deepening of our ties to new audiences at the Strand. We almost always do Asian-American work at ACT, given the population of the Bay Area, and I very much wanted to do a Vietnamese-American play in honor of the neighborhood surrounding the Strand, so I’m really looking forward to Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, which I find extremely moving and imaginative. And in homage to the thousands of young stressed-out tech workers who have flooded that neighborhood in recent years, we wanted to do Small Mouth Sounds, Bess Wohl’s magical play about a silence retreat and our collective need to mentally repair in the face of technology. It just seemed perfect for that space and that neighborhood.
Every season we read and read and read, looking for the kind of language and theatrical muscle that can hold the Geary stage. That’s not an easy task. Which is why I have always longed to produce Suzan-Lori Parks’s work—it’s got a kind of linguistic verve and moral complexity and range of characterizations that just begs to be done on a big stage—so when Father Comes Home From the Wars came along, we grabbed it. I wanted in my last season to finally partner with Yale Rep, which we’d never managed to do before, so they are co-producing it with us and we are sharing artists from the Bay Area and artists from New York. I have always felt that a big part of running a major regional theatre was collaborating with sister theatres to get to know each other’s artist pools and to give those artists a chance to work across the country—that’s really our “national theatre.” We did it last season with King Charles III and A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Father Comes Home will carry on that tradition.
A piece of season planning at ACT is always about our city and our community—we have been doing a project called “San Francisco Stories” for a long time which involves things like Tales of the City and After the War, plays about the complicated and fabulous stories that have emerged from this town. This year is the big Summer of Love celebration, so we ended last year with Janis Joplin and will end this year with A Walk on the Moon, a world-premiere musical written by Oakland native Pam Gray about three generations of Jewish women in a bungalow colony in the Catskills in the summer of 1967, looking for love and meaning as Neil Armstrong prepares to be the first man to walk on the moon. It’s a gorgeous, funny, romantic story and it felt like this was the perfect place for it to begin.
I didn’t want this season to be “valedictory” in a maudlin or nostalgic way—there’s much in it that is entirely new and that will test us in interesting ways. But I did want to have a chance to be in the studio again with beloved colleagues like lighting designer Jim Ingalls, sound designer Jake Rodriguez, actors like Marco and Steve Anthony Jones and Graham Beckel and Jim Carpenter and Gregory Wallace. And then I wanted to throw one incredible wild card into the mix, a sort of homage to The Black Rider, which really changed the fate of ACT, so we are bringing the genius visual artist William Kentridge to the Geary for three performances to do Refuse the Hour, his meditation on time which he narrates himself, surrounded by astonishing video and dance and music. Because ACT should always be about surprise and delight and beauty and complexity and imagination.