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The Company She Keeps

It's 1992, and the American Conservatory Theater is reeling from an earthquake's ravages and a management shake-up. Enter Carey Perloff. The show will go on.

Barbara Ries

AT HOME: Carey Perloff at the Geary Theater.

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By Diane Rogers

As a youngster, Carey Perloff made weekly treks to the dioramas at the Smithsonian with her dad, an armchair archaeologist. At Stanford, she studied Greek and Roman sites from afar and reveled in the dirty work of digs in the American Southwest. So stepping into an earthquake-ravaged theater in 1992 was almost like coming home.

“It was a ruin—and it felt so familiar,” Perloff, ’80, says about her first glimpse of San Francisco’s once-majestic Geary Theater. “I just wanted to get in there and excavate.”

She also loved the dramatic irony. “For those of us who work in dark rehearsal studios, it was very weird to see natural light coming into a theater,” Perloff adds. “A big hole had opened in the roof, and the ceiling had literally peeled off, like an orange, and crashed on row G—the critics’ seats.”

Perloff, 43, likes to say that she took a job with a ruined theater when she left New York City’s Classic Stage Company to become artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater (ACT), ending its lengthy, international search. At the time, the Geary’s condition was a metaphor for the company, which had languished after founder William Ball was ousted in 1986 and later committed suicide. “When everything fell apart, it needed to be rethought,” Perloff recalls. “We had to ask, ‘Does this city want us? What can we do differently from other theaters?’”

In answering that question, the Obie Award-winning Perloff has laid new foundations and rebuilt on many levels. In her 10th year at ACT, the subscription base has reached an all-time high of 20,000, thanks to the younger, more urban audiences she has attracted. Perloff not only erased the $3.5 million debt she inherited, but also doubled the annual operating budget to about $16 million. And that’s not counting the almost $28 million renovation she directed on the 93-year-old Geary, a federally designated landmark decimated by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It reopened in January 1996.

ACT is known as a conservatory that has trained such stellar actors as Annette Bening, Nicolas Cage, Danny Glover, Winona Ryder and Denzel Washington. It serves 1,900 students and was the first program outside a college or university accredited to award the MFA degree. Perloff has injected something new into her company this season by establishing a new resident ensemble of four actors. “Actors, to me, are the most magical people in our profession,” she says. “They’re complete chameleons and can imagine their way into worlds that we’ve never encountered. And yet they have less power than anybody in the business. They can be in the field for 25 years and still be asked to audition and sing for their supper—and I think that’s awful.”

Instead, Perloff wants members of her ensemble to have a voice in choosing the season lineup by lobbying for the plays they would most like to perform. Last year, Marco Barricelli convinced her to stage Pirandello’s Enrico IV, in which he played the title role of a 20th century Italian who thinks he’s the German ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. ACT has always championed both classic literature and bold new plays. A glance at recent programs suggests that Perloff has strengthened that practice, directing and producing works by playwrights who span the centuries, from Sophocles and Euripides to Brecht and Beckett, Pinter and Stoppard.

“Perloff has taken the company from a very low point to a point where I think ACT has a considerable national reputation,” says Karen D’Souza, theater critic for the San Jose Mercury News. “Alliances with playwrights like [Tom] Stoppard have helped cement that status, and ACT at its best gives the Bay Area a sense of the breadth and scope of what the theater has to offer.”

 After the fall: The 1989 earthquake devastated ACT's Geary Theater. The landmark reopened, fully restored, in 1996. John Sutton

“She ranges from the traditional, like Chekhov, that should be part of a repertory company, to the altogether offbeat,” says former Stanford president Gerhard Casper, a frequent member of the ACT audience. “Her production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart was absolutely captivating and proved that the great German plays, even on English subjects, can work very well in America.”

Casper, who aspires to a role in an ACT production of Schiller’s Don Carlos, says that in addition to being an experienced director, Perloff “is just an incredibly well-educated person—truly learned.” When he and his wife, Regina, are invited to dinner parties, he adds, “it’s immensely reassuring when Carey and her husband are there, because then you know the evening won’t be lost.”

It’s difficult to imagine Perloff at a loss for words in any conversation. Ask her about the state of American regional theater—or how symphony conductors think—and you are awash in a fountain of observations and comments, delivered at the pace of Gilbert and Sullivan’s modern major general. She exudes sunny confidence and has the sustained energy of a stage full of Busby Berkeley tap dancers.

“She was always one of the most articulate students in the class,” says Helene Foley, a professor of classics at Barnard College who taught Perloff at Stanford. “A lot of us in the department thought she could have had a star academic career.” In fact, during her tenure at the Classic Stage Company, Perloff taught dramatic writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. And last year she was tapped to become dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of Yale Repertory Theater. But she opted to stay with ACT.

It turns out that what Perloff loved most about majoring in classics was the Greek plays that Foley and colleague Jack Winkler staged. “They really believed in literature as drama, and they encouraged us to read Latin and Greek out loud,” she says. “I remember an evening at Helene’s house on Middlefield Road, where Jack played Athena and appeared out of the chimney at the end, as the deus ex machina. It was brilliant!”

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, Perloff went to Oxford as a Fulbright fellow. There she directed “tons” of plays and learned the arts of production and persuasion in her one-woman version of Marketing 101, standing on street corners and begging passersby to come into whatever church, garden or basement her student company had rented for the night.

In one of the two summers she spent at the Edinburgh Festival, Perloff directed Vladimir Mayakovsky’s The Bed Bug with a cast that included Anthony Giles, a British scholar of the Soviet Union, whom she subsequently married. Giles followed her to New York City, where she landed a job as a secretary at the International Theater Institute, and then as a casting assistant with Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. In 1986, at the age of 27, she was named artistic director of the off-Broadway Classic Stage Company, a theater devoted to revivals and adaptations of well-known works.

Although Perloff dates her directing debut to the years she spent in Britain, her mother says family friends predicted a theatrical career much earlier. Marjorie Perloff, professor emerita of English at Stanford, recalls that Carey’s “doll corner,” which took up half her bedroom until she was about 14, was the talk of the neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and, later, Philadelphia.

“She hated Barbies but always loved her Madame Alexander dolls,” Professor Perloff says. “She would set them up in her room and make them furniture out of paper, or umbrella stands out of Tampax holders. The ‘Madames’ had newspapers, schoolbooks and notebooks, and I would hear Carey in her room, playing by the hour, and saying in a low voice, ‘Now, Hanse, what’s the answer to this question?’ Or she’d have them recite things, and then she’d correct them—‘No, no, walk left to right.’”

Carey Perloff, in turn, credits her mother, a renowned expert on modernist poetry, with introducing her to the works of William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound. At home, Carey and her older sister, Nancy, ’78, a curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, also heard—read aloud—James Joyce, Frank O’Hara, Yeats, Tolstoy, Beckett, Brecht, Pirandello and George Eliot.

“Huge amounts of literature were devoured in our house,” Perloff says. “And my amazing mother is much more avant-garde than me—she thinks I’m very straight-ahead. She’s always saying, ‘It’s time to branch out, Carey. Time to do [Austrian novelist and playwright] Thomas Berenhard.’ And I say, ‘Yes, and you and I and three other people would come.’”

Scenic route: Perloff's choices run from Euripides' Hecuba, above, to The Invention of Love, Tom Stoppard's 1997 fantasy on poet A.E. Houseman. Richard Feldman

In fact, Perloff is known for going against the flow—sometimes even against the protestations of her own board. They took issue with her homoerotic production of Shakespeare’s Edward II, Perloff notes, “but it got great reviews and our audiences loved it.”

Perloff doesn’t believe in focus groups and suggests that too many artistic directors spend too much time trying to follow popular taste—“an amoeba that is endlessly changing.” Instead, she trusts her own instincts, including her admittedly “weird tastes in musicals.” But she always includes the audience in her deliberations before making her final choices of plays. In 1998, she told the Noe Valley Voice that she not only enjoyed living in that neighborhood but also welcomed the conversations she had in Bell Market and on the local playground. “When we first decided to do Angels in America, I heard from a lot of my neighbors who are gay that the theater had a lot of work to do to reach the gay community, and I’ve worked hard to crack that,” she said.

Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s epic portrayal of the devastation wrought by the aids virus—it won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama and seven Tony Awards—was a risk for ACT, but one that paid off. “A play about a Mormon, a crazy gay guy, someone who believed he was an angel?” she asks. “No one could have guessed that it would have been successful.”

Perloff says one of her earliest impressions of the Bay Area was that “everybody was in continuing education, taking courses, trying to find themselves.” She wants to engage that sophisticated audience with works that stretch both actors and theatergoers. And she is constantly building for the future, sending ACT actors to conduct workshops in local high schools, armed with thousands of copies of scripts so that students can own the plays they explore.

Perloff also is committed to producing the work of new playwrights like Stanford drama lecturer Amy Freed, a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama, whose The Beard of Avon opened at the Geary in January (see sidebar). Although it can be difficult to fill big houses with an unknown work, Perloff thinks those theaters have a responsibility to provide a welcome mat. “We are such a culture of speed, where the word has been replaced by the image, and it’s not a particularly literate moment in world history,” she says. “So we have to encourage sophisticated listening and real storytelling—and there are some great writers doing just that.”

Perloff acknowledges that these are troubled times for the American theater. Look at the lineup on Broadway, she says, and instead of classical theater or straight dramas, you find one- and two-person shows or big, brassy London productions. The typical Equity actor works only 14 weeks each year, and there are five women’s roles for every 12 available for men. “And parts for actresses over 40? Forget it.”

For Perloff, making theater begins with actors, and she has issued standing invitations to many of her favorites—Olympia Dukakis, Jean Stapleton, Diane Widdoes and Diane Venora. Then there are stacks of plays to read as she and her staff winnow the hundreds of manuscripts into a final 50 and see as many productions nationwide as they can. At the weekly artistic team meetings, everyone at the table asks what’s missing, what isn’t in the pot. Is there a mix of classical and modern, comedy and tragedy, musical and extreme musical? As for the quality of playwriting she seeks, Perloff knows it when she hears it: “I want language that’s like the pebble in the water, that ripples and ripples and ripples long after it’s heard. You know when you’ve heard great theatrical writing—and it’s not West Wing.”

Once the season is set and rehearsals begin, Perloff and her actors go “underground” for four or five weeks at a time, working in ACT’s rehearsal spaces. The first traumatic moment comes the week before opening, when the cast leaves the privacy of the studio and heads for the main stage for technical run-throughs. And the hard work begins once the preview audience arrives. Perloff stands at the back of the house during preview week and listens for the sounds that tell her when the members of the audience are engaged, when they feel they’re being noticed and included—even if they’re barely audible. “If they’re not responding, then you know you haven’t found a way to invite them into the play,” Perloff says. “But to have 1,000 people silent for a moment with two actors on stage is an incredible experience, when something really changes. Suddenly, the story pops.”

In the aftermath of September 11, Perloff suggests that this is “a very odd time to be making theater.” The night after the terrorist attacks, 800 ticket holders turned out at the Geary for a Harold Pinter twin bill, Celebration and The Room. What’s more, 500 stayed to talk with the actors after the house lights went up. “I asked everyone to take a moment and look down the row and see the other people who were there, who wanted to have a place where they could gather and connect,” Perloff recalls. “We have tended to think of ourselves as so fiercely individualistic, and now suddenly we are rethinking our role as participants in American culture.”

As she continues to look for plays that will speak to the new concerns of her audiences, Perloff says she is rekindling the love affair that began in her second-grade classroom, when she learned about the ruins at Knossos in ancient Crete. “It was excavated at a time when archaeologists used their own imagination and moved things around and made things up,” she says. “I remember being captivated by it, trying to imagine how people had lived, what they had thought about, what language they had spoken.”

For Perloff, the Greeks had it all: love of literature, civic discourse and a culture of secular humanism. “And Greek tragedy was never literally about the events of their own time, which is why those plays are never dated,” she says. “When they wanted to write about the horrors of the Peloponnesian wars, they used the Trojan War as their metaphor. There are no greater plays about what we’re living through now than [those of] the Greeks.”

Perloff argues that the classic dramatists knew what it meant to be a citizen—which meant theater was outdoor, public and central to the metaphor of the culture, not something that happened in an enclosed space for certain people who could pay for it.

That ideal is still possible today, she adds—for any company that’s genuinely eager to welcome audiences into its conversations about timeless themes. ACT gives a 75 percent discount for its Student Matinee Series and draws 3,000 students a year.

“I’m really interested in theater being part of being a citizen,” Perloff says. “I feel I am deeply woven into this community—my children go to school here, I know all my neighbors in Noe Valley, I went to university here, my mother teaches here. And as a citizen of this community, theater is what I can offer.”

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