Carey Nation

As ACT returns to its home at the restored Geary, Artistic Director Carey Perloff stages a coup de theatre for her fourth season

Carey Perloff was running a risk, and it scared her. Well into May, the artistic director of American Conservatory Theater had not yet secured rights to Arcadia, the latest Tom Stoppard sensation playing London and New York, which she had hoped to deliver as ACT's opener this fall. The rest of the schedule was set, with all the players waiting to take their places as the company returned to the restored Geary Theater. Still, the hours and days ticked by with no confirmation, no word on whether she'd succeeded in landing the West Coast premiere of Stoppard's coveted work. It looked as though the curtain were about to rise on a show whose lead actor was missing.

"I didn't know what play we were going to open with if we didn't get Arcadia, and it was getting very late," Perloff recalls from her office at ACT in early July, noting that the subscribers had been tantalized in March with the first announcement of the upcoming season. ("We are negotiating the final rights for Arcadia, with every expectation that you will indeed be among the first to enjoy this provocative and entertaining play," the flier stated hopefully.)

"I totally fell in love with Arcadia when I read it," Perloff continues. "I called Stoppard's agent and he said, 'I'll send it, but there's no chance that you'll get it because Lincoln Center is doing it.' " As one of the big-gun producers in New York, Lincoln Center had snared first North American production rights; those rights covered a possible touring company version of Arcadia that would have precluded any staging in San Francisco.

Not one to sit in the balcony swinging her feet, hoping for a happy ending, Perloff forced the climax. She called the show's producers and pressed them for an answer: Would they be touring Arcadia? An apparently simple matter of a yes or no dragged on into a white-knuckled waiting game. "It just took more letters and calls and visits than you can imagine," Perloff relates, describing her perseverance in appealing to the Lincoln Center producers. "You try everything."

Trial and error -- with its setbacks and rewards -- has become a theme for the 36-year-old Perloff as she carves into her fourth season at ACT. "What did we learn from last year?" she muses aloud. "What can we do, or can't we do, or do better? What rang our bells?"

The seven plays of ACT's 29th season demonstrate how Perloff's reliance on the tried and true merges with her willingness to test more daring fare. Two classics usher in the company's resumption of rotating repertory (the cast of Thorton Wilder's The Matchmaker, led by Jean Stapleton and Ken Ruta, will also be seen on alternating nights in Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard). In another bow to tradition, company vets William Paterson and Charles Lanyer will spar in Patrick Hamilton's 1938 melodrama Gaslight. The long-anticipated homecoming to the Geary Theater, whose ceiling collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, will be marked next January by The Tempest, with Perloff directing David Strathairn in Shakespeare's ode to dreams and magic. And the moderns have not been slighted: New plays include the West Coast premiere of August Wilson's Seven Guitars, along with Eric Overmyer's Dark Rapture.

Reviews are already in: Alan Stein, chairman of ACT's Board of Trustees, credits Perloff's choices as an important factor in the success of the final stages of the Geary fund-raising campaign: "If we didn't have a good season, we wouldn't have gotten off the ground."

And Edward Hastings, from whom Perloff assumed the artistic director's chair three years ago, calls Perloff's fourth season "very strong. ... It reminds me of the good old days" -- an allusion to the era two decades past when he and the late William Ball, founder and long-standing artistic director, offered San Franciscans 10 plays a season, mixing classics and contemporary works. In the process, they nurtured a stable of actors who, regardless of their star trajectories elsewhere, gave ACT an enviable edge over other regional companies, placing it in the front row of American theater and rivaling the established commercial houses of New York and the East Coast.

To be sure, the ACT that Perloff inherited three years ago was by all reckoning a much-changed organization. Tortured by debt ($3.4 million) and the staggering cost of the Geary renovation ($25 million), the company had by the early '90s entered a phase in which, as Stein puts it, "[w]e needed new blood." Lacking his close partnership with Hastings, managing director John Sullivan (no relation to this writer) had announced to the board that he would resign in 1994; other staffers likewise chose Perloff's arrival as an opportunity to move on.

The international search that netted Perloff came out of the board's will, Stein maintains, "to convince individuals and foundations that ACT could make a go. I think it would have been harder with the people we had on board. ... We were just trying to stay on our feet. Ed [Hastings] had kept ACT alive. Carey came at a very critical moment -- her energy, youth, vision, drive, and outgoing personality were what was needed to reinfuse the company with the life it had a long time ago."

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