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Stoppard, reached in London, says Perloff didn't enter into negotiations with him per se: England's National Theatre owns all rights to Arcadia and leases them to various interested parties. "In any case, as I don't control the [commercial] destiny of my plays, I take very little interest in that side of life," Stoppard notes. "Carey made a special appeal, asking if I would throw the weight of my good will on her side, which I was more than happy to do. ... Her personality is irresistible; her sincerity and enthusiasm are something. And she writes a good letter."
Though he didn't know her before they became pen pals -- "If someone said, 'Carey Perloff,' I might have asked, 'Who is he?' " Stoppard quips -- he points out that his long-standing rapport with the company pretty much insured his cooperation: "She didn't have to supplicate at all; on the contrary, I would petition to have it done at ACT."
As the two fired letters back and forth across the Atlantic, Perloff continued nailing down next season's roster. Acting on her theory that "a theater's season is like a crazy quilt -- each play grows out of a different impulse and a different set of ideas," Perloff pieced the plays into place, heeding requests from her staff as well as longtime collaborators.
Jean Stapleton, whom Perloff describes as "one of my theatrical mothers," has a history with Perloff extending to her days at the helm of CSC in New York. "I'd worked with Jean for years" -- notably, on Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party and Mountain Language -- "in doing many kinds of work that challenged Jean to move beyond the Edith Bunker days. She's a very versatile, complicated actress who'd been labeled in a certain way. I said to Jean last year, 'What do you need to do next?' She said, 'I've never played Dolly Levi, and I've always dreamed of it.'
"She came to San Francisco and fell in love with the city. Richard Seyd [ACT associate artistic director] directed her in Learned Ladies, and they developed a close working relationship," Perloff recounts, adding that when Seyd, who is drawn to American classics, learned of Stapleton's interest in Matchmaker, the marriage was on again; Seyd will direct Stapleton in Wilder's wise comedy at the Geary next spring.
Their collaboration over the years has led Stapleton to call Perloff "an actor's director. She's aware of the needs of the actor to develop in a role, to digest what a director is conveying. And she has a lot of faith in the intelligence of actors." She says Perloff's style is not demonstrative -- "good directors would never show what they want by example," Stapleton maintains. "Carey shows with ideas and words. She has patience, but she's also demanding. She keeps at it. Oh, she's gotten cross at times; I guess I have, too. But she gives very positive and constructive notes, and shares what she's thinking. I love that she's a take-charge director; otherwise, you're in a murky sea of formlessness."
Stapleton will also join ACT's return to rotating repertory -- a tradition the company relearned during Angels in America. "It's the most wonderful thing for audiences, because it lets you understand the acting process," Perloff explains. Next spring, Stapleton will play Dolly Levi one night and then, on the next, a radically different character in The Cherry Orchard. Acting in back-to-back rep is a first for Stapleton, the actress admits; so is performing Chekhov.
Perloff, on the other hand, knows her way around Chekhov; many critics admired her version of Uncle Vanya two seasons ago, encouraging the director to continue exploring the Russian's work. "Vanya helped us define what is different about ACT now from ACT five years, 10 years ago ... and that was a real watershed for us," Perloff says. "We wanted to continue that exploration of a reanimated, rejuvenated Chekhov in a strong American translation [by Paul Schmidt]. And it 'repped' perfectly."
Another actor and longtime collaborator who figured into Perloff's plans was David Strathairn (whom most will remember as Kathy Bates' ill-fated spouse in Dolores Claiborne). "People came in and out of the mix," she relates. "David had done The Birthday Party for me. Then he did this film on Oppenheimer, whom he played as a poet/physicist, terrified about the power of his own knowledge, which is so Prospero. And I said to David, you should play Prospero. And he said, 'Well, I'm just terrified of that.' And I thought, I'm terrified of it, too. So it's always a good place to start with something that terrifies you because it's ahead of you and it leaves you something to aspire to."
Perloff had long considered The Tempest a fitting choice as the debut play in the renovated Geary: "What are the values you want to return to the Geary with? I think the thing we most wanted to celebrate was the power of transformation, the amazing act of making theater itself, in all of its ambiguities. And The Tempest is that play. It questions the power of illusion: Is it escapism or the ultimate reality?" To toy with such questions, Perloff is giving designer Kate Edmunds free reign -- "I wanted her to have a signature piece," Perloff says. The director has also invited local shadow puppeteer Larry Reed to interpret with silhouettes "such stuff as dreams are made on."