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.”
Those traits stood Perloff well when she moved to San Francisco, fresh from Classic Stage Company, a respected but little-known (at least outside New York) off-Broadway troupe. Her dream: to remake ACT, with its annual budget of some $9 million and staff of 300, into the “premier classical theater in the country,” as she announced to SF Weekly in an interview shortly after arriving.
Considered something of an upstart crow when she flew into town in 1992 (one ex-ACT staffer dismissed her as “not a lot of fun — she's young and full of herself”), Perloff ruffled feathers, both inside ACT and in the theater's conservative constituency, by straight off declaring her dislike for “living room dramas” — which many considered a swipe at the theater's past programming. Perloff got no slack when she yanked a previously announced production of Lend Me a Tenor (which appalled some on her artistic staff for its use of blackface); the replacement show — the American premiere of Dario Fo's The Pope and the Witch — offended a number of subscribers for its anti-Vatican theme. Then, later in her inaugural season, a version of John Webster's Duchess of Malfi set off another wave of raised eyebrows with its nudity and graphic depictions of torture. “We are not sociologists: we are artists,” Perloff wrote in a Chronicle guest editorial, by way of blunting the criticism during her first season. “Our job is to stimulate thought and to entertain.” [page]
She still holds to that employment description. Gazing at the pictures that line her office today (one of them is of her cast in last season's Home, which she directed to “great satisfaction”), she reflects on the year ahead: “Summer's always a time of incredible anticipation and terror. Ironically, the more successful the recent work has been, the more terrifying the next step is, because you always set your goals higher.”
In the last three years, Perloff has faced down a number of crises (the most recent being the abrupt, unhappy departure of Associate Artistic Director Benny Sato Ambush). But she has also led ACT to a number of milestones, most notably last season's Hecuba (in which she directed Olympia Dukakis in an acclaimed rendition of Euripides' fallen queen of Troy), as well as both parts of Angels in America. Though she didn't direct the latter (that credit goes to Mark Wing-Davey), the production resuscitated not only the company's artistic gusto, but its financial health as well, enticing thousands of young new subscribers.
As she begins to settle into her fourth year, Perloff, whom a casting agent would classify as “petite” (she's 5-foot-4, with strawberry-blond hair and a penchant for sunglasses and a gold necklace to set off her conservative dresses), fishes around for words to articulate what drives her: “I've always loved the notion of the word 'play' — what does it take to make an audience play? It upsets me when theater encourages passivity. People are passive enough. I like engagement. On any level: I love intellectual engagement … or I love circus, because people have to keep guessing. At the circus, people are always terrified that the acrobat is going to fall. The same goes for live theater. It's like a magic trick, where you see the magic happen. Good live theater will pull that same tight-wire suspense off.
“I'm always looking for great poets in the theater,” she continues, flourishing her hands. “Poets who write language that transcends the banalities of speech. If it's merely a replication of the way we talk every day, why should we go to the theater? Great theatrical language makes us revisit an emotion, it defamiliarizes our experience, and suddenly articulates it. Wonderful plays wake us up.”
The past offers some clues to her love of “great theatrical language.” Born Carey Elizabeth Perloff in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 9, 1959, the youngest of two girls, her childhood had all the outward signs of an intellect-in-training. Her mother, Marjorie Perloff, is an English professor at Stanford and a literary critic whose works include Frank O'Hara: Poet Among Painters. Her father is a noted cardiologist now based at UCLA whom Carey describes as an “amateur archaeologist.” She counts among her most vivid memories the weekends she accompanied him to lectures at the Smithsonian.
Carey also had the advantage of a private education: In D.C., she attended the National Cathedral School for Girls (where her best friend in fourth grade was “Dordie” Bush, youngest child of George and Barbara). Later, when the family moved to Philadelphia, she went to Germantown Friends School. The Perloff household, as Carey remembers it, “tended to be dominated more by literature than science”; the dinner-table discussions she remembers from her childhood were rich in talk of art and books and ideas. Her parents were “unusual,” Carey notes, in that they had “many gay friends”; their conversations exposed her early on to the “gay aesthetic” that she was to encounter later in the theater.
The inspiration for most of these confabulations was Carey's mother. “As she became interested in things, it sort of permeated the household,” Carey recalls. “She introduced me to Beckett. And we read a lot of poetry, because she taught it. It was never a conscious thing, just whatever was interesting to us.” (As a child, Carey penned one of her first works, which her mother dubs “Poems Written in the Mode of William Carlos Williams by Carey Perloff” — and still shares with her students.) Her mother, Carey says, remains “the biggest influence in my life; I see the world in a sense through her eyes.” Yet, Carey points out, “You'd never know to meet her that she's an intellectual. She's a nut, really — she loves soap operas; she's really down to earth.”
Perloff mere ripostes with her own frank assessment of her daughter: “I remember her being a little cynical,” Marjorie says. “Carey talked very early, and she certainly knew her own mind. She was a very verbal child, very conceptual, always trying to figure things out. I remember being on an airplane with her, and seeing her look up at the clouds and sky and saying, 'I suppose you're going to tell me that God lives up there.' And she never believed in Santa Claus, either.”
Carey tended to play alone a lot, her mother remembers. “She played for hours with little puppets and dolls. She had these dolls — we called them the Madames — and she set aside a big portion of her room for them and their own furniture. It was like a whole different world: She devised a whole way they had to behave and interact. I always thought that the way she played, she was getting ready to be a director.” [page]
Though Carey studied ballet and performed on occasion in school plays, theater was not her great interest, according to Marjorie, who recalls her daughter as an “intellectual teen-ager, always writing and reading.” When she was ready to go to college, Carey surprised her parents by announcing that Stanford was her choice– “She'd been accepted everywhere,” according to Marjorie. “Yale, all the big East Coast schools. But at the time, she wanted something different. West was best.”
Stanford was a revelation for the young Perloff. “I ended up in classics because I wanted to become an archaeologist. I had fallen in love with the Greeks when I was in second grade. I was absolutely in love with them and everything they represented. The Greeks were the culture that celebrated the divinity of humanity — everything is built around that. Their architecture is always on a human scale. I always felt Gothic architecture alienated people, whereas Greek architecture — in theaters and temples — embraced man.
“We did a lot of theater in the classics department then at Stanford,” Perloff continues. “It was at that time a very theatrical department. Doing Greek plays really landed on me; that's an impressionable age, when you're about 18, when you're trying to fit in the world. We started staging Greek tragedy in Greek, and I just loved it.
“I had that seminal moment when I first directed,” Perloff recalls, “and I thought, This uses everything I love, everything I know. I could do everything that I was good at: I knew I was good choreographically; I'd done dance for years, art history for years, I had a strong visual sense. And growing up in a very literary family, I knew how to approach a play and break it apart. I just loved it.”
Perloff's next stop was Oxford, where, as a Fulbright fellow, she got a master's in 1981 while directing plays and developing scripts with the Oxford Film Society. At this point, it was clear that the magic of drama had Perloff in its thrall — to the consternation of her parents. “We were not in favor of it,” Marjorie relates. “We didn't encourage her to do that. We thought she would do something more scholastic, or go to law school. But, in retrospect, it's a credit to her determination that she brought it off.”
Bringing it off meant a heavy schedule of directing and assisting other directors after moving to New York. For five years, she labored at various theater companies, including stints as a casting assistant with Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and as a teaching artist at Lincoln Center Institute. By 1986, when she assumed the artistic directorship of Classic Stage Company, she'd directed more than a dozen plays. She was only 27.
Those New York contacts helped Perloff in her quest for Arcadia, Stoppard's time-bending mystery that tracks an English academic as he sleuths a scandal involving Lord Byron. Having contacted Stoppard's agent to inquire about the rights shortly after the London staging in the fall of 1993, Perloff persevered once the Lincoln Center production was announced last fall. She spoke to Andre Bishop, Lincoln Center Theater's artistic director, who, in Perloff's words, “promised to keep ACT on the front burner” in terms of a West Coast premiere.
By last January, an ACT board member agreed to speak to the Lincoln Center brass and lobby for the West Coast premiere rights. At that point, however, the Lincoln Center team was immersed in casting and rehearsals for its own premiere of Arcadia. Facing a deadline for ACT's upcoming season brochure but still without word from Lincoln Center, Perloff flew to New York March 2 to see the first preview of Arcadia. While there, she met with Bishop and Bernard Gersten, the play's New York producer, who “indicated that once the show had opened they'd know when the rights would be released,” according to Perloff.
Back in San Francisco a week later, Perloff received the first letter from Stoppard in what she terms an “epistolary relationship — he's the most amazing correspondent.” She had earlier sent him the positive reviews that greeted ACT's revival of his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; his response, “via return fax,” bolstered Perloff's belief that he could be enlisted in the effort: “As for Arcadia, I would be very happy to have a production at ACT — I hope that goes without saying,” Stoppard wrote. “I'm going to New York and will mention it [to Bishop]. I'm delighted that you like the play.”
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. [page]
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.”
Yet another ACT artist — lighting designer Peter Maradudin — mentioned his interest in Gaslight, an old-fashioned melodrama (and, as Perloff adds, “the ultimate play about light cues”) that many recall as a 1944 movie with Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, and Charles Boyer. Perloff also thought it a good match for director Albert Takazauckas, whose ACT productions of Light Up the Sky and Dinner at Eight bear witness, according to Perloff, to his fascination with American plays from the '20s to '40s. They also demonstrate how theater “can help us keep our language supple and alive. It always amazes me that even your basic Broadway fare of the '30s and '40s was so literate: beautifully structured, literate, delicious plays,” Perloff says.
“Albert and I have had this long, ongoing dialogue; he'd bring me these obscure plays. … He's an autodidact; he just finds these things,” Perloff continues. “I didn't have a play for him last year, which I was sorry about. But this one fit his aesthetic.”
She notes that Gaslight also stemmed from a “real passion for [veteran ACT actor] Bill Paterson, whom I fell in love with when I did Home” — a rapport that, some local theater wags maintain, points to Perloff's tendency to gravitate toward older actors. Still, the director avows, “I was quite intimidated about working with Bill, because he was this crusty senior actor at ACT, and I thought, What is he going to make of this woman coming in? Bill was someone whom I hadn't found a place for my first year here. There was a lot of press about that — was he going to have to retire? — and so on. But that was never my intention. … I worked very hard last season to find the perfect thing for Bill. I think he's one of the great actors. He's very directable, never defensive.” [page]
For his part, the 76-year-old Paterson returns the flattery: “The early problems were overstated … all the misunderstandings have been wiped away. My work with Carey was altogether one of my happiest experiences at ACT. She's young — she could be my granddaughter, of course — but she's most accommodating. She makes a great analysis of a play, and is very willing to receive suggestions.”
Other works slated for next year — August Wilson's Seven Guitars and Eric Overmyer's Dark Rapture — came out of Perloff's desire to engage “in a dialogue with a lot of different people.”
After her then-associate artistic director, Benny Sato Ambush, urged her to think about Wilson's play, Perloff began considering it seriously. She'd read the press on Seven Guitars, Wilson's 1940s installment in his canon of decade-by-decade dramas on African-American life, when it debuted at Chicago's Goodman Theatre; “We talked to [director] Lloyd Richards, about developing this as a new play. … We had a long history with Wilson. And this was so interesting — a departure for the playwright — because it has these three great women's roles, which is unusual in his work.” One of her stars in Hecuba, Viola Davis, had just finished a run in the Goodman's Guitars; Davis' enthusiasm, Perloff says, convinced her to schedule the production.
Overmyer's Dark Rapture is, according to Perloff, “a big risk for ACT — he's not a known quantity here, and it had never been given a full staging in the Bay Area, even though it's 2 years old.” The play, another riff on modern American culture that begins with the Oakland Hills fire and takes a number darkly comic spins, came to Perloff's attention via Mac Wellman, ACT's playwright-in-residence (whom the New York Times has described as “James Joyce reborn as a rap artist”). In February, as the imperative to finalize the season loomed, he encouraged her to consider the work as a way of keeping the younger, hipper subscribers who'd been drawn by Angels.
“Dark Rapture is an outrageous play that is both gripping and hilarious,” Perloff notes. “It asks: Can you remake yourself out of a catastrophe? It's the ultimate play about disaster and resurrection and the mystery of whether you can ever go home again.”
Intended or not, the metaphoric parallels of Perloff's query apply to ACT and its Geary Theater home base: On Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake jostled the playhouse to its foundation. The 15 seconds of rattling and rolling literally unhinged the ceiling, weighted not only with an ornate vault but with an elaborate tracery of lighting equipment. The whole of it then collapsed, showering the orchestra with chunks of plaster and steel rods: a giant, fallen cobweb coated with gilt and dust draped the orchestra. No one was injured, though company members were in the building, preparing for a performance of Right Mind scheduled that evening.
In the aftermath, ACT, which would be further shaken by the suicide of its founder, William Ball, faced the post-quake trauma of homelessness. Though Ball's successor, Edward Hastings, terms the disaster “a unifying catastrophe — we pulled together to come out of it,” the daunting restoration costs (the Geary is a federally designated landmark, making its historically accurate reconstruction hugely expensive) rendered the company's artistic mission ever more difficult; those staffers not preoccupied with rebuilding the Geary had to cobble the subsequent seasons together in various venues now that the flagship stage was dark until funds to rebuild it could be secured.
Hastings, acknowledging that the millions of dollars needed for the task required a longer commitment than he was willing to give, stuck to his original plan of resigning his post in 1992. “If I were there as chief fund-raiser,” he surmises, “it felt like I should stick around. Whoever raised the money should make a commitment to stay and spend it.”
After the board of trustees hired Perloff, many interpreted the decision as a shrewd financial move. (“Her talents lie in fund raising,” sniffed one New York theater scribe. “It shows the board to be more concerned about raising money than artistic levels.”) For her part, Perloff happily acknowledges that “unfortunately, I'm a very good fund-raiser. Anybody who feels passionate about the work they're doing is good at fund raising. It comes with the territory. We aren't asking anybody for charity. I think if you look at it that way, you're pitting theater against every other charity that has crying needs, and you end up feeling paralyzed. How can I ask for money when there's so little to go around? Theater is one of the last bastions of civilization. The Greeks made it the hallmark of democracy. … It's still one of the only places where people can come together and debate and disagree.”
That kind of moxie has allowed Perloff to ask board members, foundations, and individuals to give till it hurts. Though the Federal Emergency Management Administration has committed about $11.5 million to the Geary campaign, the remaining $14 million has come from private sources. (Developer Walter Shorenstein was for a time last spring reported to be working on a joint venture with ACT; the potential deal fizzled, however, amid speculation that the Best of Broadway series run by his daughter, Carole Shorenstein Hays — with its Royal Shakespeare Company presentation of A Midsummer Night's Dream — would compete with The Tempest.)
The money pouring in is much in evidence at the Geary today, abuzz with the cheerful chaos of reconstruction. The building has been seismically stabilized; its exterior terra cotta has been repaired and cleaned. The interior, though obscured in a tangle of scaffolding, promises to offer ACT a thoroughly modern stage with new electrical systems, hydraulic lifts, and elaborate rigging in the overhead fly space. The seating will be staggered to allow better sightlines, and patrons will be coddled with larger lobbies and restrooms, as well as elevators. Finally, workers are restoring the theater's gewgaws to their original, ornate fussiness. [page]
Yet, with all the happy hammering at the Geary last spring, Perloff still faced the uncomfortable uncertainty about Arcadia. Though she had dogged Lincoln Center with requests for a decision on their plans for the play, producer Bernard Gersten proved an artful dodger: “We were not keen on having other productions,” he recalls, “not so much to deny San Francisco, but as a matter of keeping our ticket sales up. From our mid-February opening, all I could tell her was wait, wait, wait.” Others were inquiring about Stoppard's play, Gersten admits, but “none as strenuously and urgently as Carey Perloff.”
When the Tony Award nominations were announced in early May, Arcadia turned up among the contenders for best play: great news for Lincoln Center (ticket sales were sure to get a boost), but bad news for ACT. Eager to capitalize on the show's cachet as a potential Tony winner, Gersten called Perloff and told her that the prognosis didn't look good for ACT's fall season. Perloff had no other choice but to ask her staff to start considering a replacement play.
That setback coincided with another: Associate Artistic Director Ambush, disappointed at his meager role in the upcoming season (he was assigned to stage the Geary's reopening festivities), resigned after he and Perloff couldn't decide on a play for him to direct. Angry and frustrated, Ambush blasted his employers in SF Weekly last May, growling: “There is no future at ACT that I want to be a part of. Screw 'em.” (Later, he softened, acknowledging that his blunt language stemmed from his frustration at a “sad situation.”)
Hired by Hastings in 1990, Ambush acknowledges that he and Perloff had a number of “aesthetic differences — that comes from having had a leadership position.” (Before ACT, he ran Oakland Ensemble Theater.) “So the fact that we didn't always agree is a good thing,” Ambush explains. “There's nothing worse than having a bunch of 'yes boss' types around. But there's no denying that something happened that was big enough to impel me to leave. … I don't think Carey [wanted] to prevent me from directing on the main stage. That was the result. But that was something I was unwilling to endure.”
For the time being, he won't say exactly what forced him to step down, though he hints that the reception he got after The Play's the Thing might have had something to do with it. “Directing that gave me a chance to spread my wings,” Ambush avers. “For people like me — a person of color but someone who doesn't fit the old-boy network — doing The Play's the Thing shows that you can transcend as an artist. But people sometimes need that revelation several times — they say, 'Well, he had a great cast,' or they imply some unspoken doubt about your ability. … But we want freedom to do what we want as an artist. I would hope to roam freely without having to prove myself over and over.”
Ambush holds that an organization of ACT's size has a “responsibility to a theatrical aesthetic that can meaningfully embrace the differences that abound in the Bay Area, where segments of the entire world live; this is the very essence of the term 'regional.' ” He feels that kind of leadership “can occur at any budget level. I think the added responsibility of size at ACT is to develop a place where everybody who lives here, no matter who they are, can say, 'That's my theater,' and mean it. ACT is not there yet. I'm not making a judgment. Is it possible to have so many voices and embrace them all? A series of plays that give equal time, as well as food for the soul? I think it's possible. That's what I'm about: My view is decidedly pluralistic. I wasn't running ACT. It's Carey's theater. She's a tough cookie. She's passionate about her aesthetic; there are areas where her passion and mine intersect, and there are areas where they don't.”
Since Ambush's departure, Perloff has responded to the matter with magnanimity: “I really hope we will find the right thing for Benny down the road.” (Ambush's response: “After five years in senior artistic position [at ACT], I got a show on the Geary stage coming to me. … Carey and I have worked successfully in the past; she's been supportive of all my projects.”)
Perloff shares Ambush's desire for some future collaboration (“I really kept the door open”) while remaining realistic about her need to have the final word. “There are always going to be people who either hold on to the way they've always done it or are going to disagree. And they should go. And they have, for the most part. … Finding the right marriage is hard. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't.”
She emphasizes her attempts to develop the new plays Ambush calls for in a “lab space, one of my dreams” — an effort acknowledged by local playwright Octavio Solis, who says he and ACT “are working on developing a commission” for the company. Perloff also points to ACT's acting school (the “conservatory” of the name), where new director Melissa Smith hopes to stage small-scale productions of new plays.
Still, Perloff often seems overwhelmed: “I think the hardest thing about this job is that someone is always going to be unhappy. If you're a real Jewish mother like me and you want people to be happy, it's really upsetting because you want them to feel taken care of and respected and nurtured, and at the same time, I don't think anyone realizes the conflicting demands that go into running an operation like this. … Here I am, trying to hold this place together and open the Geary and work on The Tempest, and of course I feel, like, will I ever do honor to this play? And what if it fails? And what does it mean to ACT? There's no guide to tell you if you're doing it right. No safety net. And no one ever tells you, 'Oh, you're doing a great job, keep going.' ” [page]
So she takes solace in her friends (“I call Olympia [Dukakis] to talk all the time. She ran a theater for 19 years. She gets it better than anybody. She really understands what it takes”) and her family: Perloff and her husband, Russian affairs specialist (and recent Boalt Law School grad) Anthony Giles, have two children, 6-year-old Lexie and 1-year-old Nicholas. “When you go home and there's this little cherub crawling toward you and he sits there and applauds, I think, No one's ever going to love me like that,” Perloff reflects. “And that helps a lot, having something in your life that isn't just theater. Then if you get a terrible review, it isn't the end of your life. I've never felt the same about reviews since I had children.”
The cycle of conflict, climax, and resolution that had marked Perloff's tenure at ACT was beginning to enter its third act as she made the final pitch for her season opener. In mid-May, she wrote one more time to Stoppard, again seeking his good will in hastening the decision-making process. In typical fashion, he returned her letter on May 15, informing Perloff: “Kenneth [Ewing, Stoppard's agent] returns tomorrow from a week's vacation — I'll make sure your letter is dealt with first thing. I hope you'll get a clear answer by the time you wake up! Nothing ever seems straightforward. I'm sorry.”
That “sorry” was troublingly ambiguous: Did it foreshadow the producers' decision? Or was it merely the gentlemanly Stoppard apologizing for one of life's maddening delays? Perloff couldn't help fretting.
In the end, it boiled down to a few simple words, as stories in the theater often do. “You have it,” the dry, British voice on the phone declared, as clearly and distinctly as if uttered from center stage of some great auditorium. It belonged to Stoppard's agent. “It's yours.”
The words, uttered over the phone, brought a bewildered smile to Carey Perloff's face, then a laugh as the triumph began to sink in. “Did he just give me the rights to this play?” Perloff wondered aloud. After convening her staff and announcing the news, she allowed herself a moment of athletic exhilaration — “I ran around the block a couple of times” — then began making plans to fly to New York the following day to begin casting, in her capacity as director, the ACT production of the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.
For Carey Perloff, that dreaded, gut-wrenching, and ultimately invigorating terror of the new season was about to begin.