ACT’s Carey Perloff celebrates a life in theater

In her work as a producer, stage director, playwright and arts advocate, Carey Perloff is often described as fearless. But in her new memoir, she admits she was “terrified” during her early years as artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater.

“Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater” (City Lights), is a lot like Perloff herself: brilliant, vivacious and often very funny. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at her tenure at ACT, as well as an engaging account of the artistic passions that make her one of the theater world’s most accomplished women.

In a recent conversation, Perloff, who appears onstage with Michael Krasny this weekend to celebrate the volume, said she poured her heart into the book. “I’ll probably get in terrible trouble for it,” she says.

“Beautiful Chaos” grew out of a series of articles Perloff, 56, wrote for American Theater magazine a few years back.

“It was sort of cathartic,” she says, “and it made me want to think more rigorously about what had happened to me, to this theater, to the American theater in general, and to the city of San Francisco.”

Perloff writes that she was shocked when she was hired by the ACT board in 1991. “It was so unlikely,” she says. “In retrospect, the chances of a 32-year-old woman being hired to run a major theater were nil.”

The company was in deep financial straits; two years after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Geary Theater was literally in ruins. The challenge appealed to Perloff, a Greek scholar with a passion for archaeology who came to San Francisco from New York’s Classic Stage Company.

She threw herself into her first season at ACT – one that, by her own account, didn’t go well. Catholics picketed her production of “The Pope and the Witch.” Others were shocked by the frank sexuality in “The Duchess of Malfi.” That first season, she received 750 hate letters.

Yet Perloff persevered. The Geary reopened in 1996, and her productions began scoring hits. The book documents her triumphs with playwrights such as Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, artists including Olympia Dukakis, and homegrown shows like “Tales of the City.”

Along the way, Perloff has been an outspoken advocate for gender parity. As one of the few women heading an American theater company – she writes that the percentage of women in similar posts hasn’t increased in 25 years – she believes the deficit has a negative effect on the work being done on stages across the country. She proudly notes that throughout her tenure at ACT, she and her husband raised two children, and she was home for dinner every night.

Perloff also maintains a career as a playwright; last fall, she flew to Paris for the premiere of her latest, “Kinship,” starring acclaimed French actress Isabelle Adjani. Today, she says that ACT is in good shape, with a strong core group of actors, an outstanding master’s degree program, and three performance spaces. She’s particularly excited about launching the company’s new Strand Theater on Market Street.

“The City is undergoing huge changes right now, and I hope ACT being there will be a positive force,” Perloff says. “We’ve come through complicated times – every theater does. But I wanted the book to remind people that we’re carrying on a great tradition, and that there’s a huge future in front of us. I feel very heartened about where we are, and there’s a whole new chapter ahead.”


Carey Perloff

In conversation with Michael Krasny

Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. March 8

Tickets: Free, registration required



Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater

Published by City Lights

Pages: 280

Price: $17.95

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