Q&A: ACT’s Carey Perloff talks theater, Jewish values

Name: Carey Perloff
Age: 57
City: San Francisco
Position: Artistic director, American Conservatory Theater

J: The San Francisco Public Library named your book “Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater” as the 2016 One City One Book selection. How does that feel?

Carey Perloff: It was a thrill and a great surprise. I hope the choice will be an occasion for rich, fun conversations about the transformational power of theater, about who we are as a democracy, how fragile democracy is and how useful theater can be in understanding all that.

The kickoff for a month of theater-related events is at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6 at the Main Library in San Francisco, where you will speak with Donn Harris, the executive director of Creativity and the Arts for the San Francisco Unified School District. What will that conversation be about?

I imagine Donn and I will brainstorm about the many challenges facing the arts and art education. The library has done a great job of putting together events that address some of the thematic issues the book raises, including everything from the role of theater in a community to San Francisco’s own theater stories.

Carey Perloff photo/courtesy act

In addition to serving as ACT’s artistic director, you’re a teacher, director, playwright — and now author. How did that happen?

For my 20th anniversary at ACT in 2012, the editor at American Theatre magazine asked me to write something reflecting on my time here, in particular about my first year, when I got into real trouble for lots of things.

That first year, a production was canceled after an incident at the acting school, another greatly angered some subscribers and church leaders, and a third show included some scenes too graphic even for San Francisco. Hundreds of hate letters were the result. How did it feel to write about that troubled time?

Writing it was cathartic, and I wrote it quickly. Then I was asked to write part 2. The book editor at the magazine then suggested I keep going and write a book.

City Lights Foundation Books published “Beautiful Chaos” in 2015, and you’ll be speaking at the bookstore Oct. 11 as part of Litquake. In the book you cover your successes and missteps. You also write about your life as a wife, mother and arts advocate. What do you want readers to take away from it?

Different people will have different takeaways from this book. I wanted women to feel the fight for leadership is worth fighting. I wanted to encourage passion for live theater and I wanted readers to think about the role of live theater in a city. I wrote about actor training and I also included lots of stories about Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Bill Irwin and other amazing artists. I thought it would be fun for people to get a little insider baseball.

Your original career goal was to become an archaeologist. What changed?

When I went to Stanford to study ancient Greek so I could become an archaeologist, the teacher taught us Greek by having us learn the alphabet and then read Greek  literature. I got besotted with theater reading Greek comedies and tragedies. Theater was so central to the entire Greek culture — central to their civic discourse, their religion and their ethical beliefs.

You were born in D.C., to Marjorie Perloff, a literary critic, and Joseph K. Perloff, a cardiologist. Though not brought up religious, you have said you have a deep appreciation for your Jewish heritage.

My mother was a Viennese refugee, so the Holocaust narrative was a huge part of my life. My father was raised Orthodox in New Orleans — something of a rare breed. So Jewish values deeply permeated my family, especially a sense of history, the importance of the spoken word and a passion for education. My worldview is shaped by that culture, by my background and by my being Jewish.

One City One Book events include a tour of the ACT costume shop, a walking tour of local theater history, book club discussions and a session with theater critics.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected]

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.