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TBA Online: News & Features: May 2015

Book Review: Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater by Carey Perloff

Tuesday, May 26, 2015   (0 Comments)
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By Lily Janiak

 Carey Perloff, artistic director, American Conservatory
Theater. Photo: Kevin Berne

At the beginning of her new memoir, Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater (just published by City Lights Publishers), Carey Perloff writes in an idiom with which most of us theatre people are familiar, even if we’ve never had occasion to be so fluent in it: artistic director-speak. It’s an equivocating language, designed to offend the fewest while aggrandizing and protecting the speaker. Long on abstract nouns and short on detail, it’s equally at home in a press release, a grant application or a public address—if not in a good story. 

In Perloff’s dialect of it, nearly every collaborator is “brilliant” (you could make a dangerous drinking game out of that word’s prevalence); Classic Stage Company, where Perloff was artistic director before taking on that role at American Conservatory Theater in 1992, was “the village well around which I could contextualize what I saw happening in the field and contribute to the larger art form”; ACT’s patrons are among “the most open-minded and engaged theater audiences in the country.”

Beautiful Chaos is a bit like President Obama’s Dreams of My Father: you know there’s a good story told well somewhere in there, but it can be hard to see it amidst constant campaigning.

Sometimes Perloff deploys even lesser argots. Her connection of a teenage interest in archaeology to her later interest in theatre could be mistaken for a college essay. Other times she’s so pretentious as to induce chortles, as when recounting an early Smithsonian visit: “One of my first childhood memories is of sitting in my stroller at the bottom of the grand staircase of the Phillips Collection, looking up at Renoir’s Luncheon with the Boating Party while my father explained what impressionism was.”

But if you can wade through the rhetoric, Perloff does have a good story to tell. As she puts it, “A 32-year-old neophyte from New York had been hired to run one of the five largest companies in America, a once-great institution with a theater full of earthquake rubble, a troubled school, a negative cash flow, a dwindling audience, and a traumatic history”—all while she was raising a two-year-old. If now Perloff seems as much a San Francisco institution as her company, it certainly didn’t start out that way. In her first year, she “made every mistake [she] possibly could have made,” starting with her season: Lend Me a Tenor, which was later canceled in the wake of a racially charged incident at the acting school; The Pope and the Witch, which infuriated subscribers and “the church hierarchy” alike, and a production of The Duchess of Malfi so graphic it’s difficult to even read about. That year alone, Perloff received no fewer than 750 “hate letters.”

Particularly juicy are Perloff’s tales of working with her favorite “brilliant” artists: why Olympia Dukakis rejected playing Clytemnestra; what Harold Pinter said on his answering machine greeting; how Robert Wilson reacted when, during a rehearsal for the famed 2004 production of The Black Rider, one of his septuagenarian performers fainted after standing “on one foot atop a rubber ball for what seemed like an eternity” while he tried to get the lighting just right. She also offers insightful analyses of these artists. In directing Pinter, she says, “the more mysterious the world outside the play, the better.”

Beautiful Chaos is less a play-by-play account of Perloff’s tenure at ACT than a somewhat scattered collection of both these anecdotes and miniature essays, which as a whole make for a useful and at times impassioned introduction to contemporary issues in American theatre: the dearth of funding for actors and acting companies as compared to playwrights and new play development; American theatre’s provincialism, especially as exacerbated by Actors’ Equity Association’s bars on working with international artists; the myriad levels at which women in theatre face discrimination. 

And if Perloff seems at times unaware of how her words might come off, it’s also impossible not to feel inspired by her plucky, DIY beginnings. She helped launch her theatre career with a secretarial gig at New York’s International Theatre Institute, which she fashioned into her own “graduate seminar,” she writes. “I kept notes on everything I learned, I went to see the work whenever I was invited, and every day brought a new actor, singer, director, or puppeteer into my consciousness.”

This is Beautiful Chaos at its best: when Perloff writes about what she loves. That, she says, is one of the boldest choices an artistic director can make: to simply be honest about his or her aesthetic. “Artists are discouraged from trumpeting their own tastes or predilections too loudly for fear of alienating an audience,” she writes.

Statements like these make one anticipate the memoir this indefatigable leader could write not in medias res but if she retires: Freer of such discouragement, of the imperative to make a case for her theatre in all that she does, fuller of love—and a whole lot dishier. 

Lily Janiak is development manager at New Conservatory Theatre Center.