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So Far

Natalie Robin • Off the Shelf • October 1, 2015

Beautiful Chaos, by Carey Perloff

Beautiful Chaos, by Carey Perloff

​In Beautiful Chaos, Carey Perloff, artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, examines her career, art and theatre.

In Beautiful Chaos, A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff sets out to reminiscence, evaluate and, to some extent, defend the first 20 years of her tenure at the American Conservatory Theater, the largest regional theatre in San Francisco, Calif. Having been invited into her position as a relatively young woman who was making her name as the leader of Classic Stage Company, a comparatively upstart theatre in a converted horse barn in the East Village of New York City, Perloff’s story is full of lessons learned and a drive towards making truly good and important art.

Perloff’s journey from a young, avant-garde downtown NY director to the leader of one of the largest (in both seating capacity and budget) non-resident regional theatres is unique to the American theatre landscape, perhaps most notably because she is a woman. As she parses the path of her journey, her shifting sense of self, as a woman, a director, a mother and, eventually, a playwright in her own right, drives the narrative of these 20 years, punctuated with anecdotes of her collaborations with notable theatre artists in her career thus far. Perloff isn’t shy about identifying her faults and mistakes and illustrating the lessons she learned. Even now, the looks back at her first months on the job looking for the right vision for A.C.T. in the post-founder era: “If I had been less naïve and compliant, I would have refused [to announce and budget the first season in less than 3 months]; it takes at least six months to understand an organization and its culture well enough to begin to make remotely informed decisions about the work ahead. But I said yes, and made every mistake I could possibly have made” (14).

And she is more than gracious in her acknowledgements of those who helped her along the way, from theatre greats like Olympia Dukakis and Tom Stoppard to the brave and supportive board of A.C.T. She humanizes the large institution through her own heartbreak and successes as she helps the theatre recover from the devastation of the 1989 earthquakes and the repeated economic woes of the early 21st century.

Perloff clearly has her own opinions about the state of American theatre and the role that non-resident regional theatre—and most specifically A.C.T—are meant to play. She seems to see the encroachment of commercial influence in the LORT theaters as a kind of threat:

“ … it had become standard operating procedure for the larger regioanal theaters around the country to accept significant enhancement money from commercial producers in exchange for the use of their venues and their subscription audiences to try out Broadway-bound material. While this allowed large-scale musicals to be developed and preview across the country, it risked sapping the regional theater of its artistic muscle and its local individuality” (188).



Perloff’s text is eminently readable, if a bit didactic. Clearly meant to appeal to the public at large, there is some over-explaining about the structure and pitfalls of not-for-profit theatre and Perloff isn’t shy about her feelings when it comes to commercial producers or union limitations. Her career at A.C.T. is not over and her dreams for the future fill the pages just as much as her memories of what has come before. She defends her choices while leaving much room for new directions in her work and the work of the company.


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