Homage to the creative mastermind behind ACT

Carey Perloff, retiring from San Francisco’s ACT after 25 years at the creative helm.
Carey Perloff, retiring from San Francisco’s ACT after 25 years at the creative helm.

This Saturday I will drive from Los Banos to San Francisco, as I have done seven times a year for the past 47 years, to watch an American Conservatory Theater play.

Saturday’s “A Walk on the Moon” will be the last performance I’ll see under the leadership of Carey Perloff, ACT’s artistic director for the last quarter-century. She is retiring this summer to pursue a freelance career in theater.

Over the years, ACT plays have been among the most joyful pleasures of my life, going back to the days of William Ball, who brought the acting company from Pittsburgh to San Francisco. Perloff, with the same creative and dynamic spirit of Ball, has brought aesthetic delight to playgoers who come from all over Northern California to the Geary Theater.

What makes ACT so good and so respected is its talent – actors, directors, set and costume designers and crew members. Perloff has kept the core actors of the theater together over the years and brought in respected visiting actors and directors from around the world.

Perloff’s greatest accomplishment, however, has been recognizing and nurturing talented playwrights of all ages and backgrounds. She has introduced me and thousands of other ACT audience members to dramatists writing plays involving experiences related to their own cultures – from Afghanistan to Alabama, Vietnam to Venice Beach, San Juan to San Francisco. She has directed many of their plays.

Looking back over the past quarter century, I think of plays that have brought particular delight, including the relatively recent “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini, “The Scottsboro Boys” by African-American David Thompson, and “Vietgone” by Vietnamese-American Qui Nguyen.

Going back further, Perloff produced “Seven Guitars” by August Wilson, “Fool Moon” by Bill Irwin and David Shiner and the monumental two-part production of “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner.

Over the years, Perloff has also staged a number of delightful musicals (which are often dramatic plays with a touch of music) including “Urinetown,” “The Tosca Project” and “Tales of the City.”

Perloff has staged plays written by the past and present masters of theater, including Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, O’Neil, Williams, Coward, Pinter, Stoppard and Mamet.

Throughout her 25 years as artistic director, Perloff has maintained a high standard of excellence, ensuring each play comes alive.

It’s not easy being essentially the CEO of a theater company in San Francisco. Plays are expensive to produce, and the Geary Theater is expensive to maintain, especially after it closed following extensive damage caused by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Perloff was the central point of millions of dollars of grants and fundraising that enabled the theater to reopen in 1996. In the meantime she staged plays at different theaters throughout the city to keep ACT alive.

Perloff has made sure her subscribers were pleased. Subscribers renew their memberships primarily on faith, especially faith in the artistic director. They know in advance the titles of the plays (many of them not especially well known). But subscribers also have faith that the productions will be impactful and engaging.

That was the reason I continued to renew my subscription every April, even though some years it was a stretch to afford what might be called “season tickets.” I knew Perloff would deliver on her promises to make the theater experience worth the cost of the subscription as well as the time and money involved in driving to and parking in San Francisco.

I’ve been fortunate to have excellent partners in watching ACT plays, for the first 28 years my wife Susan, and then two years after Susan passed away, my wife Sandy for the past 17 years. Both enjoyed the plays as much as I have.

I will miss Carey Perloff as she leaves ACT to pursue other creative interests, and I have confidence her successor, Pam MacKinnon, will continue a high level of aesthetic and financial success.

I will have many fond memories of Perloff’s productions. In college, as an English major in the 1960s, I read many plays but saw few productions. During the past quarter-century Perloff has made plays I once read come alive on stage and delighted me with many plays not yet written in 1967. For that, I am deeply grateful.

John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email john.spevak@gmail.com.