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The Drama Queen of Noe Valley: Off Stage with ACT's Carey Perloff
By Richard Dodds
At work, Carey Perloff presides over a $13 million budget, collaborates with world-class artists, and has her work showcased in the gloriously renovated Geary Theater near Union Square.
But at home, the artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater worries about the oversized speed bumps on her sloping block of Homestead Street, shuttles her kids back and forth to the Noe Valley Library, and lobbies to reduce a controversial development arising where Homestead meets 25th Street.
Since arriving from New York in 1992 to take the reins of a struggling ACT, Perloff and her family have happily made Noe Valley their home. But the neighborhood wasn't even on her radar when she began house-hunting six years ago.
"It was a nightmare," Perloff said of the search. "My first realtor showed me every mansion in Pacific Heights. Then I told another agent that I had no time for a fixer-upper, and she showed me nothing but rotting Victorians. But then a board member at the theater asked me where I lived in New York, and I told her on 12th and Broadway. She said, 'Oh, then you want to live in Noe Valley.'"
Perloff and her husband, Anthony Giles, bought the very first Noe Valley house they looked at, an attractive though hardly luxurious two-story structure that now contains more evidence of Perloff as a mother of two small children than as the director of the city's preeminent theater.
On a chilly summer morning, between taking her son to day care and heading to the theater for a round of auditions, the always-in-motion Perloff sat down at the dining room table for a chat about her life since moving to San Francisco.
"I felt incredibly at home in New York," Perloff said, "but if there was any city I would move to, it was San Francisco. I wouldn't do very well in Middle America."
Perloff, 39, had been the artistic director of the esteemed but tiny Classic Stage Company in New York for six years when she was offered the job at ACT. As much as she loved New York, she was ready to work on the larger canvas that ACT could provide. "And I thought that San Francis-co was a place where you could have a very engaged, literate audience," she said.
Another plus was that her mother was (and is) a professor at Stanford University, where Perloff herself received her B.A. in classics and comparative literature. The move also came at a good time for Perloff's British-born husband, who found that the market for Sovietologists evaporated along with the Soviet Union.
"He knew he had to reinvent himself," Perloff said, "and he was ready to leave New York." Giles is now a "newly minted lawyer" working for a San Francisco legal firm.
In a feature story earlier this year about ACT's remarkable comeback under Perloff's leadership, the New York Times noted that "a woman with a family running a theater is itself a virtual anomaly."
Perloff doesn't dispute this fact. "There is no peer group for this," she said. "You just have to figure it out yourself. But I'm such a workaholic that it's good for me to have kids. Otherwise, I'd be at the theater 24 hours a day."
The time that Perloff has been spending at the theater has obviously paid off. The theater's back-breaking debt of $3.5 million has shrunk in the last four years to a little more than a million. Subscriptions are nearing 20,000 -- an all-time high for the 31-year-old San Francisco institution. And the critical reaction to the productions has certainly improved since the dark days following the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. (The Geary Theater was so severely damaged in the quake that ACT had to pack up and become a roving company for nearly seven years.)
Still, Perloff's start in San Francisco was hardly propitious. Her first season as artistic director included a rendering of The Duchess of Malfi whose violence and nudity brought instant howls from longtime subscribers. Then a production of The Pope and the Witch by Dario Fo (who recently won the Nobel Prize) inspired the Catholic Church to picket the theater. It was an unnerving experience for a young director trying to make a good impression in her new hometown.
"I was shocked at how conservative some parts of San Francisco can be," she said. "ACT had been a temple of culture, and I had violated the temple. I got 750 letters about Duchess of Malfi, and I responded to all of them. People in San Francisco do want to be engaged, but they don't want to be blindsided. Once you harness that energy, you're in fine shape."
Living in a real neighborhood like Noe Valley has helped Perloff keep in touch with local tastes.
"We're big walkers," she said of her family, "and people come up to us all the time, at the playground, at Bell Market, and they really tell you what they like and don't like. When we first decided to do Angels in America, I heard from a lot of my neighbors who are gay that the theater had a lot of work to do to reach the gay community, and I've worked very hard to crack that. I do feel I know the audience in this city. No one in New York ever came up and talked to me."
Even so, Perloff admits that she does miss New York, and that the future might see her return. But not anytime soon, she quickly made clear. "I feel now is the fun time at ACT," she said. "It was so difficult putting this place back together that now the art can really begin. I feel this is the right place to be."
She is looking forward to taking more outside directing jobs, which she calls "replenishing." Perloff spent part of August at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, where she directed Olympia Dukakis in Hecuba. The Euripides tragedy was a success for Perloff when she first directed it for ACT in 1994, and an encore production opening at the Geary Theater in October will be one of two productions in the seven-play season that Perloff herself will direct.
"My happiest time is in rehearsal," she said, when asked which part of her multifaceted job she enjoys the most. "Although you have the burden of keeping the whole place afloat, and that's very stressful, it also allows you to create the ecology in which you work, which you don't get when you go someplace else to direct."
ACT's senior staff now bears the Perloff stamp. And many of her creative personnel happen to be women. "I like working with women," she said, "and when you hire women with children, you know they're going to be very efficient."
Perloff wasn't thinking in terms of a second child when she took the ACT job, and she didn't tell her board of directors that she was pregnant until she was six months along "because I knew they wouldn't be happy."
Son Nicholas, now 4, was born two weeks before the ground-breaking ceremony for the Geary Theater renovation. Sister Lexie, 9, spent her first years as a backstage baby at Perloff's New York theater.
Dealing with both toddlers and a career wasn't so hard, Perloff said. "What's now so complicated is dealing with their emotional needs as they get older. And I panic about adolescence."
Perloff and clan live on a block loaded with kids, which she appreciates, and she got to know many of her neighbors when she joined the fight to limit the size of a major housing development taking place less than a block from her house. "But Nicky loves it," she said of the construction site. "He thinks they're doing it just for him."
Perloff has discovered one down side to her hilly part of Noe Valley. "It's a very hard neighborhood," she said, "to teach your kid to ride a bike."