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Q&A with San Francisco's Drama Queen

This month, Carey Perloff, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater, celebrates a big anniversary with a production of Sophocles' Elektra that features some of her favorite collaborators, including actresses Olympia Dukakis and Rene' Augesen, translator Timberlake Wertenbaker, and composer David Lang. Here she talks about why the Greeks are anything but ancient history and why her own history in San Francisco is, well, dramatic.

Why she's hung up on the Greeks:
"I started learning ancient Greek because I wanted to be an archaeologist. After reading the plays, I never looked back. The Greeks embody everything I love about the theater. They do things that only theater can do. They're not realistic living-room dramas that would work better on TV. They are these epic arguments about justice and family and vendetta and war and gender—everything we still fight about. We who love live theater have to keep asking, 'Is this an art form that still has muscle?' The Greeks had an answer to that 2,500 years ago." 

Why Olympia Dukakis is her personal Greek heroine:
"I wanted Olympia to play Clytemnestra in my first production of Elektra 30 years ago, using a translation by Ezra Pound that I found in a drawer that had never been done. She said no, and launched into a passionate speech about the patriarchy and how Sophocles did not present Clytemnestra in the light she should be presented in. Then she said, 'Let's have lunch.' That lunch was the beginning of a 30-year conversation. Olympia is Greek, she's studied Greek culture and tragedy, and she's been the artistic director of a theater company. She's incredible. Every wall I hit as an artistic director, both at [New York's Classic Stage Company, where Perloff spent ten years] and here at A.C.T., Olympia was always there to open the door for me, to give me perspective, to teach me how to work with the text to see what was really going on. It's been an amazing relationship."

Why Elektra is a very 21st-century play:
"The question the play asks is, 'What happens in a culture where revenge and bloodlust are never-ending?' Just look at the Middle East, where democracy is trying to take root—why is it so challenging? Because the rule of law is always much more difficult to hold on to than the rule of blood. We have to remember that when this play was written, democracy was a very new thing. Democracy is the hardest form of government." 

Why she thought her first year at A.C.T. might be her last:
"My first year was very hard. A.C.T. was nearly bankrupt. The 1989 earthquake had left our theater in ruins. This had been a very male organization, and I was a 33-year-old woman with a three-year-old child. I had to put together a season very, very quickly—without knowing the community. We ended up doing Dario Fo's The Pope and the Witch, which was a comedy about abortion.  I had no idea what a Catholic city this was. We were picketed by a church. It was in the Wall Street Journal. The same season, Robert Woodruff, who'd had a very distinguished tenure at the Magic, chose to do a very scatological production of The Duchess of Malfi. The set had a big tube where sperm came out. Our students were spread-eagled on desks having their clitorises sewn up. It caused absolute riots—I mean riots."  

Why she blogged about parenting on the Huffington Post:
"That first year, I would call my mother [Marjorie Perloff, now in her 80s] weeping, saying, 'This is impossible. I'm a terrible mother. I'm not home enough. I'm not making this job work. I'm not making anything work.' She was incredibly reassuring and tough. She's always worked—she's an intellectual, an academic. The most inspired piece of wisdom she handed me was to learn to say, 'I don't compete on that level,' which is what she told me as a kid once when I was supposed to bring homemade cookies to a bake sale, only to be handed a box of Entemann's donuts. 'I don't compete at that level' means 'I don't have to be a perfect mother.' That was so liberating to me. [That's why] I had to respond to that Anne-Marie Slaughter article in The Atlantic [Why Women Still Can't Have It All]. You'll never be perfect for your children; you'll never be perfect at the job—but men aren't perfect either. And my kids turned out fantastic."

Why A.C.T.'s Geary Theater gives off such great vibes:
"Moving back into the theater in January 1996 was so thrilling. Alan Jones, from Grace Cathedral, did a blessing. We said the Hebrew prayer for fertility over the fundraising wall. We shook incense over the fly rail, and we intoned all the names of all the flymen who had ever been up there. We said the speech of the moon rising from The Cherry Orchard from the stage manager's booth. We started a new era.

Why A.C.T.'s next era could be even better:
"Tom Stoppard, who's spent a lot of time in San Francisco and admires this audience very much, first raised this issue—how can you have this 950-seat theater and not have a smaller space to take risks? ACT has never had a dedicated second stage. In 2010, we hired a visionary new executive director, Ellen Richard, who had very deep real estate experience in New York theater. [At some point] she said, let's go look at the Strand [on Market Street]. It was a repertory movie theater from 1917 that eventually became a porn theater, then sat empty for ten years. We put masks on and walked around with the owner. It was covered in dead birds and all kinds of other things you just didn't want to see, but it had the bones of a really sweet theater. So we're going to make it a 300-seat space. I'm excited about having a showcase for our incredible MFA program. I'd love to do children's theater, which we've never really had the opportunity to do. 

But I'm even more excited to partner with all this new tech energy that's coming to mid-Market. Instead of saying that it's the techies against the rest of San Francisco, I want to harness that energy. What would make somebody who works at Twitter walk down the street and come to this theater? How are we going to let people know that it's worth leaving your computer screen or your mobile app to be in a room with other people, because live theather is thrilling?"

Elektra plays at the A.C.T. through November 18th. For more info, see their website.