5 Questions with Carey Perloff, Author of Beautiful Chaos

beautiful-chaos-one-cityCarey Perloff‘s book Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater (Published by City Lights Publishers) is San Francisco’s One City One Book in 2016! Carey is the Artistic Director of San Francisco’s acclaimed American Conservatory Theater, as well as an award-winning playwright and theater director. She answered our five questions! More about her, and her answers, below.

About Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater: A lively and revealing memoir of  twenty-plus years at the helm of the the American Conservatory Theater, Carey Perloff delivers a provocative and impassioned manifesto for the role of live theater in today’s technology-infused world.

Perloff’s personal and professional journey—her life as a woman in a male-dominated profession, as a wife and mother, a playwright, director, producer, arts advocate, and citizen in a city erupting with enormous change—is a compelling, entertaining story for anyone interested in how theater gets made. She offers a behind-the-scenes perspective, including her intimate working experiences with well-known actors, directors, and writers including Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Robert Wilson, David Strathairn, and Olympia Dukakis.

Whether reminiscing about her turbulent first years as a young woman taking over an insolvent theater in crisis and transforming it into a thriving, world-class performance space, or ruminating on the potential for its future, Perloff takes on critical questions about arts education, cultural literacy, gender disparity, leadership and power.

Beautiful Chaos is an extraordinary journey of Carey Perloff and her theatre, ACT. Their continued evolution and ability to define and re-define themselves with courage, tenacity, and bravery allow them to confront what seem like insurmountable odds. This continues to shape and inspire Carey and those who work with her.”—Olympia Dukakis, Academy Award-winning actress

“Carey Perloff’s lively, outspoken memoir of adventures in running and directing theatre will be a key document in the story of playmaking in America.”—Tom Stoppard, Playwright

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About Carey Perloff: Carey Perloff was born in Washington, D.C.  At age twenty-seven, she was hired to run Classic Stage Company. Perloff was the youngest person ever to be hired to run a major LORT theater when A.C.T. chose her in 1992 to become its third artistic director. She took over a ruined building and a demoralized and broke institution and set about bringing it back to life. In addition, Perloff has written a number of award-winning plays, including Luminescence Dating, Higher, and Kinship; has taught for many years in A.C.T.’s acclaimed MFA Program and at universities around the country; and has directed dozens of major reinterpretations of classical plays, from Hecuba to ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, as well as world premieres of new work. She helped rebuild A.C.T.’s Geary Theater after it suffered massive damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and was involved in opening The Strand, a new performing venue and a long-dreamed-of second stage for A.C.T. Perloff writes and lectures regularly about the American theater and about issues in culture and contemporary life that are close to her heart.


City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Carey Perloff: I spend a great deal of time at City Lights . . . but my first visit was in 1977 when I was a freshman at Stanford and I made my way there, full of wonder, walking up the stairs to the poet’s corner and peering in at Ferlinghetti’s desk. I remember buying a lot of novels in translation, because the Stanford bookstore had nothing of the kind. I was in HEAVEN.

City Lights: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?

CP: I think the first book I remember reading was D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths (great pictures too). Right now I am reading Dave Eggers’ The Circle and an amazing book on Angel Island given to me by Sean San José.

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City Lights: Which 3 books would you never part with?

CP: Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, Harold Pinter’s Collected Works, Vol. 1, Anna Karenina.

City Lights: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

CP: Music by Steve Reich and David Lang.

City Lights: If you opened a bookstore tomorrow, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?

CP: Well it would be most convenient if it were right by the park, where I live (although Green Apple Books is embarrassingly close!) and it would be called the Sanctuary and its bestseller would be all five volumes of Knausgaard’s My Struggle.


Carey’s book, Beautiful Chaos can be found at nearly every bookstore & library in San Francisco as 2016’s One City One Book. If you’re not in SF, you get it direct from City Lights or ask for it at your local independent bookseller.

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