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Conservatory Theater Still Seeks Its Ovation
NEW YORK TIMES

January 31, 2010

Like the thrill of settling into a plush seat as the curtain rises on a highly anticipated production, there’s the excitement over the announcement every March of the American Conservatory Theater’s coming season, with its promises of innovatively staged classic plays, bold new works by powerful writers and acclaimed productions imported from beyond the Bay Area.

Yet every year my expectations are dashed. More often than not, I feel emotionally disconnected from what’s on the American Conservatory Theater’s stage. (Engrossing productions brought in from the outside, like John Doyle’s Broadway staging of “Sweeney Todd,” are an exception.) This is troubling. A bustling cultural hub like San Francisco deserves a jewel of a flagship theater company, one that, like the San Francisco Ballet, attracts the attention of the broader arts world.

The company’s current production of “Phèdre,” Racine’s tragedy about a Grecian queen’s illicit passions, underscores the problem. On paper, the play looks promising: it’s the world premiere adaptation by the British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker featuring actors from the acclaimed Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada.

But Ms. Wertenbaker’s text, which retains all of the stiffness of Racine’s original but little of its lyricism, manages to excise much of the story’s poetic intensity and savage emotion. With a declamatory acting style and ponderous blocking, the work comes across as an intellectual exercise rather than a theatrical experience that engages both the heart and mind.

The same criticism could be leveled at many of the company’s recent productions, like “After the War” and “Happy End.” It took risks in staging these works, which all involved large casts and, in the case of “After the War,” significant development time. Although the productions featured impressive sets and lighting, the efforts did not pay off because of cumbersome mise-en-scènes and emotional flatness.

Founded in 1965 by the director William Ball in Pittsburgh before relocating to San Francisco a year later, the American Conservatory Theater became widely known for its expansive core acting company and dedication to training. During its first San Francisco season, the company staged 27 productions in two theaters to critical acclaim. Actors were sometimes cast in two productions at once and could occasionally be seen running from building to building between scenes.

The company’s fortunes have vacillated since. Initially, its work was well received; in 1979 the theater won a Tony Award for theatrical achievement and excellence in repertory performance. But eventually the resources dried up, the acting company faded out, and the theater’s reputation waned.

When the current artistic director, Carey Perloff, took over in 1992, she reinstated a small core acting company, expanded the educational offerings and earned praise, in particular, for her productions of Tom Stoppard plays. But other shows, like Mark Lamos’s deliberately shocking take on Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II,” turned many people off. These days the smaller Berkeley Repertory Theater is doing more innovative work and gaining national attention.

Box office figures suggest the audience’s growing discontent with the American Conservatory Theater’s output. According to company officials, in the past five years subscriptions have fallen to 14,939, from 17,574.

But the organization is working hard to attract audiences. As part of the recent centennial celebration of the theater’s historic auditorium, it instituted a two-day $19.10 ticket sale.

One former subscriber I talked to said she canceled her subscription after seven years partly because she found many of the productions too avant-garde. No one could accuse Ms. Perloff of pandering to the masses. Despite bringing in stars like Olympia Dukakis (who is starring in “Vigil,” starting in late March), Ms. Perloff’s programming choices are often inspiringly risky — especially in the company’s grand home theater, which is ill suited to difficult, small-scale works.

This season features a formidable three world premieres: a dance-theater collaboration with the San Francisco Ballet titled “The Tosca Project”; a new translation of Bertolt Brecht’s play “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” directed by Mr. Doyle; and “Phèdre.” The theater has eight playwrights under commission, including a local rising star, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb.

Meanwhile, the organization continues to grow its core acting company — a remarkable investment in Bay Area talent — and remains committed to importing foreign productions.

Balancing a quest for innovation with the realities of producing theater today is undeniably tough. But the American Conservatory Theater is making moves in the right direction. The company is searching for a more convivial second space to nurture new work. (Its current alternate site, Zeum, feels like a sterile lecture hall.) The theater is also sending its students out to perform in the community.

The future success of the American Conservatory Theater may also depend on the leadership’s ability to understand its patrons better. “Our audience over time has grown to hunger for challenging material,” Ms. Perloff said in an interview. “If you expose people to great storytelling told beautifully, they will respond to it even if they spend all day on Facebook.”

What Ms. Perloff perhaps fails to recognize is that as much as theatergoers like to be intellectually stimulated, first and foremost they want to be moved, whether to tears or laughter. Finding an additional space and reaching out to the community are both laudable steps. But the effort is wasted if the company fails to connect with the audience at the visceral level when the curtain rises each night.

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