Interview with Director Carey Perloff
TED SOD: Tell us about yourself: Where were you born and educated? When did you realize you wanted to be a director?
CAREY PERLOFF: I was born in Washington, D.C. and I went to the National Cathedral School for Girls, and then to Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, before going to college at Stanford. I had never been to California before, so that was my big rebellion. I wanted to be an archeologist all my life. At Stanford, I studied ancient Greek and Latin, and I ended up in theater because we studied the Greeks through reading Greek tragedies. I started reading and then directing the great plays in the original language and never looked back. I had a Fulbright Scholarship and went to Oxford after college. I started directing all kinds of plays while I was at Oxford, and also directed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I moved to New York City when I was 21 and started directing whatever I could, all over the city, both new and classical plays. I had no formal directing training; I learned everything I know from wonderful actors who knew more than I did and taught me what was useful in rehearsal. When I was 27, I became the artistic director of CSC Repertory Company on East 13th Street. I had never run a theater before, and CSC was completely broke, so I had to learn how to resuscitate a theater very quickly. While I was at CSC, I worked with Harold Pinter several times, which was really thrilling, and also with Tony Harrison and other notable writers and translators. I am also a playwright and was doing a lot of writing during those early years. I got hired to run A.C.T. in San Francisco in 1992, which meant learning how to direct and produce on a whole other level.
TS: You first directed Indian Ink in 1999. How do you go about conceiving a production that takes place in two different time frames, sometimes at the same time?
CP: What is so beautiful about the play is that it is incredibly crafted. Tom loves theatricality; he loves creating something that could happen onstage that couldn't happen on film or in another medium. The challenge in Indian Ink is to keep the two worlds intermixing and colliding just as they do in Arcadia. In Arcadia, the 19th century and the 20th century share properties, and the audience knows it's all the same setting. There's a distinct choreography that is necessary. In the case ofIndian Ink, I wanted to make sure that we embedded Eleanor Swan in her garden in the midst of the envelope that is India. The play is a detective story: it's about uncovering the truth about a love relationship that happened many years ago via a series of letters. The worlds of the play -- India in 1930 and England and India in the mid-80s -- contract and expand; the design is very much a world where both universes can be contained. We know where we are just by what costumes are being worn and what sounds we hear; we'll know where we are when we segue from a 1930s scratchy recording of a foxtrot to Bollywood music. There are rather abrupt lighting changes -- lanterns go to neon light, and suddenly you are in contemporary India. The characters weave in and out of the time frames and countries, and the audience gets to be part of that journey.
TS: Are there specific challenges in directing a play that you first directed 15 years ago?
CP: I think that you start from the ground up. I watched the archival video of our first production, and then I moved on and began to reimagine. Certain things feel differently to me all these years later. I never realized when I first directed Indian Ink how deeply it is a play about mortality. Flora knows from the beginning that she's dying, and so her action is always to suck the juice out of life. In revisiting our first production, I saw certain things that I loved: there were a few choices that I made that I still feel strongly about and that I think are the right choices. But I love doing second productions. It's great to return to a complicated play because you have the road map already. You know that it works and you know what the ground rules are, so you can really get in there and explore. This production has a different set, costume, sound, and lighting design team, so it will be completely new.
TS: How do you explain your affinity for Stoppard's work?
CP: I've directed almost all of Tom Stoppard's plays. He loves working at A.C.T. and had a long history of working there even before I came. He always said A.C.T. has the perfect audience for his work because they're literate and engaged. I met Tom when I was first directing Arcadia. I did the first regional production after the New York premiere, and we began a long correspondence that continues to this day. Tom gave A.C.T. the American premiere of Indian Ink and was with us throughout rehearsals, continuing to work on it. He and I are drawn to many of the same things. We both love language and ideas and wit and desire. He's also an Eastern European Jew, as I am. It's very funny that we think of him as the quintessential British playwright but, in fact, he's a Jew from Czechoslovakia. I felt a connection as soon as I met him. I married a Brit, so I know that culture well. I've directed many English plays, so I relish Tom's irony and his wit. I love his voracious intelligence. I think the main thing with Stoppard is that he really understands that ideas can be sexy and that the heart and the mind always go together.
TS: What would you say the play is about?
CP: It's about an English poetess named Flora who intimately gets to know an Indian painter named Nirad. Flora keeps telling him she wishes he was more Indian without realizing that the whole tragedy of his condition is that he's been colonized and thus has been forced to be more British than the British. The journey for him is to authentically rediscover something about himself as an Indian man. It's a play about cultural collision and cultural identity and about how love and art can bring about the most unlikely combinations of people. Indian Ink is about the relationship of mortality to art, a theme Tom has returned to many times in his work. Flora longs to leave something beautiful behind. The play asks us to think about what remains when somebody dies and how art can carry our spirits forward. What is really luscious about Indian Ink is that you don't have to worry, oh, it's Tom Stoppard, I have to read all the footnotes. The play is very romantic, it's funny and moving and accessible. I hope the question people ask themselves is why did it take so many years for this play to come to New York?
TS: Will there be any changes in the text?
CP: Tom's changing the ending, which I'm very excited about. He's putting the focus much more squarely on Flora and the mystery of her love affair. He's re-ordering some scenes and has cut some references and changed some things along the way. I think it will feel more seamless and will be a little bit shorter. He wants to keep the buoyancy of the play. He's very hard on himself. If he thinks he's made something too deliberately obscure, he'll go back there and fix it.
TS: Indian Ink started as a radio play -- correct?
CP: Yes. It started as a radio play entitled In the Native State. Jummapur - the fictional setting of this play -- is a Native State, which means it was nominally sovereign but clearly under the jurisdiction of the British Raj.
TS: Do you personally relate to any of the characters?
CP: I always relate to all of the characters in a great play. I love plays about feisty women. This play has two of the most incredible female characters. Eleanor, played by Rosemary Harris, is a completely surprising and unpredictable character -- you think she's the kindest, sweetest British gal, and you discover she has radical points of view. Flora is also a great creation. She's very mysterious, passionate, and iconoclastic. The two main Indian characters, Nirad and Anish Das, are complex artists, artists of a very different kind. They wrestle with questions of representation, abstraction, and authenticity. They are asking, "What is the meaning of home and what is exile?"
TS: Do you see any parallels between the British Empire of the early 20th century and America today?
CP: Empire is empire. America is a very different kind of empire. We have made many ill-begotten attempts to try and export democracy. The British did it in India for better or for worse and were quite unapologetic about it. They deeply believed in British law, language and food. There they were in India, wearing corsets and long dresses and eating mutton in this extremely hot climate. It was insane, and yet they created an infrastructure of road and train systems and trial by jury. The irony is that it was by the English being there and spreading their language that different factions of India could actually unify. The British Empire sowed the seeds of its own destruction. What happened during that period changed the way England looked at itself. How America sees itself as an empire is still an unfolding story.
TS: Do you have any advice for young people who want to direct? Do you have any specific advice for young women who want to be directors?
CP: I have spent my whole career fighting for women, and I love hiring women directors. I think the most important thing is to try to develop your own aesthetic. Carve out what is important to you, what you uniquely have to bring to the table and then pursue it as actively as you can. Find the writers that really speak to you and see if you can connect with them. Do readings of their work. There are all kinds of opportunities to direct at graduate schools. I started directing at Juilliard and Barnard. It was also helpful for me to work with the best actors and then learn as much as I could from them. Have the humility to ask good questions and learn what you need to know.