ACT finds its home in San Francisco

In 1965, Herbert Blau and Jules Irving left San Francisco to take over the direction of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at New York’s Lincoln Center, itself a troubled theater that had struggled under the leadership of Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead. Without the strong direction provided by its original leaders, The San Francisco Actor’s Workshop rapidly foundered, but the nascent American Conservatory Theater, a nomadic company visiting from the East Coast, and its indefatigable leader, William Ball, would soon fill this void in the San Francisco theatrical landscape.

Bill Ball was certainly in the right place at the right time. Just as the theatrical community was mourning the loss of the SFAW, Ball brought his Pittsburgh crew out to Stanford University as part of a countrywide tour designed to test the waters. Ball’s A.C.T. had wowed audiences when it presented its first season at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in 1965, but squabbles between the producing partnership of Ball, the Playhouse management, and Carnegie Institute of Technology led to a nomadic existence for the company while it looked for a new home.

The theater communities — practitioners, audiences, critics, and backers — in both Chicago and SF were interested, and the idea of sharing his season between these two cities was floated. But the Chicago end never worked out, so A.C.T. planted deep roots in San Francisco. A.C.T.’s first season(s) — first, a “half” season, planned as a result of the two-city idea, followed by a “full” season, once the Chicago idea fell through — opened in 1967.

Before coming to SF, Ball had studied acting and theater design at Carnegie Institute of Technology, receiving first a bachelor of arts in 1953 and then a master of arts in directing following a year spent in England on a Fulbright fellowship. While in England, Ball studied the structure, management, and programming of English repertory theater. In 1958, Ball won an Obie award for his direction of Chekhov’s Ivanov, and his freelance directing career included shows at the Alley Theatre, Arena Stage, the San Diego Shakespeare Festival, New York City Opera, and Circle in the Square, among others.

He was directing Tartuffe at Lincoln Center when artistic directors Kazan and Whitehead were fired, and this negative experience added fuel to his fiery view of the New York professional theater world as a soulless industrial rat race that obstructed the production of art. When questioned by colleagues about starting a company of his own, Ball responded with a list of twenty-six conditions; this declaration of artistic ideals and management ideology was sent to both the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and both responded with “massive support.”

Ball’s company was dedicated to rotating repertory, Eurocentric dramatic literature, and larger-than-life theatrics, but what made A.C.T. distinctive was its commitment to continuous training for its acting company; Ball saw teaching and studying as part of the actor’s craft, and advocated strongly for acting as a profession that should be practiced with the same kind of attention and respect as medicine, science, or law. From its first production, a remounting of Ball’s Tartuffe starring René Auberjonois (which had also opened A.C.T.’s Pittsburgh Playhouse season in 1965), A.C.T. was noted for its exuberance, electricity, and excitement. The company’s rotating repertory format compounded the awe factor, as audiences would see the same actors perform in several roles throughout the season; A.C.T. presented seventeen full-scale productions of European and American classics in two theaters in its first six months in San Francisco. (“We are now like the hungry citizen who has already had a delicious meal, even though dessert has not yet been served,” wrote Paine Knickerbocker in the San Francisco Chronicle. “The American Conservatory Theater has in three weeks presented five productions . . . in two theaters. It may well be the most dynamic, ambitious, enthralling, and outrageous adventure in the American theater today.”) Ball’s aesthetic and exuberance permeated the entire company, and his apparent willingness to invite, entertain, and seduce his audience has often been cited as a marked contrast from the alienating and academic approach undertaken by the SFAW, mostly under Blau’s influence. While Blau wrote, “Give an audience a chance, and it will certainly be wrong,” Ball acknowledged the need for an audience, trusting patrons’ ability to appreciate great works of theater when produced by passionate, highly trained artists of versatility and expressiveness. “In recent years, the metropolitan theatre audience has become more and more an audience of hit-followers,” wrote Ball in the program notes for A.C.T.’s inaugural 1965–66 season. “The thoughtful theatre lover is offered little in the way of a sustained, meaningful repertoire. . . . Modern audiences are guided far too greatly by a handful of drama critics, who find themselves—intentionally or not—in a position to shape the canons of theatre art and the tastes of an entire nation. The American Conservatory Theatre shall forego their bouquets as well as their brickbats, and allow you, as members of a thinking audience, to judge for yourselves.”

To be fair to Blau, part of this contrast had to do with the changing socio-cultural landscape; by 1967 Americans were more concerned with the Vietnam War than the Cold War, and an era of silence and conformity had given way to one of protest and anti-establishment rebellion. The repeal of censorship laws meant that artists had a great deal of freedom of expression, and even if there was social unrest in the air, there was still a great deal of partying and celebration going on during the mid and late ’60s. Even in the midst of civil rights struggles, large rock festivals such as the Monterey Pop festival, Woodstock, and Altamont celebrated the new counterculture and made clear to the world that vividly sensational artistic experiences could and would play an important role in transforming the world. Given this atmosphere, it makes sense that SF audiences would respond to the larger-than-life expressive abilities of the A.C.T. acting ensemble, enhanced by their training regimen, which included classes such as Sight Reading, Objects and Senses, Jazz, Tap, Flamenco, Histrionics, Suspense, and Alexander Technique. A.C.T. had not so much replaced SFAW as redefined the local professional theater experience as populist and enjoyable rather than elitist and purely academic.