Last Saturday, I attended a "conversation" with Tom Stoppard at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. Sponsored by the Koret Foundation, the event was hosted ACT artistic director Carey Perloff.
Beginning at 10 on a storm-swept morning, the program attracted a sell-out -- and peculiarly geriatric -- crowd, but their enthusiasm for the author was evident. Settled in armchairs on the otherwise empty stage, Stoppard and Perloff discussed the recent success of "The Coast of Utopia" and "Rock 'n' Roll" for just under an hour. Some highlights for notes scribbled on the program:
Stoppard talked about his first trip back to Zlin, in what used to be Czechoslovakia. There he met the daughter of one of his father's medical colleagues, and the now-elderly woman told him how Dr. Straussler had stitched up her hand after she smashed it through a window in a childhood accident. Stoppard said that he was moved by the tangible evidence of his late father's handiwork.
Perloff recounted an anecdote about a student at ACT asking Stoppard to name the most important quality that an actor should bring to his scripts. Stoppard's answer: "Clarity of utterance."
Now devising a new translation of a Chekhov play, Stoppard said he works best at night, although he sometimes wakes to find that what he has produced reads "as if the Polish au pair girl had rearranged it." Also in regard to the Chekhov project, he reported that he's found a way not to worry about the presumed artificiality of characters speaking to themselves while alone on stage. "Breaking the fourth wall doesn't break the play."
Perloff kept the conversation rolling, but there's something a little off-putting about her manner, which borders on the fawning. I reap the benefits of her friendship with Stoppard, in that it enables events like this Koret program and the U.S. premieres of "Indian Ink" and "The Invention of Love." But it's a little icky to watch her gaze at him and proclaim him to be "the greatest living writer in the English language." It may be true, but c'mon.
She also apparently burnishes his bon mots a bit. After relating a story with the supposed punchline of "The problem with America is that you don't seem to have an Irony button on your keyboard," Stoppard gently corrected her, saying that he only wished for a typeface that could identify the ironic lines in his playscripts.
The biggest news of the day came at the beginning, when Perloff let slip that she is angling to bring "Rock 'n' Roll" to the Bay Area. Let's hope she's able to complete that negotiation successfully.