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Value imagination, theater director tells Phi Beta Kappa initiates

STANFORD -- A former classics and humanities major who has gone on to a career in the theater told graduating students not to worry if their studies seemed to have little obvious value to their future lives.

"I am living proof that you can study arcane knowledge and live to tell the tale," Carey Perloff, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, said at Stanford's Phi Beta Kappa initiation ceremony Friday, June 11, in Dinkelspiel Auditorium.

Perloff, who received her bachelor's degree with honors from Stanford in 1980, said that of all she learned in college, "Perhaps the thing I treasure most today was the idea that no piece of knowledge was ever irrelevant, no field of inquiry meaningless, no artistic gesture in vain, no matter how far removed from the public eye it might seem."

The power of a great undergraduate education, Perloff said, "is that it sparks that part of you that is artistic, imaginative, unfettered, whether you are solving calculus problems, writing a piece of music, or studying comparative legal systems. It teaches you to think analytically but it also teaches you to trust those moments of intuition in which knowledge becomes insight, in which ideas become your own."

When she sat in Dinkelspiel Auditorium 13 years ago for her own Phi Beta Kappa initiation, said Perloff, the daughter of Stanford English Professor Marjorie Perloff, "I had no idea what would happen once I walked out of this room and into the world. I was that uneasy combination of artist and academic, and I suppose I still am."

"You have to be willing to fail, and fail publicly," Perloff said. "Anyone who's ever received a review in the New York Times know what that feels like."

She failed to win a Marshall Scholarship to study English drama, Perloff said, because she couldn't name the five major plays of Congreve. (By way of revenge, she said, she refuses to direct Restoration comedies.)

She received a Fulbright and went to Oxford, "where I quickly learned that the British refuse to touch each other on stage and that most plays at Oxford were staged with the action happening in the corners because that's where the radiators were."

At the end of her Oxford stint, she moved to New York "with a pile of new English plays I wanted to direct and not a single contact or job prospect in sight. This is when I began to send out letters saying I'd be willing to do anything just to work in the theater, and slowly, working by day and directing by night, I began to carve out a place for myself."

Perloff said she has spent many nights pondering such questions as: What does it mean to make live theater in a technology-obsessed culture? How can I be a good mother to my four-year-old and a good artist at the same time? What does it mean to keep your imagination triggered when what is valued most is the number of bonds traded?

The questions never stop, Perloff said. "What does stop is the gnawing feeling that you have to answer them immediately."

"I think I chose a career in the theater because it was my way to keep asking the unanswerable questions," Perloff said. "Directing great plays is my way of connecting, as I did as an undergraduate at Stanford, with minds and ideas and ways of living that lie outside of my own experience and therefore inform it."

Perloff said she is "terrified that arts programs all over the country, including at Stanford, are being slashed in the face of budget cuts, on the assumption that they are extraneous or lacking in the rigor of a true liberal arts education.

"The imagination is not a given," Perloff said, "it is a muscle that must be exercised in order to function. I have watched this phenomenon with my own child; children need to learn how to imagine, just as they have to learn to think visually and verbally."

Imagination is not a luxury that society can afford to live without, Perloff said. "A culture with no imagination produces physicians with no empathy, political scientists who cannot imagine that another culture's worldview might be producing assumptions radically different from our own, trial lawyers with no ability to imagine how a jury might view their clients, physicists with no imagination to envision worlds we have not yet seen."

Professor honored

Robert M. Waymouth, assistant professor of chemistry, received the 1993 Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize "in recognition of his outstanding effectiveness in eliciting student achievement in the liberal arts and sciences."

Student members of Phi Beta Kappa nominate and select the teaching prize-winner, who receives $1,500 and a plaque. The prize is supported by an endowment from the Amoco Foundation.

Graduating senior Sandra Bliss, who presented the award, quoted from students' nominating letters in praise of Waymouth's teaching. Said one: "He (Waymouth) took the time to explain a certain problem three different ways - just so each of us could decide which method was the one that tapped into our 'chemical sense'." Another wrote: "I will be forever grateful to (Waymouth) for lending a helping hand when others turned me away, and for making my research experience a wonderful one."

This year, 119 seniors and 38 juniors were elected to membership in the Stanford chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.


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