Jenny Gersten of Williamstown Theatre Festival
Anticipating Her First Season as Artistic Director
By: Charles Giuliano - Feb 16, 2011
There is a great tradition for the summer long Williamstown Theatre Festival. In addition to consistently mounting Broadway quality, Main Stage productions, and edgy Nikos Stage new works, at a frantic pace of just three weeks of rehearsals, there is also an extensive education program and fellowships to develop new plays.
A number of WTF plays go on to Broadway and Off Broadway. That will be true this season as the first Main Stage play You Can't Take It With You is already booked for Broadway.
And yet, in recent years, many feel that WTF was adrift. The contract of the actor/ director, Roger Rees. was not renewed. The director, Nicholas Martin, was brought in to fix the leaks. After a triumphant first season he suffered a stroke but continued for the past two years. Nicky is loved and admired by the theatre community. While he has directed a play for each of his three seasons he is relieved this summer to return and focus on directing without the other responsibilities. His production of She Stoops to Conquer is much anticipated.
While Martin is seen as having gotten WTF back on track, the new artistic director, Jenny Gersten, is here for the long haul.
With her appointment the Board appears to have gone back to the model of her mentor Michael Ritchie. She will focus on producing and serve as a full time, year round CEO with no other projects. Gersten says she has no interest in directing. She sees administration, budgets and marketing as her comfort zone. Significantly, Gersten also brings youth, passion and smarts to Williamstown.
It was a Monday at the Clark Art Institute which was closed. She was there as a part of a reading that night of a Neil Simon play. We had the lobby all to ourselves as we discussed her vision for the future of WTF.
Charles Giuliano Welcome back.
Jenny Gersten I first arrived here in 1996 when Michael Ritchie was appointed. He and I had been talking for awhile about working together and he called me up. I remember it was right around Christmas time and he said “I got the job at Williamstown and you’re coming with me.” His title was producer and we decided my title would be associate producer. So I was here from 1996 to 2004 as associate producer. We would do ten shows a summer in those years.
CG So this summer six or seven.
JG I haven’t said yet. Three on the Main Stage but quite a few more on the Nikos Stage.
JG I didn’t say.
CG I did.
JG There might be more than four. There could be five or six.
CG Really, that’s interesting.
JG Maybe, we’ll see.
CG I’m glad you announced Main Stage earlier this year. We were kept waiting until the last minute last year. One of the problems with waiting so long is getting the marketing out.
JG I agree. Even though we are in a marketing climate right now where people are making more and more last minute decisions at the same time there’s a population that wants to make their summer plans in the Berkshires long in advance. Jacob’s Pillow, Tanglewood, Barrington Stage and everyone else gives ample time to figure it out.
CG By now the ducks are pretty well lined up. We know what's happening with James Taylor and Wilco.
CG There seems to be some tripping over each other. Mass MoCA has announced the Wilco Festival for June 24 to 26. Tanglewood has Earth Wind and Fire that weekend. You get the feeling that somebody wasn’t looking at the calendar. Let’s talk about the marketing because that has been an issue for WTF. Particularly with Nicholas Martin dealing with health problems the past two seasons. So the marketing was not his primary priority. Because of the training aspects of WTF the young woman handling PR last summer was a total disaster.
JG Yeah, I heard.
CG We lost half a season because all of those early interviews just didn’t happen. How much of a priority is it for you to not only be the artistic director but also handle the marketing and work with the Board?
JG I have been hired as the head of the Festival. That encompasses the duties of artistic director as we know them traditionally. But there is also a CEO aspect of my job. I take that seriously. And also I am someone who has primarily served as a producer. I really come at the job with more of a business acumen. The artistic side of my job is one that still feels challenging to me. It’s what I come to with the most apprehension. The business aspect the producing, the marketing, the budget, all of those aspects are my comfort zone.
CG Your comfort zone. Without going into detail that has not been a strong suit of the Festival in recent years. Roger Rees, for example, was known to have a difficult relationship with the Board and particularly women on the Board. (As was related to me by a female Board member.) There was a down time that impacted the Festival. There were issues with attendance and the quality of productions. Nicky came in and seemed to put a big Band-Aid on the Festival. During that time WTF got back on track. Now you come in as, I can’t speak for the Board, but it appears to be a long term solution. You are young, bright and talented and it seems the intention is to get the Festival back to what it was. Is that a fair perception?
JG I think it is reasonable. There’s comfort in the fact that I know the place. I have affection for the place and I think that’s really important. The Board was wary about bringing in someone completely outside of Williamstown. The fact that I am this person who can fill both the artistic director part of the job, and the CEO aspect we were just talking about, was attractive to them.
CG You worked with Diane Paulus (Artistic Director of the American Repertory Company (ART) ).
JG I did.
CG Can you talk about that. What was your role in Hair?
JG I was the associate producer at the Public Theatre when Hair was done first as a concert. I had just gotten there in 2007. We brought it back for the full Shakespeare in the Park run in 2008 which we ended up extending a couple of times. When I was at the Public I started to do a lot of the commercial transfers. When I first got there I was doing a show called Passing Strange. It moved to Broadway and I represented the Public Theatre in a lot of the transactions. I had been working on Hair for over a year at the Public when it transferred to Broadway. So I was a part of the team that brought it to Broadway.
CG Is it fair to make any comparison to you and Paulus? She certainly brought in a very different point of view to ART. There have been mixed responses. In some ways it has been enormously popular. Some of the older subscribers feel a letdown and a lot of the old company is no longer there. Do you see any commonality between yourself and Paulus from an aesthetic point of view?
JG I worship Diane. I really do. She’s extremely dynamic. She’s articulate. She’s loves the theatre and she loves her position at ART. She went to Harvard and grew up admiring (Robert) Brustein and ART. The challenging theatre they did there awakened her in a lot of ways. The ART mission is very different from Williamstown.
CG Are you going to do challenging theatre?
JG I don’t know. I love challenging theatre.
CG Main Stage this season doesn’t look that edgy.
JG Not this year. This season was a lot about opportunity. I got a call from my friends Liz McCann who I worked on Hair with and Passing Strange actually. She said I’ve been trying to do You Can’t Take It With You for four years and it would be great to start it at Williamstown. I said it would be a perfect show for Williamstown and let’s do it. She and I started talking months ago and we came up with this plan. I think it’s going to work for the director and it’s going to work for the cast. It just seems like a great opportunity. That’s why that’s there. With She Stoops to Conquer we have Nicky (Martin) back. In a meeting he mentioned it to me and I said ‘I love that play.’
CG And he has done it.
JG Yes, that’s true.
CG With your short rehearsal time that gives him the chance to hit the ground running.
JG It has a great cast and is a natural fit for the WTF Main Stage. So those two are real slam dunks right away. And John Doyle is a director I loved working with at the Public so I sat down with him a few months ago. We talked about this and we talked about that. We talked about plays. We didn’t exclusively talk about musicals.
CG As I understand it Ten Cents a Dance takes Rogers and Hart and reconfigures the music. What’s that all about? You take classic songs and…
JG Well you never get to hear those Rogers and Hart songs on stage. We know them as standards.
CG Are they from a lot of different plays.
JG Absolutely, they are. From Pal Joey and Of Thee I Sing. From a whole bunch of them that don’t really work as musicals. They come from troubled books so we don’t get to see them on stage. The Rogers and Hart estate is very much behind us doing this. They never get to license those shows. Nobody ever does them.
CG How do you take them and make a book?
JG That’s John’s task.
CG Have you read the book?
JG I have. It’s a beautiful theatrical piece. There’s not much to talk about. There’s very little plot. There’s a story there but not any dialogue. It’s completely sung through. There’s no libretto so it’s just the songs.
CG Is there a story line?
JG Yeah. In a couple of newspapers they call it a revue or a jukebox musical. That’s not really true because there is going to be a very clear story line. John’s a very theatrical director. He loves the purity of the theatre.
CG What are you bringing to WTF. We are now in your era. You have the right to take the company in your direction. So where are we going? I assume you will be here for awhile. They won’t kick you out the door if you don’t get it right off the bat. We assume there will be some breathing room.
JG It’s going to be a great mix of plays that people really want to see. And picking plays that people didn’t know they wanted to see but are a revelation. Like Forum last summer. There’s a lot to the story yet to be told about the education programs at Williamstown. What that lends to the overall atmosphere and energy. It’s a Theatre Festival and I want to keep talking about those aspects and what is being home grown in the fellowship projects. Like After the Revolution last year. People don’t really know about that. It is some of the most important new play development happening in American today and people don’t really know about it.
CG Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was developed here. I hated it.
JG Well, it’s not for everyone.
CG And yet many people felt very passionate about it as new and fresh.
CG Oh my God. I couldn’t stand it.
JG Not for everyone.
CG Did you see it?
JG I did. Andrea Martin is back stage right now and I ran into her on New Year’s day and she said I have to see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson before it closes tomorrow. I told her I can get you a ticket it’s fine I have friends over there but it may not be for everyone. I admired it. But I know what you mean.
CG Are you going to direct this summer?
CG Why’s that?
JG I’m not a director which is really why I can’t compare myself to Diane Paulus.
CG Why is that?
JG Why am I not a director? It was never what I wanted to do. I always wanted to be a producer.
CG Interesting. It seems that the Williamstown tradition has been.
JG Michael Ritchie didn’t direct. I think that’s also partly why I’m here. That model may have worked for us more than we realized.
CG Can we talk about the Nikos Stage. You are not yet announcing but you are looking so what are you looking for?
JG The Nikos Stage season is, for me, where you can build the most excitement. Because we’re doing three on the Main Stage and the Main Stage is not the place for experimentation, frankly the Nikos Stage is where that’s at. So there will be new plays and some other stuff that’s unusual.
CG You have said in interviews that you want to do more musicals.
JG I have but I don’t think there is going to be a musical this year.
CG last year we had the Last Goodbye.
JG Which was great.
CG Did you see it?
JG I did.
CG Did you like it?
JG Ummmmm. (long pause) I admired that piece. I admired that piece. I did. I think the Jeff Buckley music is really stirring and reached a lot of people. I think that’s why it’s important that the musical is being done. When I went to see it the audience members were often people who would never come to WTF. So it was important to reach out to that audience. I think it’s really ambitious to marry that music to the Romeo and Juliet story. Then on top of that to have the actors speaking Shakespeare when they are really musical theatre performers.
CG I loved it. I was quoted as writing this is the best new musical I have ever seen.
JG It’s very bold.
CG The woman who played Mercutio was incredible and the couple had tremendous synergy. It turns out that off stage they were a couple so that was conveyed in their performances. People who know more about theatre than I do picked I apart. I’m not coming from a theater background so perhaps I tend to see the whole more than the sum of the parts. In that sense perhaps I am closer to what an audience might see and experience.
JG That’s what I was going to say. That’s great.
CG Talk about the Gersten era. What are we looking forward to?
JG Oh wow. I think Williamstown should be a place where everyone wants to be. That’s got to be for the audience and that’s got to be for the actors.
CG You have formidable shoes to fill. Do you feel up to this? There is a great tradition but many people feel it fell off track. It’s been problematic for a decade at least. How do you bring in the major stars that we associate with this tradition?
JG If you build it they will come. So we will see how this summer goes. If everyone goes out and says that was the place to be this summer. Did you see this? Did you see that? But I saw this and missed that. If that starts bubbling out, not just in this community, not just in the Berkshires, but the students who are coming here are talking about it, the actors are talking about it, people who are coming from all over the place are talking about it.
CG It’s a changed landscape. It’s a tough economy. Gas is expensive. There’s a lot more competition, Barrington Stage has become a force. Berkshire Theatre Festival have been here forever and Shakespeare & Company. Audiences are presented with a lot of options. But there is critical mass and synergy. There are four major theatre companies.
JG Absolutely and all run by fabulous women. (Tony Simotes has replaced Tina Packer as artistic director of S&Co.).
CG Is there a feminist conspiracy?
JG I don’t think it’s a conspiracy it’s just a fact.
CG To what extent is this a full time job for you?
CG Will you have more of a year round presence here?
JG Oh yeah. I come up every month.
CG There is the perennial issue of no boots on the ground until June. So there has been no year round presence and identity. Every season it seems like we have to start from square one with a new PR staff. It is well into the program before they know the local media. Particularly on line writers. Will we have a year round relationship with you?
JG I don’t see why not.
CG Will there be more off season programming and events?
JG I don’t know. We’ll see. When it makes sense it’s great and we try. We’ll look at more things like tonight at the Clark (Reading of Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers) everything else just gets too expensive.