A Life in the Theatre: Bernard Gersten

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Bernard Gersten
 
Meet Bernard Gersten, executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater since its founding in 1985.
Bernard Gersten
Bernard Gersten

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From 1960 to 1978 he was Joseph Papp's top deputy at the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater.

This is Lincoln Center Theater's 25th anniversary. At the beginning, working with Gregory Mosher as artistic director — and, since 1991, with André Bishop — you took a theatre that had been almost completely dark for eight years, and that for 20 years under four administrations had been a consistent failure, and turned it into a major nonprofit stage organization. How did you do it?

First of all, there was something that helped that had previously been viewed as a detriment: location, location, location. Being at Lincoln Center gave the theatre a distinction and a place in the New York universe among the other constituents — long-running successes like the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet. To have these colleagues is to create a set of expectations for yourself.

The second thing is we've had a most extraordinary board of directors, first headed by John V. Lindsay. There's considerable satisfaction that we stopped being the difficult constituent, that we've had 25 years of consistency. Not 25 years of successes. That's not the issue. Successful productions are not the food and drink - artistic excellence is the Holy Grail. And with a reasonable set of expectations, we have done well. Then there's the theatre space — the Vivian Beaumont, which our predecessors considered difficult but which I love as much as or more than when I first started here. It's an excellent plant, a machine for the production of plays. I love its thrust stage.

And then there's the leadership. It's hard to talk about myself. I could say I've contributed. But there have been André and Gregory.

We didn't have a stodgy view. Institutional theatres often have a stodgy nature, with subscriptions and a planned season. When Gregory and I first sat down he was strongly opposed to subscribers. So we began with a membership plan, where people could come see what they wanted to see.

At first we didn't have enough money to open the Beaumont, so we did two one-act David Mamet plays in the Newhouse, the smaller theatre. They weren't a big hit, but following in their wake was John Guare's House of Blue Leaves. That was sensational. There were more customers than seats. So we thought, why not move it to the Beaumont? And we've gone on from there.

What were your goals when you started the theatre company?

The first goal of a theatre is to stay alive. That's an understood mission, and not to do so by inappropriate means. To have the passion, the aspiration, the vitality — to take into account existing mature talent but also be constantly in pursuit of the future, of a new playwright or a group of new playwrights that help define the theatre.

Lincoln Center Theater's successes have included John Guare's House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, the hit musical revival of Anything Goes starring Patti LuPone, Thornton Wilder's Our Town with Spalding Gray, The Sisters Rosensweig by Wendy Wasserstein, Tom Stoppard's Invention of Love and The Coast of Utopia, Tony Award-winning revivals of The Heiress and Carousel, the 2000 Best Musical Tony winner, Contact, and the current Tony-winning revival of South Pacific. What do you consider your major accomplishment?

Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia inevitably has to rise above the crowd because of its scale, its ambition. He's one of the finest playwrights of this era, and this is the play of his that stands out because of its greatness — the achievement of the playwright, and of the director, Jack O'Brien, and the brilliance of the cast. It was a nine-hour work divided into three parts, and it had a success at the Beaumont that far transcended its success in London, including winning the Best Play Tony Award.

When you worked as associate producer for Joseph Papp, the Public Theater championed the careers of many young playwrights, among them David Rabe, Vaclav Havel, Ntozake Shange and John Guare, and helped build the careers of many actors, including James Earl Jones, Meryl Streep, Martin Sheen and Raul Julia. You've also been called a guiding force in presenting the director Michael Bennett's Pulitzer Prize–winning Chorus Line. What were your favorites?

The productions that stand out for me include Much Ado About Nothing with Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes in the 1970s. And the John Guare–Galt MacDermot–Mel Shapiro musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which starred Raul Julia, started in Central Park, moved to Broadway and won the Tony Award as Best Musical in 1972. And, of course, A Chorus Line. Its success was beyond fantasy, so overwhelming even for a theatre that has had its list of successful productions.

Tell me about your childhood and how you became interested in and began working in the theatre.

I grew up in Newark, and at the end of the third grade a play was done to celebrate commencement. I didn't even know what a play was, but I remember that I got the part of a doctor. I was given a topcoat and a satchel, and my grandfather took a pair of eyeglasses he no longer wore and knocked out the glass to give me my first prop. I stood before the curtain, and when it opened — I have convinced myself that there was a synapse connection that took place, the excitement of the curtain going up.

I was in the dramatic club at West Side High School and I was voted best actor in my class. In college I enrolled in a course in business management — I had worked summers in hotels and was convinced I'd like to work in a hotel. I didn't care much for business administration, though, and I failed an accounting class, but the professor promised to give me a passing grade if I promised never to go into accounting.

At Rutgers I was in the Queens Players, the college drama society, and the director was a man named William Corrigan. And there's a direct line from Corrigan to where I'm sitting right now. I stopped getting acting roles, and I left college after two years to enlist in the Army in World War II. I was stationed in Hawaii, as was Corrigan. The famed actor Maurice Evans had an Army special services entertainment unit there. I saw Evans in Hamlet and I got in touch with Corrigan asking if he would recommend me to Evans. He told Evans I could be useful — move scenery, hang lights, be a stage manager. And I was transferred to the unit.

As a result of being in the special services corps I met a man named Bob Karnes. We became fast friends. He was an actor in California. After the war I stage-managed a couple of plays in New York. In 1948 I was out of work. He called me and said they needed a technical director at the Actors Laboratory in Los Angeles. I accepted the job. That's where I met Joe Papp. And the rest is history.

What are your future hopes for Lincoln Center Theater?

The goal is to have a lasting theatre at Lincoln Center, one that will have continuity beyond its present leaders. We hope it will become as naturally self-preserving as those other, older Lincoln Center institutions. And why shouldn't it? If André and I get run over by a truck next week, our board knows exactly what to do. It knows how to make the transition and find a new leadership every bit as original as I hope we have been.

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