PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Williamstown Theatre Festival's Jenny Gersten

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Williamstown Theatre Festival's Jenny Gersten
 
We speak to Williamstown Theatre Festival artistic director Jenny Gersten, now enjoying her first summer as head of the renowned company in the Berkshires.

Jenny Gersten
Jenny Gersten Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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Jenny Gersten, the first woman appointed as artistic director of the 57-year-old Williamstown Theatre Festival, located in the scenic college town in Massachusetts, has theatre in her DNA. Her father Bernard Gersten is the executive director of Lincoln Center Theater, and, prior to that, he served as the associate producer at the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Public Theater). Her mother, former dancer Cora Cahan, is the co-founder of the Joyce Theater and is currently the president of New 42nd Street (which oversees the New Victory Theatre and is responsible for reviving West 42nd Street over the past 20 years).

Jenny Gersten, it turns out, traced her father's footsteps, serving as the associate producer at the Public Theater, where she helped give life to the high-profile Shakespeare in the Park productions of The Winter's Tale, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice (also on Broadway with Al Pacino) in recent seasons, as well as Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays, Richard Forman's Idiot Savant, David Henry Hwang's Yellowface and the Tony Award-winning revival of Hair, which she oversaw from its beginnings as a concert at the Delacorte Theater, through its acclaimed Broadway and London runs.

Gersten has also been the artistic director of the Off-Broadway company Naked Angels. She has now returned to Williamstown as artistic director after having served as the associate producer there from 1996-2004.

* Was there a defining moment as a kid, dinner-table talk, that made you really want to become producer?
Jenny Gersten: I don't remember a watershed moment when that light bulb went off. My memory of my childhood, the way I recollect it, is that I always found a world that my dad took me to backstage, or my mom took me to backstage. My mom grew up as a dancer, and then ran a dance company, and built a dance theatre. That it always felt very special, and because both of them were so passionate and enthusiastic about what they did, you're right, it definitely infected the dinner-table conversation. It was so much about the excitement, and you know, I remember having a very early crush on Raul Julia, who was working a lot at The Public at the time. Just little things like that — my parents loving what they were doing, kind of infusing me with that, and being excited about everything I was exposed to.

 

Jessica Hecht and Sam Rockwell in A Streetcar Named Desire.
photo by T. Charles Erickson

It's rare that you hear of a kid who is bitten by the producing bug at a young age. A lot of people are drawn to being performers, but you were drawn to bringing art to people.
JG: Pretty much. I did flirt with performance when I was in high school and I was in the senior play. I didn't really ever get cast because I wasn't that good, but I did finally get cast in the senior play because it was only seniors. It was that night when I performed that play, which was The Doctor In Spite of Himself, that I was like, "You know what? I really belong on the other side." And I knew some professional actors at that time and it was a very clear moment for me of thinking, "That's a very hard life and you have to know that you have to do it and love it so much."

You followed in your father's footsteps working at The Public, which is an institution that is really tied to the community in the way that Williamstown is, too.
JG: What's interesting about The Public is that it's tied to so many communities. It's very much part of East Village cultural life, but when you look at the Joe's Pub side of The Public, you are tied into the many aspects of the music community, not just one. Then you think about the Emerging Writers Group or free Shakespeare in the Park. You're right, The Public is a community theatre, but it's like an umbrella over so many communities: Young artists, established artists, people who dabble — not dabble, who toil — in Shakespeare. Williamstown is a small town in the northwest corner of the Berkshires that has, for 57 years, embraced a group of people who come up every summer to do theatre. And so the interaction between the town and the festival is really a part of the energy of this place in a very direct way, and [Williamstown College] too, because the college is kind of a separate community as well.

This the inaugural season for you at Williamstown, which has to be exciting and challenging. Is there a particular goal or direction that you would like to take the festival in?
JG: I'm really interested in how the WTF evolves from here, and part of that is because we have this relatively new performing arts space. We've been in a new performing arts center that Williams College built…and I think the theatre festival is still growing into that space. We haven't totally adjusted to the new ecosystem of it, so I am really interested in that adaptation or that evolution.

Blythe Danner, Frank Langella, Maria Tucci, George Morfogen, Jimmy Naughton, all those actors who cut their teeth on the master writers like Chekhov and Williams here is so much a part of this place. But [I'm also asking], "Who is that new generation of actor that this town embraces the way 20 or 30 years ago they embraced those actors that I just mentioned? — Who are the new master writers?" Doing Tennessee Williams in the 1970s was still a really bold idea, even doing Chekhov was a really bold idea for a summer stock, so what's that new version of bold in 2012? What are those new challenges? So, that's what I am interested in. That's what I look at.

You've produced and worked closely with Richard Foreman, who creates bold, daring theatre that asks a lot of its audiences. Do you think there is room for experimental programming like that at Williamstown? Is there an economic challenge in doing work like that?
JG: Yeah, I consider it all. You say "Richard Foreman" to me and my heart skips a beat. I love working with that guy, but I don't know. It might be [a challenge]. Certainly the community in North Adams, which is the neighboring town, has an extraordinary contemporary art museum, Mass MoCA, which does the most kind of brave, outside-of-the-box programming, and the community is completely a part of it, so you know, who knows? But that's the great thing about my challenge right now or my ambition. Let's think about it all. Let's think about Foreman, let's think about…what's the 21st century version of cabaret, all of that, and who are the new master writers that actors want to cut their teeth on?

Ana Reeder and Sam Rockwell in A Streetcar Named Desire.
photo by T. Charles Erickson

You were speaking about the great collection of actors, but you also have a great group of directors: Robert Falls, David Cromer and John Doyle this season. It looks like you have a great passion for directors as well.
JG: I don't know if it's a passion or a weakness. You know, I rely on directors —because I am not a director — who represent what I aspire to be, or what I aspire to create, I guess. I am able to look at the script and say, "That's an interesting story that's being told, or, I like what the writer's doing with this." Even with Streetcar, obviously it's not just "I like the story, it's a great play," but "I think Sam Rockwell and Jessica Hecht would be good in those roles," but it's David Cromer who I rely on to make this original and special, which is not easy to do with A Streetcar Named Desire. And it's the same thing with Doyle, they are strong directors because they have strong visions, and they are clear and I rely on that because I'm not able to do that. All I am is a filter for good ideas.

Broadway audience demographics are beginning to change, are you noticing that younger crowds are also visiting Williamstown? Do you make efforts to appeal to younger audiences?
JG: We have 350 young people here now. They just don't attend the theatre, they work for it! I honestly think that's part of it. I think that's when we think about the sort of new bold programming and not sort of staying stuck in our past. I think we think about how to think about bringing in young audiences, but the question is how many people are actually in the area who are young at any given time because this is essentially a college town that gets rid of its young people in the summer. Last summer, when Nicky Martin, who was the artistic director, did The Last Goodbye, with music by Jeff Buckley, we saw an influx of young people coming to our theatre that we've never seen before. So when you program something that is of interest, they find out and they come.

Touching on that, as far as musicals go, do you find that the Williamstown audiences are particularly hungry for musicals?
JG: I think that there is always going to be a section of the American population that loves its musicals. I personally love musicals, so I think there is a balance because who doesn't like to be sung to? I know I do. But there's a balance there because obviously musicals cost more to do, and they are harder to put on in an accelerated schedule like Williamstown has, so it's a balancing act, but the Doyle musical I am very, very excited about.

You were at the Public when they presented Stephen Sondheim's Road Show, which Doyle directed. Is that when you first met?
JG: Yes. I was taken by his aesthetic. He is most well known for the actors who play their own instruments, sort of that paradigm he created for doing musicals at the Water Mill, but we didn't do that on Road Show. We actually had our own orchestra. I have to say, he is like one of the great gentlemen of the theatre. I really enjoy my time with him. He is one of a handful of directors who I can point to and say, "You are going to show me how to tell the story differently." And I even love talking to him about how he does that, I find it enthralling. That's why he excites me. He is also just one of the loveliest, most delightful people to work with, so I am really looking forward to our collaboration."

Can you tell me a bit about Ten Cents a Dance, which he'll be staging?
JG: I think that the Rodgers and Hart songs that comprise Ten Cents a Dance, are not really overlooked, but they are certainly never performed on the stage, unless in the occasional performance of Pal Joey or Boys from Syracuse. Most of the songs in the show are standards. "My Funny Valentine," and "Blue Moon," songs we know more from cabaret or albums…John is taking the whole catalogue and making them theatrical. It's also so much about the actors and the instruments that they can play, it's developed very much around them. People keep saying that it's a "songbook" or it's a "revue," and I think, "No. He's creating a narrative." It's an unspoken narrative, but there's a narrative that he's going to be telling… The actor-musician experience is potent for the audience.
JG: It changes the dramatic experience doesn't it? There's a new layer of thrill when you see Patti LuPone playing the tuba and singing, and I think that's going to be true for Donna McKechnie, who I think is going to be playing drums and sax. John knows that we can teach her how to play drums since dancers have rhythm, innately, so she can play the drums — he knows that. I think it adds a different dimension to the audience experience, as well as dramatic tension. Will all of those ladies playing saxophone find the same note? So, I love that, and I love the theatricality of that.

Connecting to your roots at Shakespeare in the Park, Williamstown also offers free Shakespeare, correct?
JG: The free theatre, which you are pointing to, is actually a long tradition at Williamstown. It has been inside for the past six years on the main stage, but when I was here we used to do it outside. I always loved that. So when I got the job, the first thing I said was that free theatre is going to be outside. I wanted to bring it back to something classic and known, and for both kids and grownups.

The Delacorte Theater in Central Park is probably my favorite venue in New York City. There's something about the ephemeral nature of the summer season that connects to the ephemeral nature of a live act of theatre. The communal experience is more intense than when we're indoors, I find.
JG: That's right. That's exactly right. It's what we do in Williamstown, and what Joe [Papp] initially did in the park, is bring everyone together to have that real sort of communal experience. It must be very ancient, mustn't it? It must go back to sitting around a fire and telling stories. It's probably something very primal. I love what you said about it being ephemeral. I think that's spot on. There is something about the temporalness, and weather, and how anything can happen in a live performance — I think that all goes together.

When you rejoined the festival, you said that Williamstown is one of your favorite places. The Berkshires are such a beautiful setting. What are you doing up there when you are not wearing your artistic director hat?
JG: Oh, I like to be home! I'm home with my kids. I'm on my bike maybe, and if I'm really lucky I'm eating at Hot Tomatoes Pizza on Water Street.

Steven Weber in Jon Robin Baitz's <i>Three Hotels</i> at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Steven Weber in Jon Robin Baitz's Three Hotels at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
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