Choices: Jenny Gersten’s First Season at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

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Jenny Gersten. Photo John Dolan.
Jenny Gersten. Photo John Dolan.

If you were the artistic director of a Tony Award-winning regional theater and had the budget to mount eight full productions this summer, how would you decide which shows to present?

Would you head out to Brooklyn to search for undiscovered plays and musicals perhaps in the sub-basement of a church? Or would you delve into the past for great plays to revive and put a slightly different spin on them?

Which shows would be worthy of your audience’s time, money and intellect—and your theater’s reputation?

Which would help safeguard your theater from the fate of the renowned Intiman Theatre in Seattle, which was crushed by nearly $2.3 million in debt and cancelled its season this spring after thirty-nine years?

These are the daunting challenges Jenny Gersten has faced since she became the new artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival a year ago. Gersten is the first woman to hold the position, and the 2011 summer season in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is the first to reflect her decisions.

Gersten is up to the challenge. She may be only 42 years old—and with long, dark hair and black-rimmed glasses look like a serious grad student—but she has a lifetime of experience. Literally. Her father is Bernard Gersten, executive producer of the Lincoln Center Theater and former associate producer of the Public Theater, and her mother is a founder of the Joyce Theater for dance. The dinner conversations at her home growing up immersed her in the world of non-profit theater before she was in first grade.

“I remember Dad saying ‘Guess what? I asked so-and-so for a million dollars today, and I think I’m going to get it,’ which was always a big moment. And sometimes it was Mom saying, ‘I’m having this issue with my board, and I don’t know how to work it out,’ and they would have a conversation about it,” Gersten said during a recent interview at WTF’s tiny New York City offices. That kind of exposure becomes deeply ingrained. It’s like learning to ski when you’re five. It makes everything that follows come naturally.

Gersten’s first major job was as associate producer at WTF from 1996 to 2004. She then became artistic director of Naked Angels, a New York City theater company, where she produced, among other works, Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell.

In 2007 she was recruited to become associate producer of the Public Theater, her father’s old job. During her three years there she produced Shakespeare in the Park, including The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino, and won a Tony for the Broadway revival of Hair.

In explaining her artistic vision for the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Gersten, repeatedly referred to storytelling: “What I love is when you tell me the stories that I know already, but you tell them to me in a way that I haven’t seen them before or heard them before,” Gersten said. “It’s the equivalent of standing on your head when you’re in yoga practice. Trying to see the world from a different point of view.”

She mentioned War Horse at her father’s Lincoln Center Theater as an example. “War Horse is basically a buddy story, the best friendship ever, [but] in this case, it’s about a boy and a horse. They’re turning that story on its head in so many different ways, but one of the things they’re doing is telling the story from the perspective, almost, of the horse. And that’s breathtaking.”

She also mentioned an example from the 2010 Williamstown Theatre Festival season: the all-male production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. “This is how Roman theater would have done it. It really is hard as a woman to see that musical and see showgirls getting fawned over. But I had a great time because Jessica Stone [the director] absolutely turned that musical on its head.”

Does Gersten think her gender influences her artistic vision and the shows she selects for production? “I don’t know how,” she explained, “but I know that my choices are personal, oftentimes, and I’m sure that my gender comes into play with that as much as who I am and what I like comes into play.” Gersten is married to playwright and MacArthur Genius Grant winner Willie Reale and has two sons, Gus, 12, and Leo, 8.

One way Gersten finds new plays to consider is to simply go to the theater a lot. She added, “Sometimes I meet with the director. Sometimes a playwright. Sometimes there’s a play or musical I want to do and they hand me the scripts. Sometimes the agents send over material they think is appropriate for Williamstown. Sometimes the writers contact me directly, people who don’t have representation.”

The tricky part, of course, is trusting her judgment—trusting it enough to put the full resources and talent of WTF behind a production. She does. Now. In 2004 she was passed over for the artistic director role when it became available. In retrospect, she thinks that was a good thing. “I trust in my taste,” Gersten said. “People often say to me, ‘Oh, they should have given you the job six years ago.’ I’m grateful that I do this job now, because I gained that confidence over these years.”

Even standing just 5 feet 4 inches tall and wearing gray jeans and a gray plaid shirt, Gersten, an Oberlin graduate, exudes confidence. It allows her to be warm and open, the kind of leader people want to do their best for. She has an easy smile, too. One suspects that her personal and professional styles are one and the same. This accessibility is critical in a theater devoted to nurturing the actors, writers, composers, technicians, designers and scores of interns who flock there every summer.

Gersten elaborated, “It may be the unseen part of the festival, but fifty percent of what we’re doing is bringing people up into their first professional experiences, giving them access to professional artists, actors, writers, directors, designers that they otherwise wouldn’t get to work with.”

Gersten wonders if most people are aware that the Festival rents rather than owns its new theater complex, the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College. With the 550 seat Main Stage and the smaller Nikos Stage (named for Nikos Psacharopoulos, co-founder of WTF) Gersten finds the facility has presented both opportunities and challenges.

“The new Center provides glorious new resources, many of which we have taken advantage of, but we have yet to really claim this new space as part of our identity and how we operate in it henceforth.” She added, “Stay tuned.”

So—where did Gersten come out for WTF’s 2011 season? In sum: four revivals, three new plays and one hybrid.

The revivals are, on the Main Stage, a 1991 play, Three Hotels, by Jon Robin Baitz, and a classic, the 1773 comedy She Stoops to Conquer directed by former artistic director Nicholas Martin; and on the Nikos stage, A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by David Cromer, and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

The new plays are all on the Nikos Stage: One Slight Hitch by the comedian Lewis Black; Touch(ed) by Bess Wohl; and You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents’ Divorce,” conceived by Jennifer R. Morris.

The hybrid, on the Main Stage, is Ten Cents a Dance conceived and directed by John Doyle with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

It took Gersten and her staff over ten months to make these selections, not including time for casting—productions on which to stake her own reputation, to begin her Williamstown Theatre Festival legacy.

Gersten confessed that saying “yes” is the part of her job gives her the greatest satisfaction, “I say yes to artists and their work when I believe in them and it.” Did Gersten pick the right “yesses”?

As Gordon Davidson, the founding artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, told the Theatre Communications Group several years ago, “Art is risk, and we’re all out there on a high wire.”


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