Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Jenny Gersten: Artistic Director of Williamstown Theater Festival

Jenny Gersten
Summer's finale finds Jenny Gersten still smiling: after three months of constant 16 hour days; after having broken two bones in a foot just 10 days ago while running down a hill behind the WTF theater complex. Warm and welcoming, she is simultaneously focused and relaxed while confessing exhaustion. Her task on this, the next-to-last day of her initial summer leading this storied festival, is to decide whether Hurricane Irene's presence might merit cancellation of the final performance of well-received elegiac musical, Ten Cents a Dance.

Jenny Gersten, now 42, was an associate producer, assisting Michael Ritchie in Williamstown, from 1996-2004. She also was to become artistic director, in New York, of Naked Angels Theater Company. She worked for and with Oskar Eustis at the Public Theatre as associate producer. She produced a half dozen Shakespeare in the Park shows. Her father, Bernard Gersten, is executive producer of Lincoln Center Theatre and was an associate producer at the Public. Jenny's mother, Cora Cahan, was a founder of the Joyce Theatre for modern dance. Yes, this might be the moment to discuss genetics.

During her first set of years at WTF, Jenny met her future husband Willie Reale, an award-winning playwright and lyricist. They now have two sons, 8 and 12. Jenny mentioned that the older one has memories of his early childhood summers in Williamstown. All of that truthfully said and recorded, this is a woman (with, so to speak, a remarkable pedigree) who is completely without pretense. Sitting down with her feels like conversing with an old friend. She claims the broken foot causes her no pain. On the other hand, navigating with crutches is tedious.

WTF has been labeled the "theatrical playground of the stars." This summer, Gersten featured some actors who have performed there previously along with others, such as Lily Rabe, whom she brought aboard, for A Doll's House. "I rarely choose projects around actors but she is so special. Everybody, it seems to me, has told me they want to be back again but we will see. The next period of time, after a brief vacation, includes formulating a plan for next season and the next five years." She has a full-time staff of five in Williamstown and five in the Manhattan office. "This season, I was really pleased to bring in David Cromer to direct A Streetcar Named Desire and John Doyle for Ten Cents a Dance. David had the audience sit on both sides which created intimacy and I heard the play differently than before. It was not expected. And in John's case, I am not sure how many knew of him previously. The production here has been well-received both critically and by audiences. He has his own style and this is certainly a different musical, but I love the Rodgers and Hart songbook and I heard it differently, poetically."

While she intends to examine, ponder and learn from all she has experienced, Gersten's first shocking surprise occurred last winter when excessive snow caused roof damage to the scene shop building. "We had little time to find a new place and everything that goes with it," she says. "I was genuinely thrilled by the local community's embrace and welcome in an effusive way. This town has been home to WTF since 1955 but New Englanders are sometimes known to be wait-and-see personalities. That was not the case at all. We need people here to support us and they did so in a warm and effusive way which meant a lot to me."

"Blythe Danner (a Williamstown presence for years on stage) did a reading for us this summer and James Naughton wants to come back to direct. Dylan and Becky Baker met here as non-Equity actors way back when. Maria Tucci (the fine stage actor) is now writing and I am still in touch with Olympia Dukakis, from the early days, too."

While she has plenty of experience in leadership of theaters, Gersten says, "There are muscles I really did not get to use fully this summer. The dramaturgy, working with directors—those are areas which require further attention."

Arriving on the scene in early June and presenting less than a month later leaves little time to lose for Gersten and colleagues. "The minute we arrive we have to go forward and there isn't any time to think. Actors know to show up off-book and any work directors can accomplish with designers beforehand really helps. That is true for the creative team and administrators as well. With so many young people having major responsibilities, we need to be ahead. Cromer used to teach Streetcar and was able to talk to the actors about his thoughts. We gave everyone an extra week with John Doyle since performers had to learn to play instruments in addition to singing the score."

Some observers might see Williamstown Theatre Festival as elitist. "I do not disagree," says Jenny Gersten, who is wonderfully likable and approachable. "There is room for everyone under the tent and I just need time to make this happen. I do have high standards and will not sacrifice quality for cost or time." WTF often features two major shows at once; and free theater, fellowship projects, late-night cabarets, a non-Equity company, directing interns and assistants, and apprentices. Gersten says about those who wish to, for example, apprentice. "You don't have to be good but just want to be a part of the scene." Apprentices at Williamstown become fully immersed in various aspects of production, including stagecraft and marketing. They also attend classes and meet with many artists in residence.

The Williamstown Theatre Festival, then, is growing anew. Michael Ritchie, who enjoyed great success running the summer program, left several years ago and it is Gersten, his colleague, who returns to catapult the festival forward. It has taken her quite some time to land where she belongs: at the artistic helm. She chooses not to look backward in any metaphorical rear view mirror at what might have been. She is a high energy person-oriented woman who is a synthesizer: she brings together festival actors, designers, public relations workers, those who live in town and theater patrons from afar. She points out that "Williamstown Theatre Festival was not started by theater people but by those living here."

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Photo: John Dolan

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- Fred Sokol

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