The third season for Jenny Gersten, artistic director of the Williamstown Theater Festival, ends August 18, 2013 with the final performance of the Broadway-bound musical, The Bridges of Madison County on the Main Stage and the controversial Blood Playon the Nikos stage.

With a January Broadway opening, WTF will have a strong off-season presence in New York City. Last year, its production of the musical Far from Heaven enjoyed an Off-Broadway run. That said, during Gersten’s first season, plans for a show going from Williamstown to Broadway fell through. In the opinion of many, this was the strongest and most balanced season for WTF in the past decade. The productions were strong at the box office and generally well received by print and online critics.

Gersten’s three-year contract is up for renewal; she states that she is “uncomfortable” discussing it. She denies that taking shows to New York City or other potential co-productions is an ambition or definer of WTF. After a challenging first season, Gersten has grown with a company that has been restored to its status as one of the foremost American regional companies. WTF is viewed as an idyllic setting to present superb productions of classics such as director Nicholas Martin’s Pygmalion as well as develop important new works like Bridges of Madison County. There is even a wild-card slot for experimental companies like Debate Society and its Blood Play.

CHARLES GIULIANO: Three’s a charm. Congratulations on such an ambitious season. It seems you mostly hit home runs.
JENNY GERSTEN: We got on base.

CG: Three musicals! That’s insane. [Animal Crackers, Johnny Baseball, Bridges of Madison County]
GERSTEN: It was. It was insane, and going into it, we knew it was insane. On the other side of it, with many factors involved, we got through it without a scrape. In terms of physically getting them up. I thought it would be especially hard with Johnny Baseball and Bridges of Madison County back to back. I thought that was asking a lot of our interns and apprentices and the production staff. They did their very best. I’m so proud of them and the festival this summer. They worked so well together in ways that I have never seen this place do.

CG: Give yourself a pat on the back. You have grown into a leadership position although you may not want to admit that.
GERSTEN: I admit that I’m learning. That’s valuable. I’m learning a lot about how it works. What we need to do to keep up our best work which is great.

CG: What shape is Bridges of Madison County in at this point? What arrangements did you make with Actors Equity not to freeze it on opening night? You continue to work on and change the musical.
GERSTEN: We are working within Equity guidelines in terms of opening night. Our contract allows us to keep working.

CG: Is that unique?
GERSTEN: No. Last year, we did a little work on Far from Heaven, as well. There’s not a rule with Equity about freezing as opposed to not freezing. There are rules about how much you can rehearse after an opening. We are following those guidelines.

CG: How does that work out? Are you given a certain amount of time each day?
GERSTEN: Yes. That’s exactly right.

CG: Do you compensate them for that time?
GERSTEN: No we don’t have to do extra compensation. We follow Equity guidelines, and we don’t rehearse on two-show days. We do five hours. Twelve to five.

CG: With rewrites.
GERSTEN: Of course. Every day, they put in changes. The company is responding remarkably well. Bart [Bartlett Sher] the director is an incredibly focused leader.

CG: We saw it last Tuesday after the opening on Saturday, and it had already been trimmed by six minutes. If we saw it tonight how would it be different?
GERSTEN: Last night, we cut a song in the second act, “God Smiles Down on the Family,” by Bud the husband of Francesca. They’ve made a lot of trims to the script. They’ve reimagined some of the songs. For Chiara’s song in the second act, “He Forgave Me,” her sister Francesca sings it with her now. There are changes, and they’re going to do five more hours today.

CG: Do you go every night?
GERSTEN: I watch a little bit every night. I haven’t seen the whole thing. I’m actually saving it for this weekend (last performances ending August 18) to see the big change. But I went in to watch for five minutes the other night and stayed for an hour. I was completely drawn in.

CG: The Globe review said, I want to see this again but less.
GERSTEN: It was written by a critic from Bloomberg News, Jeremy Gerard. The Globe reprinted it because it was on the wires. He did say that but I think lovingly. He just hopes there are some edits made.

CG: The consensus seems to be that the musical at about three hours is too long. The norm for a Broadway musical is about two, one hour acts, or an hour ten or so each.
GERSTEN: It’s a creative decision and not my place to say. I’m sure there’s market research that supports two and a half hours, generally speaking, as the public’s limit.

CG: During the talk back we attended after the show, there was the comment that Les Miz runs at three hours and twenty minutes. I have a personal barometer of how a play succeeds or not. It has to do with how often I check my watch or shift around in the seat. If I don’t look at my watch or squirm, a play has me totally absorbed.
GERSTEN: I don’t think you’re alone. Spielberg went to screenings and had a list of sixteen things he would look for. Different ticks to note if someone lost interest.

CG: What shape is Johnny Baseball in?
GERSTEN: We love Johnny Baseball at Williamstown.

CG: Is it going anywhere?
GERSTEN: I don’t know yet. We’ll see. I think there’s a lot of hope it will continue. The idea, always, is to do something so well that it’s irresistible to have a future life. Our job at WTF is just to do it so well here.

CG: You always say that.
GERSTEN: I mean it.

CG: I tend not to believe you.
GERSTEN: Why?

CG: I see you as a talented, young, ambitious individual with an extraordinary future who wants to take the Williamstown brand further. To have more of a national presence in theater. This season coming into New York with Bridges of Madison County is a signifier of that direction. During your first year, you wanted to take a show to Broadway, and that didn’t come through. Last year, Far from Heaven went to Off Broadway. You never admit to that being your ambition.
GERSTEN: It isn’t my ambition. Let me explain. The minute that becomes your ambition, then you get blinded by the wrong direction. The wrong way to go. We’re making plays for Williamstown. We’re helping artists. Far from Heaven and Bridges of Madison County both came to me and said, “We can use a home prior to going to New York to let us see it. We want to be in Williamstown because we love it there. We love creating work there. We believe in the environment there.”
The minute I take a look at a piece and I say, “yes it’s a great piece of theater, and we want to help you, because we believe in theater, and we believe in you as artists. We believe in you, Bart Sher, and we believe in you, Kelli O’Hara,” and a long list of wonderful people. Then that feels terrific. But it’s not about New York City. It’s about helping artists to obtain their greatest artistic freedom.

CG: We hear that you’re getting a lot of those calls.
GERSTEN: You hear that? I don’t know.

CG: Jenny’s hot. Everyone wants to be in Williamstown. Everyone wants to work with you. Everyone wants you to do their show.
GERSTEN: That’s very flattering. I don’t find that to be my experience.

CG: People are approaching you with their ideas and projects.
GERSTEN: Yes, but it’s definitely a balancing act. From people bringing projects to me that want to move on. And projects that, by myself, I want to generate.

CG: Let’s talk about Williamstown as a brand. In terms of having more work-shopped productions and co-productions. Projects that extend beyond the campus and season.
GERSTEN: We are bound by our relationship with Williams College. It’s our most important relationship. Without question. So many people support us but nobody to the degree that Williams College does. To the degree that we live and work in Williamstown and these environs, that’s always going to be limited by the school calendar.

CG: Which sources indicate may be shortened. Williams wants to come back earlier.
GERSTEN: I don’t think they want to come back earlier. There are variations in the calendar year. Based on Jewish holidays and where certain days fall. That has always, for decades, affected WTF. Next summer, we’re probably looking at a shorter season. By a week. And then it will re-expand.

CG: How will that impact your four and three? [three Main Stage and four Nikos productions].
GERSTEN: I don’t know yet. We’re still looking at it.

CG: You have a phenomenal brand.
GERSTEN: It’s been a phenomenal brand for decades. I thank you for the compliment.

CG: Before you, the artistic directors have also been directors. During the off season, they had their own projects and plays. That doesn’t describe you. It doesn’t appear that there would be a conflict for you to develop projects and collaborations during the long off season. Perhaps with work-shopped or co-productions that then might come to WTF for another iteration. The off season seems like a big window to throw some things into.
GERSTEN: I feel that the mission of the Williamstown Theater Festival is to produce theater in Williamstown. Not to develop new work off site. So it’s a bit complicated. I see what you’re saying. Perhaps there are windows, and we’ll see. But I pride myself just as much in being a CEO as an artistic director. In the off season, I’m looking at the business. How we can improve the business.

CG: That’s the side that we generally don’t talk about. Raising money and pressing the flesh. What’s your comfort zone with that aspect?
GERSTEN: I’m pretty comfortable with it. My parents are really great fundraisers. So I grew up being very comfortable around that idea. It’s really simple when you feel passionately about what you’re raising money for. I feel really passionately about what I do here. And about WTF in general.

CG: We live in a community with four major theater companies, Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, Mass MoCA, The Clark and other museums. All with big hungry mouths drawing on the same pool of donors.
GERSTEN: There’s a lot of competition.

CG: You have a unique relationship with Williams College and its alumni base. Overall, that’s a lot of arts organizations looking to the same resources.
GERSTEN: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot of local pride within this community. Beyond that, there are other pockets. That I can pick (laughs). CG: At what point do donors feel tapped out or pressed upon?
GERSTEN: I think it’s only if you go back to them more than once in a twelve-month period. We try not to do that. We generally don’t have to do that.

CG: In 2008 when the markets, tanked I recall Nicky (artistic director Nicholas Martin) telling me that he couldn’t afford to do a musical that year. He wanted to but couldn’t. Fast forward to 2013 and you do not one, but three musicals. That indicates better resources and recovery.
GERSTEN: I fully believe that you have to spend money to make money. We try not to spend it without having it. We’re smart that way.

CG: To what extent is WTF a part of the equation of marketing the Northern Berkshires as a destination for cultural tourism? It had to hurt having the Clark Art Institute largely out of the equation while undergoing expansion and renovation. It will be open by next summer. To what extent do you talk with Joe Thompson [Mass MoCA] and Michael Conforti [Clark]? What kind of dialogue exists among you? How do you improve marketing in the Northern Berkshires?
GERSTEN: We have those conversations very socially. They’re not codified in some kind of effort. We had a meeting with Barrington Stage, when I first became artistic director, with Barrington, Shakespeare & Company and Berkshire Theater Group about a unified effort to market. It just didn’t hold for whatever reasons. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
In this day and age you’re right to talk about pre-recession, 2008, and now. There are less dollars being spent overall. Not just personally but institutionally. Those dollars get spent very carefully. So we would be wise, collectively, to figure out how to do that. The problem is that each institution has such a distinctive profile that it’s hard to collaborate and not lose sight of what those profiles are.

*

Part Two

Prior artistic directors at WTF, who were also directors, spent their off season pursuing their own careers then pulling together a season when summer approached. For Jenny Gersten, a producer with no projects other than those for Williamstown Theatre Festival, it’s a year-round, twelve-month job. She describes her roles as CEO, developing the business plan, fundraising and marketing as equal to planning and producing an annual program of plays. Therefore, the off-season entails reading numerous scripts as well as seeing a lot of Broadway, Off Broadway and Fringe theatre in New York. Last year, she visited California where she saw the Nicholas Martin production of Pygmalion which transferred, largely intact, from Old Globe. This season, she is planning trips to Oregon and Chicago. She did not rule out collaborations with Goodman, Steppenwolf or Lookingglass among others.

During her first season, in 2011, Chicago-based director, David Cromer, brought his controversial Streetcar Named Desire to Williamstown.

CG: Do you follow the money?
GERSTEN: I’m fascinated by the money.

CG: During the middle ages, in order to raise money to build the cathedrals, it was the norm to “parade the relics.” To take them on tour to seek donations. During the off season, artistic directors plan trips to Florida to meet with current and potential donors. With your base in New York City, how does that work for you in terms of knocking on doors and planning benefits?
GERSTEN: Yes we plan our benefits. I plan and run the gala with our development director. We collaborate every day on fundraising.

CG: So you’re in the office with a twelve month job?
GERSTEN: It’s something that interests me. But it’s not a burden. It’s what I like to do.

CG: As well as seeing a lot of theater.
GERSTEN: Sure. I do that, too.

CG: You went to California this year. Is that where you saw Nicky’s Pygmalion at Old Globe?
GERSTEN: I did. In February, and I was in LA for a few days last year. I’m planning my trips now for the fall.

CG: Have you ever been to Humana [Humana Festival of New American Plays]?
GERSTEN: Never. It’s in March, which is not a great time for us. I’m too busy. It’s too much in the ramp-up period. But I’m going to go to Ashland (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) in September or October, which I can’t wait to do. I’m going to see some theater in Chicago this year.

CG: Would you ever collaborate with companies like Goodman, Steppenwolf and Lookingglass?
GERSTEN: Absolutely. Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah.

CG: I’m currently interviewing Mary Zimmerman who is bringing Jungle Book from the Goodman to open at Huntington Theater Company in Boston in September.
CG: Let’s talk about this season. How do you put together your dance card? What were the hits and misses?
GERSTEN: I don’t know that’s so subjective. Do you mean post-mortem dance card?

CG: How did the pieces fall into place? You opened with the vintage musical, Animal Crackers. It was a nice way to ease into the season on the Main Stage. It was funny (Marx Brothers) and light. Then the classic Pygmalion with a fabulous cast and proven director [Nicholas Martin a former WTF artistic director and Tony nominee last season]. Then closed with a new musical Bridges of Madison County. There was also a lot of mix-and-match on the (smaller) Nikos stage. I liked American Hero, but I don’t think everyone did.

GERSTEN: I liked it.

CG: Johnny Baseball was getting a new production. Hapgood with Kate Burton was simply amazing. She got to do what she wanted.

CG: And then (laughing) Blood Play.
GERSTEN: A lot of people have a lot of issues with Blood Play, but I tell you it was very important for me to do that show. Because it represents a younger voice in American theater. Williamstown has to be open to not just what’s now, and what was past, but what’s next, and Blood Play represents that to me.

CG: I heard that Blood Play was not your first choice for that slot.
GERSTEN: That’s not true.

CG: You were going to do The Misanthrope [starring John Douglas Thompson].
GERSTEN: (laughing and surprised) I talked about doing The Misanthrope. It was an option.

CG: I hope you do it.
GERSTEN: I really do, too. We’ve been talking about that show for many years. We did a reading of it at the Clark two years ago.

CG: We attended that reading. It seems that the winter readings are a way for you to get a sense of shows for WTF. That’s how you got Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers.
GERSTEN: Sometimes.

CG: Let’s talk about your commitment to new theater. The reviews of Blood Play were all over the map, including a critic who urged her readers to get a ticket if they can. Excuse me. Did we see the same play? I was over the top while there were other reviews in between. Interestingly enough, of all of the WTF plays this season it’s the one I’ve gotten the most feedback on including very lively debates and discussion.
GERSTEN: It’s definitely causing a lot of stir. That’s great. That’s what theater should do.

CG: In your view it was successful?
GERSTEN: Absolutely. I think it’s important to bring in new voices to the theater festival. We have young generations of theater people here. They serve as apprentices, interns and in our directing programs. We have a non-Equity company, artisans in our scenic design and lighting departments. Their voice is just as important to us as the voice of Nicky Martin whose production of Pygmalion was so great this year. Their voices are heard, not by the public necessarily, in all of our workshop productions which the public isn’t aware of or slightly aware of. But I think it’s just as important to put it on our stage. From time to time. I’m not saying this is going to be a regular thing.

CG: It seems like you have an annual slot. One new, young, experimental company each year.
GERSTEN: We did it two years ago with The Civilians. I don’t think we did last year.

CG: You had Whattabloodclot (Katori Hall).
GERSTEN: That was a new play. We always have new plays.

CG: It fit the edgy slot.
GERSTEN: Edgy.

CG: Other than WTF interns, young people can’t afford to see these edgy new plays.
GERSTEN: We’re getting a younger audience for Blood Play than we are typically. Under 40.

CG: Tickets are expensive how can they afford it?
GERSTEN: They’re making a choice. I don’t know.

CG: I’m surprised. I would think you would have a marketing survey to find out.
GERSTEN: We haven’t done it yet. Anecdotally, I’m seeing younger audiences come out for it. Again, even if they’re not buying a ticket, it’s important to say to these apprentices, “here’s one new voice in the theater, and it’s just as important as George Bernard Shaw’s.” Ten years from now, people are going to say “We saw them first at Williamstown.”

CG: Do you see much fringe?
GERSTEN: I didn’t go to Berkshire Fringe. I tried.

CG: Do you see Off-Off-Broadway and Fringe in New York?
GERSTEN: Yes, of course. I try to stay somewhat current. The Debate Society is a group I’ve been loyal to for many, many years.

CG: You only have seven annual slots. Next year (because of a shorter season) likely just six. That would seem to entail Solomon decisions.
GERSTEN: It should be interesting putting next season together.

CG: Do you have thoughts?
GERSTEN: Oh yeah.

CG: How long does it take to develop ideas? Now that you’re finishing the third season, are you looking at a longer time frame of a year, two, or three to bring along productions?
GERSTEN: You’re very smart, Charles. It used to be that I wouldn’t start until now or September about putting together a new season. But you’re quite right. After three years, there are projects that are coming much more early to me.

CG: Three more years?
GERSTEN: I don’t know what’s going to happen.

CG: Obviously there’s speculation. Your contract is over when?
GERSTEN: I’m not comfortable about talking about my contract.

CG: Ultimately, where do you see yourself? Are you going to be a Broadway producer?
GERSTEN: That’s not where my sights are set. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do. I’m so happy here right now. That’s what I think about and whether I stay in New York or move. I live in New York City most of the time. That’s been my home all my life. Where I go from here, I don’t know yet.

CG: People say Jenny has one of the best theater jobs in the country. She heads a renowned theater company and has brought it back to where it should be. Her future is as bright as the sun.
GERSTEN: Who are those sources and can I hire some?

CG: You were never an artistic director before coming here. You’ve had three years of being totally in charge. You’re a fast learner with an extraordinarily bright future. How long can we expect to hold onto you?
GERSTEN: I don’t have an answer to that. But I agree with the person, whoever said, I have the best job. I do. I have the best job, so that’s how I feel.

CG: Do you want to stay and build on what you’ve learned and developed? It’s like the bright basketball player recruited out of high school to the NBA. Sometimes it best to have those years of college before playing in the pros.
GERSTEN: I agree.

CG: In terms of a career trajectory, where do you sit now, and what’s the comfort zone with that? That’s a fair thing to ask.
GERSTEN: I’m not saying you’re being unfair. I don’t consider the Williamstown Theater Festival as my finishing school for some other job. I love being here. So this is where I am. I’m not thinking about the future so much these days. I relish this season. I have really enjoyed it. That feels rare and wonderful. That feels like a gift. So I’m trying to do that without looking too far ahead. Without thinking of what happens next season or where do I want to be in five years.
There’s some pressure to figure out where the Williamstown Theater Festival is building toward. For now, all I’m trying to do is make it work a little better than it has in the past. Once we establish that pretty firmly, then we will see how we can grow.

CG: You came to a renowned theater festival with great traditions. How have you merged with that legacy, and to what extent have you managed to put your own identity into the mix? Has a Jenny style emerged in this past three years?
GERSTEN: I’m not fully conscious of what that is. But how could it not be my taste? And my stamp. My convictions. Taking this place to a new position. To a certain extent, it takes me to where whatever WTF needs; I try to shape my direction toward what gets programmed here. It’s a cycle, and we feed each other.

CG: I hear comments that 2013 was one of the best WTF seasons ever. Or within memory. Of course, not counting the 33 years of Nikos. A lot of people feel that after some up-and-down years, WTF is back where it should be.
GERSTEN: We got really lucky this season. I feel very blessed.

CG: So are we going to see more productions going to Broadway and Off Broadway?
GERSTEN: That’s not what makes a great season, and you’re not going to get me there, Charles.

CG: Hey. I keep trying.
GERSTEN: (laughing) It’s not what we’re about, so . . .

CG: Can we talk about the box office. How did you do?
GERSTEN: Sure. We hit our projections today. (August 13 for a season that ends August 18, 2013) Which is thrilling. We’re incredibly thrilled.

CG: Today!
GERSTEN: Today. Literally two hours ago, we hit our projections. It’s a testament to our amazing staff.

CG: Were there sellouts?
GERSTEN: Yes. Hapgood. We went over 100 percent because of standing room. And Bridges will do well. Bridges will do better than any show in the history of WTF.

CG: So what’s its prognosis for Broadway?
GERSTEN: I think it’s good, but who knows? Broadway is a very different beast. There’s a lot of good-to-great new musicals coming to Broadway this season. We’ll have a lot of competition, but in a good way. It goes into rehearsal in November.

CG: Is Kelli O’Hara going to be in the New York production? [O’Hara had recently gave birth, and Elena Shaddow played Francesca at Williamstown.]

GERSTEN: Of course. They announced her. She’s absolutely doing it. She generated the project with these artists, so she’s been a part of it from the beginning.

CG: Thanks!
GERSTEN: (laughs) You’re very dogged. I admire it. See you next summer.

CG: When the tulips bloom.

[END]

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Key Subjects: 
Williamstown Theater Festival, Jenny Gersten, Blood Play, Pygmalion, The Bridges of Madison County
Writer: 
Charles Giuliano
Date: 
July 2013