This summer at Williamstown Theater Festival, we saw emeritus artistic director, Jenny Gersten, only during opening night of the first production, June Moon. There was a hug signifying a relationship that evolved from tempestuous to respectful. There had been growing pains on both ends.  Gersten would go on to become executive director of Friends of the High Line, an elevated park being built in Chelsea.

While awesomely gifted, with theater in her genes, Gersten, in her three-year contract at WTF (extended by this now-concluded season), was experiencing her first attempt at being an artistic director. Previously, she served as WTF assistant producer under Michael Ritchie.

The first season was uneven, and critics can be blunt. To be fair, shows like Ten Cents a Dance, directed by John Doyle with the singers also playing musical instruments, were panned by some and praised by others. There seemed to be a dichotomy between reviews blown up in the lobby and negative reports by bloggers, including myself.

After what seemed to me a rough start, Gersten came back stronger with each season. While not on campus, the 2014 program was her most ambitious. Not that everything worked, but she was able to bring to Williamstown an astonishing range of superstars. Opera diva, Renee Fleming, made what could be a career move by starring in a light summer comedy, Living on Love, playing, what else? an opera diva. It was one of the hot tickets of the Berkshire season.

Thanks to a last-minute cast change, we were astonished that Tony winner (Venus in Fur) Nina Arianda, the most unique emerging artist of her generation, was paired with the explosive Sam Rockwell in Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love. The sizzling combo proved to be the most galvanic production of the Berkshire season.

Gersten made room in her program for a troubled production of The Visit, the last Kander-and-Ebb musical starring Chita Rivera. The now elderly Rivera, in her first visit to the Berkshires, has been trying to launch the play on Broadway since it opened in Chicago in 2001. Because of 9/11, Broadway producers were unable to fly in and see it. At WTF, the production was given Broadway-quality assets from the direction of John Doyle, to a magnificent set, superb pit band, and a co star, Broadway veteran and former WTF artistic director, Roger Rees. Ultimately it may not have been enough.

But as had been true in the past for WTF, under Gersten, shows went on to New York productions. Her astonishing Elephant Man, which enjoyed a sold out run with Bradley Cooper, is opening soon on Broadway. The musicals Far from Heaven and Bridges of Madison County had modest New York runs.

Under Gersten, experimental and emerging artists were given a shot. This summer, The Old Man and the Old Moon revealed aspects of new theater to a mixed reception. Jessica Stone made her directorial debut under artistic director Nicholas Martin with the Sondheim hit, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In 2011 Stone directed a reading of Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers. During 2012 it starred the always-hilarious Brooks Ashmanskas. This season three did not prove to be a charm when Gersten brought Stone back with the disappointing and dated June Moon. In a supporting role, however, Stone's husband Christopher Fitzgerald was brilliantly funny.

Despite a hectic schedule, Jenny made time for me, which was much appreciated. There were several extensive interviews in contrast to the two-minute speed dates this season following controlled and unproductive press conferences. This year I didn’t get that season-ending sit down with Jenny. She was not around.

She has always been responsive to e-mail often getting back with pithy comments in a matter of minutes. Typically, they were insightful and fun exchanges. In a recent blast, I got the response that she was about to terminate her WTF e-mail address. While it still worked I asked if I might get an update? That came quickly, and there was a fun set of word tennis: I told her how we had missed her this summer. Then I argued that, now that she is stepping down after only eight months running the High Line, she would soon return to her first love, theater. She replied, “Nothing in my statement says I will be returning to theater, I wrote that I hope to return to the arts.” Either way, we much anticipate the next move of her stellar career.

Key Subjects: 
Jenny Gersten, Williamstown Theater Festival
Charles Giuliano
September 2014