Jenny Gersten Solidifies WTF
Part Two Balancing Roles as CEO and Artistic Director
By: Charles Giuliano and Jenny Gersten - Aug 16, 2013
Prior artistic directors, who were also directors, spent their off season pursing 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.
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.
Charles Giuliano Do you follow the money?
Jenny 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?
JG 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.
JG 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 theatre.
JG Sure. I do that too.
CG You went to California this year. Is that where you saw Nicky’s Pygmalion at Old Globe?
JG 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, February 26 – April 6, 2014)
JG 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 theatre in Chicago this year.
CG Would you ever collaborate with companies like Goodman, Steppenwolf and Lookingglass?
JG Absolutely. Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah.
CG I’m currently interviewing Mary Zimmerman who is bringing Jungle Book from the Goodman to open at Huntington Theatre Company in Boston in September.
Let’s talk about this season. How do you put together your dance card? What were the hits and misses?
JG 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.
JG 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.
And then (laughing) Blood Play.
JG 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 theatre. 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.
JG That’s not true.
CG You were going to do the The Misanthrope (Starring John Douglas Thompson).
JG (Laughing and surprised) I talked about doing The Misanthrope. It was an option.
CG I hope you do it.
JG 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 the Neil Simon (Last of the Red Hot Lovers directed by Jessica Stone who made her directorial debut at WTF with Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.)
CG Let’s talk about your commitment to new theatre. 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.
JG It’s definitely causing a lot of stir. That’s great. That’s what theatre should do.
CG In your view it was successful.
JG Absolutely. I think it’s important to bring in new voices to the theatre festival. We have young generations of theatre 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.
JG We did it two years ago with The Civilians. I don’t think we did last year.
CG You had Whattabloodclot (Katori Hall).
JG That was a new play. We always have new plays.
CG It fit the edgy slot.
CG Other than WTF interns young people can’t afford to see these edgy new plays.
JG We’re getting a younger audience for Blood Play than we are typically. Under 40.
CG Tickets are expensive how can they afford it?
JG 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.
JG 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 theatre 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?
JG I didn’t go to Berkshire Fringe I tried.
CG Do you see Off Off Broadway and Fringe in New York?
JG 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.
JG It should be interesting putting next season together.
CG Do you have thoughts?
JG 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?
JG 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?
JG I don’t know what’s going to happen.
CG Obviously there’s speculation. Your contract is over when?
JG I’m not comfortable about talking about my contract.
CG Ultimately where do you see yourself? Are you going to be a Broadway producer?
JG 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 theatre jobs in the country. She heads a renowned theatre company and has brought it back to where it should be. Her future is as bright as the sun.
JG (burst) 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?
JG 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.
JG 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.
JG I’m not saying you’re being unfair. I don’t consider the Williamstown Theatre 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 Theatre 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 theatre 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?
JG 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. Within memory. Of course not counting the 33 years of Nikos. A lot of people feel that after some up and down years WTF s back where it should be.
JG 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?
JG That’s not what makes a great season and you’re not going to get me there Charles.
CG Hey. I keep trying.
JG (laughing) It’s not what we’re about so.
CG Can we talk about the box office. How did you do?
JG Sure. We hit our projections today. (August 13 for a season that ends August 18) Which is thrilling. We’re incredibly thrilled.
JG Today. Literally two hours ago we hit our projections. It’s a testament to our amazing staff.
CG Were there sellouts?
JG Yes. Hapgood . We went over 100%. 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?
JG 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 recently gave birth and Elena Shaddow played Francesca at Williamstown.)
JG 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. You’ve become ever more skillful in not answering my questions.
JG (laughs) You’re very dogged. I admire it. See you next summer.
CG When the tulips bloom.