Jenny Gersten: From Broadway to the Berkshires and Williamstown Theatre Festival

Jenny Gersten is determined.

She’s worked behind the scenes on hit Broadway musicals like Hair, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Billy Eilliot, and brought dozens of first class productions to life. She earlier spent nine years as associate artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and this year, she is back as the renowned company’s artistic director. She is also a mother of two children and a multi-tasker.

Larry Murray: There’s a real sense of humor behind a lot of what you are planning to put on stage this coming season, as well as a sharp eye for what is new and interesting. On the Main Stage, You Can’t Take it With You is a particular favorite, a classic comedy gem I look forward to, while putting A Streetcar Named Desire on the Nikos stage surprised a lot of people. And I am personally thrilled you are bringing the Brooklyn theatre company Civilians Theatre to do their take on American divorce.

Jenny Gersten; Thank you for recognizing them, the Civilians were just at Boston’s Arts Emerson doing a great piece, The Battle for Atlantic Yards. We are excited by their forthcoming visit. You Can’t Take it With You, your favorite, kicks off the main stage season.

LM: It is so funny, especially the second act which leaves the audience gasping for breath.

Jenny Gersten, Artistic Director of the WIlliamstown Theatre Festival. Photos: Larry Murray

JG: The reason why You Can’t Take it With You is such a great Williamstown show is that the ensemble is the heart of this piece, the play is the star. Nineteen members in the company and everyone gets a wonderful turn on stage. So it’s a real magnet for wonderful theatre actors, exciting. Because the show is being done with a commercial producer – Liz McCann – and headed to Broadway, we can afford to do it.

Without the follow-up run we would be hard pressed to undertake it with that many professional actors, that many members of the union.

LM: With that many actors it starts to get as expensive as a musical, doesn’t it?

JG: Correct. In fact it is cheaper to do a musical because you only need the musicians for the last couple of weeks of rehearsal.

LM: And this comedy plays for three weeks.

JG: Right. What’s great about that play is that a lot of people know it. I did that play in high school, and most people you talk to have some experience with it. But you hardly ever get a chance to see it live because it has such a huge cast.

It was a conversation I had with Liz McCann, who is producing the show on Broadway, that led to considering a longer run. Most WTF shows run only two weeks, but because it will be going into a Shubert theatre almost immediately after it finishes here, Williamstown becomes its out-of-town tryout. So two weeks which is the normal Williamstown run was not long enough to give the show time to “breathe.” Three weeks felt a little better.

LM: And rehearsal time?

JG: Williamstown has a standard three week rehearsal period, but we are going to do four in this case. The three week block is actually exceptionally short by most standards so four weeks of rehearsal plus a three week run makes sense.

LM: Do you find some similarities between the second main stage show, She Stoops to Conquer, and You Can’t Take it With You?

JG: They’re both a bit madcap, I admit that. But the brand of hijinks in She Stoops to Conquer, especially the way Nicky (Nicholas Martin) is going to direct it is far more dizzy than You Can’t Take it With You. It has that, and it is very funny, but it is the social commentary that is its heart.

LM: When I spoke to Nicky last summer about the change of command, he had nothing but superlatives about your coming stewardship, and that, besides, “She has the same rolodex as I do.”

JG: It’s absolutely true.

The last Main Stage show is Ten Cents a Dance, which is an unusual piece. John Doyle and I worked together when I was at the Public Theatre where he directed Road Show, which is the most recent Stephen Sondheim musical. I loved working with Doyle who gained a certain amount of notoriety with his unusual production of Sweeney Todd. He has developed a theatre aesthetic where actors accompany themselves on stage with musical instruments.

LM: He is unique in that he pioneered this technique, and many people have yet to see it in action. Didn’t he first stage Ten Cents a Dance back in 2002 in the UK? Rogers and Hart. In the Bark-shires?

JG: (laughing) Well said. I am hoping that the way it’s going to look on the stage of the ’62 Center is going to be breathtaking, it’s a great stage for this kind of piece. Can’t you imagine Malcolm Getz who is playing the lead of Johnny ensconced at a huge grand piano holding court with these side women?

When John first told me about this project, I was immediately captivated by it, I love the Rodgers and Hart song book. He had just talked with the Rodgers and Hart Estate, and they gave it a go-ahead partly because those musicals do not get licensed much these days. Sometimes you see Pal Joey, or Boys from Syracuse. But by and large they are not done. They often have faulty books.

LM: (As with last season’s Babes in Arms at Berkshire Theatre Festival.) Ten Cents a Dance also gets a three week run.

JG: Yes. So it’s a really great way for the wonderful music of Rodgers and Hart to be owned by the theatre in a way that often doesn’t happen to it.

LM: And people can hear the classic songs without the dated storyline.

JG: People will find out about that show and simply want to see it. And it goes to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey afterwards. Lots of people will have a chance to see it.

LM: Let’s turn to the Nikos, and I am wondering what director David Cromer has up his sleeve for such a well known work as A Streetcar Named Desire.

JG: I think he has a real feeling for this play which is why he wants to do it here. It is the 100th Anniversary of Tennessee Williams birth, (March 26, 1911). So it is a great opportunity. But the project was not initiated by the director, it was Sam Rockwell the actor who will be playing Stanley Kowalski who came to me. As we talked about it, Cromer’s name kept coming up, so that is how this came about. Unusual too, in that it is rare for a project to be initiated, led, by an actor.

You know, In our conversations David’s take on the play is that the Kowalski apartment feels very claustrophobic, which is very much part of the text, so I think the design of the stage for the Nikos is going to be very unusual. I can’t talk very much about it yet, but as we get further along in the process, I will. What we are heading for is a different experience of the play than has been felt in the past.

LM: That is a pretty sweeping view of a production. Do you see that vision aspect your main focus? You bring all the various elements of theatre together, like a garden, each time with a different combination of seeds and arrangements.

JG: You’re right. That’s a really lovely metaphor. All I do is look to see how talented people and good ideas can come together. That is my specialty.

Jenny Gersten, Artistic Director of the WIlliamstown Theatre Festival.

LM: Moving on, two words: Lewis Black.

JG: Two words that make my heart sing. Lewis spent nine years with us at the WTF when Michael Ritchie was the producer here. And he was the host of the Cabaret which has been such a success. Lewis’s first vocation in the theatre was as a playwright, coming through the Yale School’s playwriting program. So he’s written a number of plays, some of which have been in his drawer for a long time. He’s eager to work on them.

He’s workshopped many of them all over the country but has only had one full production, the play we will see this summer. (One Slight Hitch which had a production at Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theatre in Los Angeles.)

I am so thrilled that Lewis can come back to his first two loves in the theatre, both as a playwright and as the host of the WTF cabarets this summer. He loves Williamstown, and really loves being part of the Theatre Festival. It’s something that had a real importance to him in the nine years he was here, as it was for me. I am glad we are both back this summer.

Joe Grifasi directs, and he is both an actor who has been directing other projects, and a colleague of Lewis at Yale. The cast includes Paige Howard and Mark Linn-Baker, with four more roles to be announced. Mark is another friend from Yale, and Paige Howard is Ron Howard’s daughter and her sister is pretty well known in film, Bryce Howard.

LM: The plot of One Slight Hitch, sounds like another crazy comedy, but by mid July the Nikos turns serious with A Doll’s House. What’s behind that?

JG: I was at the Public Theatre doing Shakespeare in Central Park with Lily Rabe. By chance, many years ago I met her right outside, on route 2 here in Williamstown when she was 17. Jill Clayburgh introduced me to Lily, saying she is an actor. I said that I would love to see her working at Williamstown one day. Being 17 I was thinking she might do one of our student programs. But she had her sights set on much larger things so she did Portia this summer in The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino which I thought was magnificent. Also in the show was Hamish Linklater, a child of Shakespeare & Company by the way. So I said to them very early on – I would love to find a place for you both.

So when A Dolls House started to become a reality, it all came together.

LM: And Lily Rabe, is her father…

JG: Dave Rabe, the playwright, and Jill Clayburgh is her mother.

LM Small world. And of course, I am delighted to see Lili Taylor. Just loved her in Six Feet Under.

JG: Yes, me too! She is a fantastic actor, having done Landscape of the Body for us in 2003. She is a terrific, soulful, actress.

LM: Playing Nora, one of the most complex characters in Ibsen’s 19th Century drama. The Paul Walsh translation?

JG: Very contemporary, very American, very idiomatic. It’s going to feel very young and modern. And these are plays I never get to see these days.

LM: Like Touch(ed) by Bess Wohl?

JG: Bess was part of the Equity acting ensemble here at WTF back in the 90’s when I was here. She’s a terrific actress, we’ve stayed in touch, worked together on other plays I have done, but she began playwriting several years ago, and has written five plays. She has a wonderful voice, the plays are very excellent. They have a sort of quirky charm, combined with searching for the human soul. It’s in all of her plays, a very interesting mix.

The story is about two sisters,, one of which is mentally ill. They are spending a weekend in a cabin in the woods trying to reconnect to the relationship they once had. A third character, a boyfriend Billy is in the mix, too.

It’s got a great premise, a lot of humor and a great deal of heart. Mental illness as you know is one of those things that is a very tough sell to the ticket buyer, but I have to say this play is very special. All of us have to deal at times with people who are a little bit off, and this play shows how caring can sometimes go too far.

LM: The musical Next to Normal seems to have done well.

JG: That’s the one I keep thinking of too. In terms of difficult subjects, there is the last play, The Civilians and You Better Sit Down: tales from my parent’s divorce. It’s another topic that people don’t necessarily want to engage in, but I think it is a very entertaining and very lively examination of America’s most substantial social phenomenon.

LM: The company’s actors did in depth interviews with their parents, and then play them on stage as they explain the various reasons and rationales.

JG: I think that’s what gives the piece some humor…

LM: …and pathos.

JG: So that covers all the plays for 2011.

LM: There has been a surprising amount of casting information released for this early date, with more to come. Is that your responsibility?

JG: Actually it is done in combination with the casting director, the director of the play, and me.

LM: How would you summarize this season, how is this summer going to be different from other seasons?

Jenny Gersten, Artistic Director of the WIlliamstown Theatre Festival.

JG: I think this summer reflects who I am, in certain ways, it reflects my personality. It is my hope that there will be a lot of delight this summer with what I have programmed on these stages. It doesn’t mean that everything is all bright and cheery, but that together, each show offers its own delights.

The delight can come by seeing A Doll’s House or Streetcar in an intimate setting. Or seeing actors who are also musicians for the first time which will surprise and delight many folks new to the format. And the screwball comedy. All of those things bring a banquet of delights to the WTF stages.”

Changes in the works

At this point, Jenny and I embarked on a more general discussion of the workings of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The question of how the season will be marketed under her leadership was one topic. Though surely not her main focus, it is one of the areas she has experience and expertise in.

Gersten noted that the marketing process is undergoing examination, and while there will be some changes this year, that it is a long term process. She intimated that the WTF approach can be expected to change over the next several seasons since it will take a while to discuss, decide and implement. “Marketing encompasses a big, broad swath of things,” she said, “and a lot of people are taking responsibility for the various pieces of it, not one person is in charge of it all.”

The way she looks at it, the way to bring in bigger or younger audiences is first and foremost a matter of putting the right plays on the stage. All the advertising in the world can’t guarantee a full theatre, and word of mouth (or these days, blogging, tweeting and texting) are still the greatest allies any show can have. People talking to people “is more effective than anything we could do marketing-wise,” she noted.

“One thing that I am interested in is how we are telling the story of the Wiliamstown Theatre Festival. I am not convinced that we are telling that story as fully as we could,” she said. So what parts might be told better?

“I think we could be talking more about the student programs which are very much at the heart of WTF. It’s the relationship you see happening with actor turned playwright Beth Wahl, or others who spent their early days here and have not yet come back professionally. People don’t hear about that enough. It is so much of what goes on to make the shows happen here.

“I also think because the ’62 Center is such a gorgeous space, the idea of what WTF is, and the relationship to this Center, is not well told. We have an issue with expectations, because the space is very fancy. It was one thing when we were in the Adams Memorial Theatre, which was far more humble a space which we could easily fill with surprises. ”

It seems that the heightened expectations that come with new spaces have raised the bar for the company. “I also think we can do a better job talking about how the WTF relates to WIlliams College, and the community.”

As we wrapped up, I asked Jenny if there was one thing, one memory that she had that the public didn’t know about her. “Well in HIgh School I was the understudy to the Countess in You Can’t Take it With You. Lynn Jacobson who was scheduled to play the role couldn’t go on. So I played that role for one night. And to tell you the truth, I wasn’t very good.”

Somehow, I doubt that. Jenny Gersten prepares well for every role in her life, and that would have been a wonderful moment in her theatre career to savor.



You Can’t Take It With You
By Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman
Directed by Christopher Ashley
July 1 – July 23, 2011

She Stoops to Conquer
By Oliver Goldsmith
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Cast includes: Brooks Ashmanskas, Kristine Nielsen, Jon Patrick Walker, Paxton Whitehead
July 27 – August 7, 2011

Ten Cents a Dance
Conceived and Directed by John Doyle
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Cast includes: Malcolm Gets, Lauren Molina, Jane Pfitsch
August 11 – August 28, 2011


A Streetcar Named Desire
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by David Cromer
Cast includes: Jessica Hecht, Sam Rockwell
June 22 – July 3, 2011

One Slight Hitch
By Lewis Black
Directed by Joe Grifasi
Cast includes: Paige Howard, Mark Linn-Baker
July 6 – 17, 2011

A Doll’s House
By Henrik Ibsen
Translated by Paul Walsh
Directed by Sam Gold
Cast includes: Oscar Isaac, Hamish Linklater, Matthew Maher, Lily Rabe, Lili Taylor
July 20 – 31, 2011

By Bess Wohl
Directed by Trip Cullman
August 3 – 14, 2011

You Better Sit Down: tales from my parents’ divorce
Written by Anne Kauffman, Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris, Janice Paran, and Robbie Collier Sublett
Conceived by Jennifer R. Morris
Directed by Anne Kauffman
August 16 – 21, 2011 (one week only!)
ADDED PERFORMANCE: Sunday, August 21st at 7:30pm

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