Williamstown Theatre Festival Promises 'More Fun' This YearBy Phyllis McGuire
Special to iBerkshires
11:10PM / Sunday, March 17, 2013
A musical version of 'The Bridges of Madison County' and performances of 'Animal Crackers' and 'Dracula' offers something for all ages at WTF.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — When the theater curtain comes down at the end of a performance, the audience applauds the actors and actresses. But without producers and directors behind the scenes, plays would not be brought to the stage.
Williamstown Theatre Festival's Artistic Director Jenny Gersten works 16 hours a day seven days a week and thrives on it. From a very young age, she wanted to be in theater.
The first woman to head the festival in its 59-year history as well as serve as artistic director, Gersten came to that position in 2011 with much theater experience, including eight years as WTF associate producer along side Michael Ritchie from 1996 to 2004.
Now one of Gersten's responsibilities is putting together the WTF's summer season.
The 2013 lineup includes "Animal Crackers," the new musical "The Bridges on Madison County" and "Pygmalion" on the Main Stage. On the Nikos Stage, four productions will be presented: "American Hero," "Hapgood," "Johnny Baseball" and a show that has as yet to be announced. The Free Theatre offers "Dracula," an adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel by WTF veteran Steve Lawson.
The season runs from June 26 through Aug 19. According to WTF archivist Juliet Flynt, the WTF season was longer in earlier years.
Because Williams College's '62 Center for Theatre and Dance is home to WTF, Gersten explained that the festival's schedule is determined by the college's academic year. "Williams is a great landlord, and we are in conversation with them about [scheduling]," she said.
Gersten normally does not build the season's program around actors or actresses, but around directors. "In most cases, people I would like to see using their talent at WTF," she said.
"When I sat down with Steve Lawson in the fall, he, as always, had great ideas, and 'Dracula' stood out," said Gersten. "It would be wonderful in the setting of the Free Theatre."
Director Henry Wishcamper called Gersten and suggested the zany Marx Brothers' "Animal Crackers."
Now with two years as artistic director behind her, Gersten revealed that "the third year feels different. In part, in programming the season, I am taking into consideration the technical capability of the new Performing Arts Center that Williams built and which I hadn't worked in during my previous stint at WTF.
"Also, I thought about the kinds of shows I hadn't produced yet. This year, there's just more fun. 'Animal Crackers' is purely silly, and in the other two musicals there's an abundance of riches — from the romance of 'The Bridges of Madison County' to the all-American (and all-Massachusetts) joys of 'Johnny Baseball.' Even our Free Theatre production 'Dracula,' while surely a dark story, will be lots of fun."
There are two world premieres this season: "Bridges of Madison County" and "American Hero."
"It is more thrilling to present a new play for the first time - surely it's wonderful to be able to tell a hopeful playwright that we want to give that play its first chance. However, with our brief rehearsal and performance schedule, it's not always right for new works, so we try to choose carefully, finding works that feel ready for production or in the case of the new musicals we've been premiering, think that a production at Williamstown will be useful to the creative team."
Gersten has not seen the movie "The Bridges of Madison County" but she did read the book by Robert James Waller when it was first published.
"Honestly, I thought the book was a little cheesy," the artistic director said. "When they sent me the script and the songs, I was so surprised by how moving and truthful it was — quite the opposite of my reaction to the book. It is, after all, a love story, and love stories are best told when the lovers can sing about their feelings!"
Bess Wohl, who wrote "American Hero," started as an apprentice at WTF then "graduated" to the Non-Equity acting company.
"Now she's a wonderful playwright," Gersten said. "And one day, Williamstown audiences will look back when she's famous and be able to say, 'We first discovered her in Williamstown.'"
One of Gersten's favorite aspects of the festival is the training program.
"We have nearly 200 young aspiring actors, directors, and interns in all departments of the festival each year - they are the true backbone of the theater, and our future talent," she said. "The public rarely sees this 'shadow festival' but there are dozens of late-night performances over the summer for the festival audience, and the young people frequently do some of the most daring, thrilling works."
As for professional talent, former WTF Artistic Director Nicholas Martin will be back this season as director of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" (Main Stage July 17-27). Kate Burton will return to WTF after a five-year absence to take on the title role in "Hapgood," Tom Stoppard's Cold-War thriller (Nikos Stage July 10-21 ).
"Kate is like family," Gerston said of the award-winning actress who is married to Michael Ritchie.
"We are hoping this season's offerings bring in more families," Gersten said. "This year, there's plenty of entertainment for all ages."