Q&A: Gersten Leaves WTF on a 'High Line' Note
Jenny Gersten is leaving Williamstown Theatre Festival but not before planning out a summer of festival programming.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After three exciting and record-breaking seasons, Williamstown Theatre Festival Artistic Director Jenny Gersten has stepped down to join the Friends of the High Line as executive director.
The High Line — a public park and garden built over a historic elevated rail line above streets of Manhattan's West Side — is only minutes from Gersten's childhood home.
As the first woman to serve as WTF's artistic director, Gersten made her mark with ambitious programming of musicals, revivals, new works, comedies and world premieres that appealed to both younger audiences and longtime patrons.
"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 it's first chance," Gersten said in an interview with iBerkshires back in March 2013.
Highlights include "Far From Heaven," which premiered at the festival and then moved on to off-Broadway, and the much anticipated musical version of "Bridges of Madison County" that is Broadway bound this year. "The Elephant Man" with Bradley Cooper, presented on the Nikos Stage in 2012, is headed for Broadway.
Gersten departs from the festival on a high note, having planned what promises to be a delightful 2014 Main Stage season. "June Moon," directed by WTF favorite Jessica Stone (July 2-13); the world premiere of "Living on Love" by Tony Award winner Joe Di Pietro and Garson Kanin with celebrated soprano Renee Fleming in her festival debut (July 16-26) and a revival of Kander and Ebb's "The Visit," featuring Tony Award winner Chita Rivera, and directed by Tony Award winner John Doyle (July 31-Aug. 17).
Mandy Greenfield, currently artistic producer at Manhattan Theatre Club, will take over as artistic director beginning September 2014.
In a telephone interview on Jan. 30, Gersten, speaking from her hometown of New York City, answered questions about what changing jobs entails.
QUESTION: Are you wearing two hats right now, working for both WTF and Friends of the High Line?
GERSTEN: I am not officially with WTF, but I am presently planning the Nikos season. (According to Joe Finnegan, co-vice chairman of the WTF Board of Trustees, Gersten's contract with the organization expired on the last day of 2013.)
QUESTION: Will you be involved with the Cabaret or other WTF events and programs for the 2014 season?
GERSTEN: I will plan the Free Theater production in addition to the Nikos Stage season. All the other events this summer will be planned by WTF Producer Stephen Kaus and the artistic staff at the festival.
QUESTION: What was your reaction when Friends of the High Line approached you?
GERSTEN: It was not expected. I was not looking to leave WTF in any way. I was flabbergasted. It is outside my field of work.
QUESTION: How did you reach your decision to take the job with High Line?
GERSTEN: It was so difficult. I feel like theater is my true calling. I'd only been with the festival three or four years, but to be the executive director of an organization of such an extraordinary part of New York City, which will inevitably shape and grow me in ways I never expected, was too good to turn down.
QUESTION: Are your responsibilities at High Line in any way similar to those you held at the festival?
GERSTEN: They are interested in having me do programming - not like in theater. The High Line works differently than any theater organization I've worked, because it is a public-private partnership with advocacy and political aspects to it.
QUESTION: Did the fact that your mother is a strong advocate of preserving historic theaters play a part in your decision? (Gersten's mother Cora Cahan is president of the New 42nd Street.)
GERSTEN: My mother's experience with restoring and preserving old theaters in New York may have influenced my valuing historical sites. But, if I had been asked to restore a theater, I would probably have turned down that opportunity and stayed in Williamstown.
QUESTION: Do you own a home in Williamstown?
Gersten, the festival's seventh artistic director, oversaw some of WTF's most memorable productions in recent years.
GERSTEN: No. I've always lived in New York.
QUESTION: Will you come to Williamstown this summer?
GERSTEN: I will come to visit and see the plays.
QUESTION: Is there anything you aspired to as artistic director that did not come to fruition?
GERSTEN: There's always been one project I wanted to do. We got pretty far with it, but I'm disappointed to say it did not happen.
QUESTION: Can you tell me what the project was?
GERSTEN: A pause, followed by "No."
Gersten, however, will have the satisfaction of knowing "June Moon" will be the first production of the 2014 Main Stage season.
"I had been talking to Jessica Stone for a couple of years about doing 'June Moon,'" the ever vibrant 44-year old explained. "'June Moon' speaks to my sensibilities. It is a special play, funny play. Seventeen years ago, I saw Jessica Stone play the ingenue in a wonderful production off-Broadway by the Drama Department. She's a terrific director for this kind of screwball comedy."
QUESTION: What will you most miss about working in theater?
GERSTEN: You make it sound as if I'll never again work in theater. I love theater, I hope I haven't left for good.
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