Director departs theatre festival

Jenny Gersten, the current artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF), will be leaving at the end of the year to accept the position of executive director of Friends of the High Line in New York City. Friends of the High Line is a not-for-profit, private organization that maintains the High Line, a public park built on a formerly abandoned elevated railway. Gersten will serve for the remainder of the 2014 season.

Gersten has been the artistic director of WTF since 2011 and is the first female director in the event’s history. Her ties to the organization go back over a decade, as she also served from 1997 to 2004 as associate producer. During her time as associate producer, she oversaw over 90 productions of new and classic shows, five of which later made it to Broadway.

Gersten brought several changes to WTF, including reducing the number of shows on the Main Stage from four to three but extending the runs of the shows. “As a result of the popularity of some of the shows, I think that [WTF] has experienced a resurgence in the past three years, which is a point of true pride for me,” Gersten said. “The shows have been for the most part popular, artistically interesting and diverse and have utilized the various qualities that make [WTF] special and remind us why it exists.”

According to Gersten, WTF remains a unique festival due to its environment and energy. “I think it’s a combination of how special the town is,” she said. “People want to physically be here when it’s so beautiful during the summer. There’s a huge population of interns, directing assistants and young administrators, and they’re either having a repeat or a first experience at a professional theater. It creates an influx of young energy, enthusiasm and passion that is exceptional. In contrast, the professional artists come to experience that enthusiasm or return to remind themselves what it felt like. It creates a symbiosis between the newcomers and veterans.”

Gersten reflected on some of her favorite shows at WTF as artistic director. “During my first summer, we put on a musical based on the shows of Rodgers and Hart, and it was called Ten Cents a Dance,” Gersten said. WTF has also put more experiential productions under Gersten’s direction, such as David Byrne’s Here Lies Love during the 2012 season. “It was something that was rare and special,” Gersten said of the show. “We organized a residency at MASS MoCA that was also a public workshop. It was wonderful to partner with another organization fully. It was an immersive show, with the audience situated on the equivalent of the disco dance floor. The action happened on the perimeter, around [the audience members] and among them. It had some sick disco beats, and it was unusual and unlike anything we had done before.”

Gersten’s departure for the High Line will not only mark a new era for WTF but also in Gersten’s own career. Gersten has been working in the theater industry “for all [her] life.” “It is not unlike [the WTF],” she said of Friends of the High Line. “It is a very special place with a group of individuals that are very passionate, which spoke to me. And as a New Yorker, it spoke to me because of my pride for my hometown.”

Gersten looks back fondly at her experience with the WTF, and she believes her time as artistic director will aid in her next position. “I will miss the theater and cling to Williamstown and be with people in the theater industry for as long as I can,” Gersten said. “The great thing about the High Line job is that it utilizes my producing skills. There is a lot of programming that the organization is involved with … and [the job] will let me use the muscles I’ve developed in theater and utilize them in a whole new way.”