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With Greenfield’s exit, Gersten returns to Williamstown Theatre Festival – for now

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Brigitte Lacombe
/
Williamstown Theatre Festival
Jenny Gersten.

On Monday, the Williamstown Theatre Festival announced that Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield had resigned in late October, and that Jenny Gersten would return in an interim capacity. Gersten held the role from 2010-2014, and was most recently a producer for the Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center. Greenfield’s departure comes after a damning exposé in the LA Times in September, which described employees working long hours in dangerous conditions for low wages. It included an eight-page letter from 75 festival alumni calling for changes to a culture rife with racism, discrimination, and labor exploitation. Both Gersten and festival board chair Jeffrey Johnson declined to comment on the resignation of Greenfield, who served as artistic director since 2014.

Gersten spoke with WAMC about her return, and how she plans to lead WTF through the 2022 season.

GERSTEN: I mean, I'm not really here to discuss how the transition happened. I'm just- I know I'm really just thrilled to be back here. As you know, I've spent 15 years at the Williamstown Theatre Festival over various stints over the past many years, and so it's a great opportunity for me to be back here and to work with the board and the staff to think about how the festival can move forward in a way that feels really positive. I mean, I've been thinking a lot about all the great history of the theatre festival, but also all the potential for it in the future and just thinking that there are ways for us to continue to just constantly reach for greatness and do no harm. Because I think, you know, that's, that's the big thing. There's so much integrity to the mission and to everything that's happened on our stages, and even offstage. And so I want to continue to see that progress.

WAMC: The nature of the story in the LA Times article was about sort of long running structural issues with the festival. At this point, do you feel like the fact that you've been a part of that structure in the past- Is that anything that's going to play into your current tenure as you return to the role?

Yeah, I mean, I think that's the thing we're going to be looking at, is, sort of, you know, the tradition of summer stock is something that like happened out of many different factors culturally, and even politically in the 50s, just in terms of the different things that are going on in the country at that time. So it was born out of this moment postwar and sort of the founding of the NEA, for instance, were two big things that sort of started the regional theatre movement and the summer stock movement. And obviously, the industry’s always metamorphosing. And I think Williamstown’s got to meet that moment. And that's what we're looking at.

So what plays into meeting that moment? There's obviously a lot of very specific things in the eight-page letter that was published in that Times article to the festival about areas that some of its employees have liked to see improvements in. From your vantage point, how is that next step taken forward for the festival?

Well, I think it starts with listening, right? I mean, obviously, that letter is a good part of listening and a lot of learning’s coming from that, and I think a lot of examination has already been done and will continue to get done here. But there's more listening to be done. There's more intentional contemplation that has to happen about what the, how the festival changes, its model for production and for training to make sure that people feel safe, feel taken care of, and feel like they're learning in a positive, you know, exciting place.

Have you considered any change to the pay structure for employees of the festival in the wake of that conversation?

I have to tell you, Josh, everything's going into consideration right now. We're looking at all of it. Absolutely.

At this point, do you have a sense of how long your interim position will exist for as the board seeks a new permanent artistic director?

The idea is that I'm here for the year to get through next summer and then a little bit beyond. I want to work with the board and the staff and do this listening, as we've already talked about, in the next six months to try and start to help everyone, the institution, imagine what a future Williamstown Theatre Festival looks like. And I think at that point, they can be in good preparation, I hope, to start a search. And the idea is obviously to try and bring someone on as quickly as possible so that they can see the summer festival happen and be ready to start thinking about the ‘23 season. And it's possible that, you know, the- I mean, the search can go in a number of directions. But I think it really has to do with what is the leadership model? What do we want the festival to be, and what kind of person helps us get there? I may be the right person for it, but I may not be, and so I wanted everyone to be cognizant of that as we move toward this next stage.

At this point, do you have any message to folks who have worked for the festival or folks who maybe saw the letter or saw the article and have concerns about how the festival has been conducted to date?

[After a pause] The Williamstown Theatre Festival should always be held accountable to the best standards of any nonprofit institution in this country. And therefore, we want them to keep us accountable for whatever standards we should be meeting and I think we'll be striving to understand what those standards are, and meet them and go and even exceed them.

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