Williamstown Theatre Festival issues a progress report on efforts to address allegations of racism, poor labor conditions
The Williamstown Theatre Festival has released a progress report on its ongoing efforts to respond to allegations of racism, dangerous working conditions, equity shortcomings, and more. The claims were raised by an alumni group featured in a Los Angeles Times exposé in September. The following month, then-artistic director Mandy Greenfield abruptly resigned and Jenny Gersten, who served as artistic director from 2010-2014, returned in an interim capacity. WAMC spoke with Gersten about what WTF has identified in its new report, as well as her reaction to continuing criticism from the alumni group whose letter to leadership sparked the reckoning.
GERSTEN: The report that we released last week is the result of, I would say, two years of conversations that have been happening at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. So as much as it's true it is in part in response to some of the more recent, you know, information that's come to light or certain allegations that were brought up. it was really part of a full staff effort to sort of respond to the times because they're, you know, they're changing.
WAMC: So let's dial in some of the specifics. What initiatives are underway that the report identifies?
Well, one of the things we did back in 2021, was that we changed the structure of what was formerly our apprentice program into a learning program. Last year was specifically in partnership with Black Theatre United, a company that started during 2020 in response to some of the racial reckoning, Black Lives Matter movement that was going on in a big way that year. Black Theatre United partnered with Williamstown Theatre Festival to create a BIPOC theatre makers program for 10 learners in residence at the festival. And it combined some pedagogy or academic learning, some experiential learning, mentorship with members of Black Theatre United, and other meaningful ways of engagement at the theatre festival. So, when we once had, you know, people applying to become apprentices at the festival, we're now interested in changing it so that it has more of an educational component and more of a structure with limitations to how many hours they're spent doing any labor at the festival.
One theme in the criticism lodged at the festival concerned a culture where employees felt that it was either uncomfortable or unclear on who they could report concerns about labor conditions or equity issues to within the organization. Has the report addressed those concerns?
Yeah, in several ways. I mean, one of the things we did was we have just hired a woman named Danielle King, who is going to be the producer of shows and of organizational culture, really thinking about people and culture at the senior level of the organization, so that there is someone on staff. We also started working with a third-party HR firm back in 2021. So we had a full time consultant in HR working with us, as well as someone BIPOC available to BIPOC members of the festival, if there were HR-type issues that we needed, that needed to be addressed, but more personally. And I'm just trying to think of- A lot of the reporting structure, just in terms of anonymous reporting, those, the report also makes room for ways to make it available without, with- And keep anonymity.
Back in November, when WAMC reported on your return to the festival when Mandy Greenfield departed, the WTF, Williamstown?! Collective, the group of alumni who wrote the much publicized letter to the festival concerning a lot of these criticisms, offered a statement back to us citing their concern that – I'm going to quote here – “the only public and concrete step at the festival was made is to rehire a former artistic director who presided over the same toxic institutional practices.” When you hear a sentiment like that, where there's concern that you were attached to the festival at what they have described as the height of many of these concerns- Do you have a response to that?
I mean, I think- I understand where they're coming from. You know, I think our awareness of how, of that kind of toxicity, at least for me, personally, has really evolved over time. So I think, the way I thought about the culture back then when I worked at the theatre festival versus how I understand it now, and partly because of the WTF Collective’s ability to sort of raise these concerns, and partly because our whole industry is changing. And the generations of young people today who are standing up for what they think is fair and correct behavior by an employer are just- They've shifted, and I think it's important to be responsive to them and understand where they're coming from. So I think that's what we're doing now. It's, you know, it's hard to hear it, Josh, but it's, on the other hand, we all need to change.
Looking back at your first tenure at the festival, do you have any regrets about how you conducted yourself as its leader?
I don't. I actually, I'm really proud of my time at Williamstown, in both eras that I worked there. I mean, I understand where you're coming from with that, but, uh- But that's not how I, that’s not how I look back on it.
Looking forward, what comes next from the report? When are we going to see more action taken by the festival?
Well, again, I think we're just at- The reason that we're releasing this as a progress report as opposed to sort of a document of, that sort of finite, is we're saying, this is an organic process, we're going to keep learning as we make these changes, and implement these new ideas and put them into practice. We're going to see where the pinch points are when we try these new efforts and work together to address the new potential complications that arise out of it. But I think we intend to release a progress report at least once a year, as well as making small amendments throughout the time that it lives on our website so that we can be held continue to be held accountable. So that it has, that we're constantly being responsive to what we learn.
Jenny, are there any questions about the report I haven't thought to ask you that you think it's important for folks to understand?
It’s a great question. I think the question, Josh, is, maybe, how does this change the Williamstown Theatre Festival that I know and love, because I'm reading a lot about anti-oppression and anti-racism, but there probably are some listeners out there who think, you know, I loved my Williamstown Theatre Festival the way it was, and I never understood that these were real problems because I, you know, I love the shows and it's important to me that the theatre festival continue to exist and thrive in the Berkshires. And so I think that's going to all happen too. I don't think this report changes what we do culturally, to contribute to the life of the arts in the Berkshires. It just makes us more responsible humans.