Not a member? Become one today!
         iBerkshires     Williamstown Chamber     Williams College     Your Government     Land & Housing Debate
Williamstown Theatre Festival Leadership: 'We Have to Give It a Shot'
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
07:26AM / Saturday, March 09, 2024
Print | Email  

Interim Artistic Director Jenny Gersten talks about the 2024 season as WTF Board Vice Chair Joe Finnegan looks on.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown Theatre Festival schedule announced earlier this week features a return to the main stage for the first time since 2019.
But that was not the main emphasis from the leadership team that held a community forum Thursday morning on the Nikos Stage at Williams College's '62 Center for Theatre and Dance.
Rather than talking about a return to what the festival was before the pandemic shutdown, the goal is to build back a better, more sustainable and, by necessity, different WTF as it celebrates 70 years in the Berkshires.
"Our footprint for 2024 will be similar to 2022," Managing Director Strategy and Transformation Raphael Picciarelli said. "I like to talk about last year was a shrink down to think, and we're now on an upswing.
"And then, year to year, over the next three to five years, we'll be expanding, expanding and expanding. I will be as bold as to say our goal is really to surpass the footprint of what we saw in 2019."
That will not mean a return to a half-dozen full-staged productions between the Nikos and Festival (main) Stage from early July to late August.
It cannot mean that because of the transformation of the theater industry — a transformation that hit home for the WTF in 2021 when it was struck by labor issues that made national headlines for the wrong reason.
On Thursday morning, the festival's leaders talked frankly about the factors that helped drive it to change.
"When I came [back] 2 1/2 years ago, the moment we were having was that Mandy [Greenfield] had left and we were looking to figure out how to put together our first in-person season in 2022," interim Artistic Director Jenny Gersten said. "We had a lot of explaining to do about our former model as a summer stock theater.
"You talk about 2019, that was when we had apprentices and interns and, in the time through the pandemic, we had to address concerns about inequity about 'pay-to-play' behavior where apprentices paid to be here, and that excluded other people because they didn't have the means to be here. So we had to address all those issues and then some: long hours, conditions where we were pushing to make theater very quickly.
"And that is now considered inequitable and not good practice in general — throughout the industry, not just Williamstown."
James Montaño, a doctoral candidate studying theater leadership at the University of Texas and, for four years, a staff member at the WTF, moderated Thursday's panel and backed up Gersten's comment on the industry as a whole.
"I can look at regional theaters broadly and see there's a need for change across the board,"  Montaño said. "The first thing is, the financial model is challenging. It's always going to be challenging. … The cost of labor has gone up — it's wild how much it has gone up the last five years alone.
"We're doing what a regular theater struggles to do over eight or nine months in three. So everything that's being experienced in the regional theater world is compacted."
At one point, Gersten said, "I think a lot of theaters are not going to make it in the next couple of years."
To keep the Williamstown Theatre Festival alive, the management used the summer of 2023 largely to pause and reflect, Gersten said.
The new incarnation that emerges this summer, as outlined on Thursday, seeks to grow community engagement through the use of different venues, different formats and programming outside the traditional summer weeks that were the mainstay of the WTF for decades.
In addition to the one main stage production, Rachel Bloom's "Death, Let Me Do My Show," (July 5-14), the festival will bring back its popular Cabaret (July 25 to Aug. 10), stage a "public art installation and immersive film experience" at North Adams' Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and produce two shows on the '62 Center's black box theater, Centerstage.
"Being in Centerstage this summer, taking us off a proscenium stage, helps us tremendously in terms of our physical production — not having to build something without a scene shop and then take it down quickly so we can flip to the next show," Gersten said. "We used to do that in a couple of days' time. We don't have the labor for that anymore. We're not allowed to work 100-hour days — an exaggeration, but that's what it felt like."
The 2024 season also will include a four-day preview of what the festival hopes will be a focal point of seasons to come, "WTF Is Next," (Aug. 1-4), which is described as a set of immersive experiences that, involve patriots in "memorable morning and midday activities, curated dining experiences, vibrant late-night programming."
On Thursday morning, Picciarelli said details of what those experiences will be are still developing.
He also talked about a "digital presence" for the festival as well as events outside the summer season but did not go into detail.
Joe Finnegan, a Williamstown resident and vice chair of the WTF Board of Directors, said the next iteration of the festival will have more ways for people to engage with theater.
"When you look at Raph's weekend that is going to happen in August, there are many different things happening," Finnegan said. "It's almost like you're putting the 'festival' back in the theater festival.
"It gives you an opportunity to do many different things. Nobody could do all of those things. … There's going to be 20 different things you could go to."
Finnegan said friends who had seen Wednesday's news release announcing the season asked him Wednesday night what he thought about it.
"I said, 'I don't know, but it's the only way forward,' " Finnegan said. "So we have to come together around this. We have to give it a shot. … We have to see who is going to fill out Raph's weekend. But we have to participate. We have to keep an open mind. I'm the most optimistic I've been in three years, since I've been in the middle of all these conversations. I know what the math is, and the math is not great.
"Raph is introducing that year where we can have different revenue streams. … This will take time. We need your support. We need your moral support. If you have the capacity to be a financial supporter, we need that, too. This is for this community and for this greater community.
"I think what the community can do is hold hands with us, listen, wait and see what gets announced over the next couple of months and go on this ride with us. Because the other option is not great. This is our only option."
More Featured Stories is owned and operated by: Boxcar Media 102 Main Sreet, North Adams, MA 01247 -- T. 413-663-3384
© 2011 Boxcar Media LLC - All rights reserved