Looking Inward, Williamstown Festival Will Slash Bids to Ensure Artistic Demands Don’t Override Human Needs | theater arts

Williamstown Theater Festival (copy)

The Williamstown Theater Festival released a progress report this week on its efforts to create, in the words of its acting artistic director, “a more equitable, inclusive, diverse, accessible, anti-racist and anti-oppressive festival.”

WILLIAMSTOWN – Grievances over working conditions faced by Williamstown Theater Festival staff sparked a strike last summer during a rehearsal, as lower-paid staff complained of rushed mistreatment to present a musical to the public outdoors in rainy July.

Since then, the nationally acclaimed Williams College-based festival has been striving to reach a milestone in its human relationships, Jenny Gersten, its acting artistic director, said this week.

These measures include reducing the number of shows produced by the nearly 70-year-old festival, to ensure workloads are humane and manageable.

Additionally, the festival takes aim at a broad list of social, racial and economic inequalities that it says have, to some degree, been part of its makeup.

At this time of year, performing arts destinations in Berkshire County typically announce features for their upcoming summer seasons. In her widely circulated email on Thursday, Gersten said that since joining the festival last fall, replacing Mandy Greenfield, she has joined staff and administrators “to listen, learn, reflect and rebuild towards a more equitable, inclusive, diverse, accessible, anti-racist and anti-oppressive festival.

Jenny Gersten smiling (copy)

Jenny Gersten, who led the Williamstown Theater Festival from 2011 to 2014, returned last fall as interim artistic director. This week, she announced that a wide variety of steps are being taken to increase the organization’s diversity, accessibility and anti-racism work, among other goals.

Without pointing out the failures of past practices within the festival, the bulleted actions listed in a progress report released Thursday paint a picture of an organization that didn’t pay enough attention to how people were recruited, brought to the festival, supervised, or treated – or simply gave itself personal time to recharge.

A now-listed remedy promises to give employees “at least one day off a week” and will cap the hours of seasonal workers and interns, a move that suggests that in past seasons some people have worked long hours, every day of the week.

To support this, the festival called on an external human resources consultant. The venture will allow employees to respond to anonymous surveys, a festival strategy for getting “frank and open feedback.” At the end of the season, the consultant will interview staff members throughout the year and focus on any issues they might identify, the progress report says. Remuneration levels will also be studied.

Additionally, a senior executive position has been created to ensure that the festival achieves its lofty artistic goals, it does not exploit employees. The person in this position will be “a steward and guardian of the people and culture at the Festival”, according to the document“A progress report on equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, anti-racism and anti-oppression at WTF.”

The nearly 2,000-word report lists 35 distinct actions it will take to bring about what Gersten called a “significant” change in the way the group operates.

The report warns that the work has only just begun. “Significant structural and cultural change happens over years and decades, not weeks and months,” he says.

Gersten previously oversaw the festival as artistic director from 2011 to 2014. At the time she took over the reins, no reason was given for Greenfield’s departure. A 2020 planning document reviewed by The Eagle called for the artistic director, who was Greenfield, to commit to a “leadership transition” by 2024.

Previous work

The report comes 20 months after the festival engaged himself in June 2020, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, to be “a welcoming, diverse and inclusive workplace” that would expand its work to identify bias and guide its staff on ways to combat everyday racism.

These goals seem to be largely integrated into the new report.

Yeman Brown rehearses a scene from "Alien/Nation" (copy)

Yeman Brown rehearses a scene from “Alien/Nation,” a two-part immersive Forest of Arden experience at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2021.

Starting this year, all festival employees will be required to undergo “unconscious bias training”, including rehearsal room teams made up of all cast and crew members, as well as “creatives from each production,” the report said.

With its release this week, the festival invites feedback from “all stakeholders”.

Notably, the list he provides of such stakeholders specifies people like technicians and interns who are often overlooked by elite arts organizations – including some of those who spoke last summer about their treatment by the festival during the rehearsals of “Row”. The Change Berkshire Culture group has produced anonymous testimonials over the past year on Instagram about pay inequality and management issues at Berkshires arts organizations.

“We have absorbed the valuable feedback to date, and the door is open for how we can better foster a safe, respectful and welcoming environment for all,” the report states.

Comments can be sent to Danielle King, Festival Producer and Director of Organizational Culture, at [email protected] They can also be sent to Jeffrey Johnson, chairman of the festival trustees, and a third-party human resources consultant, by email to [email protected]

Changes in approach

From this year, the festival will no longer offer seven shows, in an apparent shift from a ‘the show must go on’ attitude to one concerned with what can be done without overstretching those involved.

'Offstage drama' brings better pay and shifts to Williamstown Theater Festival crews

Instead, it will reduce “the number and scale” of its programs to “match its ability to support the staff and interns who make the Festival possible. … It will reduce the intensity and sense of urgency once endemic to the WTF workplace.

This week’s update didn’t specify how many shows will make up the 2022 season. further support employee safety and work-life balance.

In its 2020 statement on racism, the festival said it would rebuild its apprenticeship and internship programs to make them “fair and equitable” and would “radically reinvent the methods by which it recruits and hires employees”.

A criticism of the festival has been that apprentices have to pay tuition, as well as room and board, which severely limits the field of who can apply.

Last year, the organization suspended the program for apprentices and interns, which had charged them for tuition, accommodation and meals. Free accommodation will now be offered to all participants, the report says.

“These programs are being redesigned as opportunities for learners where cost is no longer a barrier,” the progress report states, “and where work-life balance is a priority. The goal is to to provide experiential training, networking, and career development opportunities for early career theater makers in all areas of the field.

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