During the winter of 1955, Ralph Renzi (Williams ’43), News Director of Williams College, and David C. Bryant, chairman of the College’s active drama program, conceived the idea of using the Adams Memorial Theatre on the Williams College campus for a summer theater with a resident company. They were joined by music professor Irwin Shainman as Treasurer and Louis Rudnick (Williams ’15), chairman of the Williamstown Board of Selectman, who was elected President of the new Foundation—a position he held for 17 years. Robert C. Sprague, President of Sprague Electric, became a leading financial advisor. With the help of the Board of Trade, local businessmen and town residents including Cole Porter, the Williamstown Summer Theatre—later renamed the Williamstown Theatre Festival—was formed with $9,000 in the bank.
Intending to produce ten plays in ten weeks, director Bryant sought out an associate who could direct half the season. On the strong recommendation from the Dean of Yale School of Drama, Nikos Psacharopoulos was appointed. A 26-member company was assembled from young New York Professionals, Yale actors and alumni, and a few students from Williamstown. The first season was successful enough for the theatre to plan a second.
When Bryant left Williams the following year, Nikos became Artistic Director, and the Festival’s repertory became increasingly ambitious with productions of Shaw, Giradoux, Miller, Williams and Chekhov. A growing family of actors evolved including Mildred Dunnock, E.G. Marshall and Thornton Wilder, later joined by the likes of Blythe Danner, Olympia Dukakis, Edward Herrmann, Kate Burton, James Naughton and Christopher Reeve, whose return year after year gave stability to the Equity company.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Williamstown became known for innovative versions of classics: The Seagull (taped for PBS), Galileo, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Peer Gynt and The Threepenny Opera. By this time over 100 people worked in the theater every summer. Auxiliary activities began to supplement the Main Stage: the Apprentice Workshop, an experimental Second Company, lively late-night cabarets, Sunday literary events and new play readings. The 1980s saw some of the WTF’s most ambitious work—The Greeks, a two-night celebration of Tennessee Williams with the playwright in residence, premieres on the other Stage and launch of the popular outdoor Free Theatre. Many projects transferred to Broadway, Off-Broadway and television.
After an extraordinary and visionary 33 years as the head of the WTF, Nikos Psacharopoulos passed away in 1989. Following a 35th season dedicated to his memory run by a troika of Peter Hunt, Austin Pendleton and George Morfogen, Hunt, named Artistic Director, gave a new focus to musical theatre and American classics. In 1996, long-time WTF stage manager Michael Ritchie became Producer. During his eight years at the helm, nearly two dozen productions transferred to Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theatres across the country. In 2002, the Williamstown Theatre Festival received the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. Ritchie was succeeded in 2005 by Roger Rees, who encouraged new writing and emphasized the importance of the Apprentice in the life of the Festival. Former WTF resident director Nicholas Martin served as Artistic Director from 2008-2010. In 2010, former Associate Producer Jenny Gersten was tapped to lead the Festival and in 2011, WTF received the Commonwealth Award for Achievement, the highest cultural honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Through these 58 years, the Festival’s goals remain constant: to attract top talent, cultivate young artists, produce reinterpreted versions of classics and new plays from gifted playwrights and to continue to attract audiences with the quality and ambition of our work.