Bernard Gersten, who served as associate producer at the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater from 1960 to 1978, and as executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater from 1986 to 2013, died on April 27. He was 97.
In the spring of 1971, Joe Papp asked Mel Shapiro to direct Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park that coming summer, then take it on a bus-and-truck tour to the streets and parks of all five New York City boroughs. Mel was worried about this plan, in a time of racial unrest. The previous summer, an audience had attacked a street performance of Macbeth with beer bottles. What would they do to a five-act play reflecting on Renaissance sentiments of courtly love? Mel had directed my play House of Blue Leaves a few months earlier. He asked Joe if I could help him shape this rambling play into a coherent 90 minutes.
Mel brought me into Joe’s office. Joe quizzed me. A man poked his head in. Joe said, “Bernie, this is John. He’ll be working here.” I thought the Public Theater was a one-man band. Who was this Bernie? Did Bernie say, “Okay. Get to work”? It sounds like him.
Mel and I got to work.
How to protect the ravishing poetry that shoots through the play? Galt MacDermot, who’d written the music for Hair that opened the Public Theater in 1967, had volunteered to be the Delacorte’s resident composer for the three plays that summer of 1971. Take advantage of that, I thought. If I wrote a few songs with colloquial lyrics, could they function as subtitles, crib notes, allowing audiences to hold the meaning of Shakespeare’s verse in their heads and appreciate the verse?
We found a wonderful cast. Raul Julia! Joe could leave to go on a vacation. His absence relaxed the theatre. Bernie would drop into rehearsals and cheer us on. The few songs grew into a dozen, two dozen. What a time of joy.
Joe came back from vacation as Two Gentlemen started previews. The audience was ecstatic. But Joe was not pleased when he saw what had happened in his absence, with Bernie at the helm. Joe gave Mel and me all sorts of notes, such as: “When the girls disguise themselves as boys, they should wear beards.” Bernie ran interference between the show and Joe. “Just do your work.” Did he say that? It sounds like him.
The musical opened to reviews of your dreams. David Merrick wanted to transfer it to Broadway. Sol Hurok talked about taking it on a world tour. Bernie came up with a third alternative. The Public had given away Hair. “Why don’t we raise the money and produce Two Gentlemen ourselves?” he wondered. Joe was adamant: The Public wasn’t in the business of producing plays on Broadway. “Why not?” asked Bernie. “It’d give the Public a source of income.” Bernie even drew up a contract describing how a not-for-profit theatre could produce commercially. Joe wouldn’t budge. Bernie asked Mel, Galt, and I to back him. We agreed. We would only sign a contract with the Public. Bernie went to LeEsther Mertz, a patron of the Public. She singlehandedly financed the show, assigning all royalties to the Public.
Bernie had created a precedent and a contract that would hold later that year when the Public transferred David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones to Broadway, and later kept the Public in good stead when A Chorus Line came along. There’s no reason not to think Bernie’s brainchild put to use again decades later when Hamilton opened at the Public.
After Two Gents opened, I had a falling out with Joe and quit any thought of working at the Public. I started working in Chicago and Williamstown. Bernie came to Williamstown the summer of 1974 to see my new play and urged me to come back to the Public. Bernie arranged a meeting between Joe and me. Bernie was my buffer. I became the 1977 playwright-in-residence.
That June, Bernie had the idea of throwing a surprise birthday party for his longtime friend at the Delacorte—and what a party! Scenes from the Public’s hits, various companies of A Chorus Line, plus a boxed picnic for 2,000 people. I also wrote a play for the occasion, depicting a typical day in Joe’s office: Chris Sarandon played Joe, Meryl Streep played Joe’s secretary, Edward Herrmann played a recently discovered minority (an Eskimo playwright who wrote drawing-room comedies). Barnard Hughes played an irate subscriber who could no longer stand being made to feel guilty every time he went to the Public. Waving a gun, he said, “Which of you is Joe Papp?” Chris as Joe lifted the phone: “Bernie, would you come in here?” I played Bernie. I entered. Chris said, “This is Joe.” Barnard Hughes shot me dead. Yes, a typical day.
The event was somehow kept a secret, with undercover rehearsals. And how would Joe suspect that anyone would celebrate his 57th? On the big day, Joe was having a small dinner with his family at a restaurant on the Upper West Side. The stage manager of the upcoming play at the Delacorte called, and said the lead in All’s Well That Ends Well was having a panic attack and would not come out of the locked bathroom unless Joe personally reassured her. Joe went to the Delacorte, which was in total darkness, and the lights blazed on as he entered and 2,000 people cried out, “Happy birthday!” A triumph.
But the entire evening enraged Joe. How did Bernie pull off such a gargantuan event under Joe’s nose without his knowledge? What other malfeasance was Bernie capable of? Bernie’s desk was out on the street come Monday. All’s well that ends well? Hardly. Everybody had to adjust to a life at the Public minus the calm hand of Bernie.
What would Bernie do now? Joe had turned down Michael Bennett’s new musical, while Bernie felt they had an obligation to support Michael’s work after A Chorus Line. So Bernie produced Ballroom. This was a key trait of Bernie’s: Follow the artist, not their latest work.
Meanwhile at the Public, life was different. I offended Joe by pulling my new play from the schedule and choosing to do it in Chicago, which now had the seat-of-the pants spirit of New York 10 years before. The play went fairly well at the Goodman, and Bernie transferred it to New York.
Ballroom opened. It was not a success. A few months later, my play opened on Broadway and ran five performances. Bernie shrugged: “Commercial theatre—you take your chances.” Bernie and I came out of that experience closer friends than ever.
He moved to California to run Francis Ford Coppola’s studio, American Zoetrope, and we stayed in touch by phone. He came back to New York in 1983 to produce with Alexander Cohen. One of their projects was Peter Brook’s Carmen. Brook wanted to stage it in the decaying 1920s nightclub on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street. The fire department wouldn’t give Carmen a permit. Its floor could not support an audience. Peter Brook next wanted Carmen done in an abandoned theatre. Bernie led them to the long-empty Beaumont. Peter Brook said if anyone can find the center of the Beaumont stage, it could be the best stage in New York.
In 1984, Lincoln Center wanted the Beaumont and its 299-seat Mitzi Newhouse Theater off the premises. Give it to the Film Society, they said, or tear it down. Lincoln Center needed a garage. But Mayor John V. Lindsay asked the board to give the Beaumont one last shot at survival. The mayor and a few other stalwarts approached the definition of success, Mike Nichols, to take it over. Nichols had recently directed David Rabe’s Hurlyburly at the Goodman in Chicago before transferring it to Broadway. Mike offered a cautious yes with the proviso that Gregory Mosher, artistic director of the Goodman, run it with him. Gregory said yes. Then Mike dropped out.
In May 1985 I ran into Bernie at our local grocery store in Greenwich Village. “So what’s up?” I asked. Bernie said, “I’m going to run Lincoln Center with Gregory Mosher.” I dropped my onions. My first thought was: Poor Bernie.
Gregory moved to New York with the expertise of Bernie at his side. Lincoln Center Theater’s last chance began in that fall. The unworkable Beaumont was officially no man’s land; the Newhouse opened with two one-acts by David Mamet. For the second slot, Gregory chose a play of mine he had directed with success in Chicago. Problem: Bernie thought Lincoln Center at this point in its precarious life demanded something more festive than my post-Civil War play of disillusionment. Gregory’s assistant, Larry Sloan, said, “Why not revive House of Blue Leaves? It’s been 15 years since it opened.” (It had never officially closed—the theatre had burned down.) Bernie said this was more like it.
Jerry Zaks would direct, Tony Walton design. Blue Leaves was a dream from its first preview. You couldn’t get a ticket. Bernie knew the play had to transfer. But where? No problem for Bernie: Why not upstairs? I protested: “Move my play upstairs to that barn?”
We had a full house at the first Beaumont performance. Stockard Channing entered. Bernie and I looked at each other. “You know what your problem is?” The audience roared. The sound of that laughter shattered the glacial frost that had numbed the Beaumont all those years. By the end of that performance, no one ever spoke about demolishing the Beaumont again. It became the best stage in town. Having Tony Walton’s set spill into the audience’s lap found the Beaumont’s center.
Bernie’s life at LCT had begun. And what a life. It would take up too much ink to list the theatre’s accomplishments over the past 35 years. As Andre Bishop, Mosher’s successor, noted, Bernie’s world was a world of “yes.” LCT was for a long time, and still may be, one of the largest not-for-profit theatres in the country. And Bernie ran it with a staff of just over 20. “The greatest Indianapolis 500 pit stop crew of all time,” he called them. His office door was always open. He involved his passionately devoted staff in frequent discussions, seeking out their thoughts, trying out new ideas. He schmoozed with his beloved box office staff, kept in touch with crews, the actors, checked in with Reba, the Beaumont house manager, asked officer Charles, who oversaw the lobby, “Are they liking the show?”
We had one disagreement. When the 1986 Tonys came round, Bernie submitted Blue Leaves as a new play. I said: It’s a revival. He pointed out a current Tony rule declaring a new play to be a play that had not been produced on Broadway. “John, don’t you believe it is the best play? Always stick with the best and hope for the best.” Swoosie, Mahoney, Jerry, Tony Walton won their Tonys. Blue Leaves as a new play did not. But Bernie was right. “John, it’s all in the doing.”
For me, Bernie’s defining moment came in 1991, when Joe Papp was dying. Bernie learned that Joe had no place to spend his last days. Bernie spontaneously moved himself and his wife, Cora, out of their apartment and turned it over to Joe and Gail. Bernie never held a grudge, never forgot a friend.
God, we had a good time. He was the wisest man I’ve ever known, profoundly honest, the most fun, the truest friend. We spoke almost every day.
“He was a man, take him for all in all
I shall not look upon his like again.”
John Guare is the author of such plays as Six Degrees of Separation, The House of Blue Leaves, Landscape of the Body, and Free Man of Color.
An earlier version of this article misstated Gersten’s role at Lincoln Center, he was the executive producer not the executive director. Guare served as the playwright in residence of New York Shakespeare Festival in 1977, not 1975. Also, Joe and Gail Papp moved into the Gersten’s apartment in 1991, not 1990.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!