Geva’s new artistic director wants to tell ‘new stories’
Elizabeth Williamson has been preparing for her new position as artistic director of Rochester’s Geva Theatre Center for most of her life.
“I think we did a really great Nixon puppet show when I was about 6, using stuffed animals on the back of the couch to great effect,” she says.
Williamson, who has since moved on to working with Tony Award-winning shows, will take over for Mark Cuddy, who announced last summer that he will be retiring after the current Geva season, which ends in July.
The first woman to hold the position, Williamson will guide Geva into its second half-century in downtown Rochester.
In his 27 years at the theater, the 66-year-old Cuddy was a hands-on artistic director, personally directing more than 55 productions, acting in some, and leading Geva commissions such as “Revival: The Resurrection of Son House,” a biography of the bluesman who lived in Rochester for many years.
He also oversaw the addition of a second stage to Geva Theatre Center, the intimate, 180-seat Fielding Stage. More recently, there were renovations to the venue’s lobby, café and apartments for actors performing in the productions.
Geva now ranks in the Top 25 for regional theater attendance in the country.
Williamson and Executive Director Christopher Mannelli will operate as co-CEOs of Geva when she officially assumes her position in June. She already has ideas for the 2022-23 season: “Oh, a thousand,” she says.
“So many of the writers whose work I most love, Geva has programmed or developed as well. So, it’s exciting to come to a theater knowing that we have some, what I’ve been calling, ‘friends in common.’”
Williamson comes to Rochester after working a handful of freelance projects through the pandemic in New York City. From 2012 through 2020, she was in Hartford, Connecticut, serving as associate artistic director and director of new play development at Hartford Stage.
The Boston native has a sprawling personal history, with a childhood of moving with her family to California, Chicago and Bennington, Vermont. “College town to college town across the country,” Williamson says. Her resumé includes undergraduate school at Bennington College and studying theater in Paris and London, where she earned a master’s degree from Oxford University.
Williamson has also worked with theater companies from Salt Lake City to New York City, with those Tony Award-winning productions, including the musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and Matthew López’ “The Inheritance.”
She was also a New York Times “Best Theatre of 2020” pick, as creative producer, dramaturg, and co-director for an online production of Sarah Gancher’s “Russian Troll Farm.”
That, and the Nixon puppet show, are the tip-offs to Williamson as perhaps a politically provocative choice to head Geva Theatre Center. Comparing it to the television series “The Office,” Williamson describes “Russian Troll Farm” as “a workplace comedy set in the headquarters of a Russian group that has been tasked to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election, online. And their work is creating tweets and believable false stories that will get Americans to fighting with each other on line, and undermine the election.”
A play -- based in a true story? -- that could, Williamson concedes, find its way to the Geva stage.
“While I sort of hoped that with the 2020 presidential election the play would start to seem very dated, I’m afraid it hasn’t yet,” she says.
“I think it still speaks to us.”
Although the pandemic has been a serious challenge to live theater, “some theater artists, as they always do, began to innovate in really fabulous ways,” Williamson says. The online aspect of “Russian Troll Farm” and other recent projects that she has been involved with speak of what she calls “new ways to tell a story.”
“Well, if we’re not in a theater,” she says, “then what makes something still theater, as opposed to film or TV?”
Yet she is looking forward to traditional theater, and standing on a real stage, rehearsing shows in person.
To his credit, Cuddy was increasingly steering Geva toward plays that emphasized people and groups who have been marginalized in society. Williamson has shared that commitment in her work.
“It’s been incredibly important to me throughout my career,” she says, “to make a space for artists with different backgrounds, different experiences, and different stories to share. To feel safe and have the tools they need to tell their stories. That are theirs alone to tell. That’s one of the things I’ve been proudest of over the last decades.”