Famed fest hunting new director

The ouster of Williamstown Theater Festival artistic and executive director Peter Hunt, a 37-year veteran of one of the country’s best-known summer theaters, took him completely by surprise.

Announcing Sept. 10 that Hunt would not be continuing in his dual capacities in Williamstown, the festival board acknowledged his “loyal and dedicated services over the past many years,” adding that it hopes his schedule “will allow him to return as often as is possible.”

Yet no one has been willing to explain the move. Asked why the board decided to replace Hunt, festival president Dr. Ira Lapidus preferred not to answer the question and said the board didn’t plan to take the festival in a new direction. Lapidus did say that the board hoped a successor would be in place by mid-December.

“Mysterious and quite surprising,” is how Hunt’s agent, Robert Lantz, characterized the affair.

“The executive committee of the board had a meeting a week ago Sunday (Sept. 10) and decided to look for a new artistic director,” Lantz said. That was that, apparently, ending at least for the time being Hunt’s association with the 41-year-old festival.

Williamstown built its reputation by mounting breezy revivals featuring stars such as Blythe Danner, Joanne Woodward and Christopher Reeve. In recent years, it also has begun workshopping new plays. A diverse search committee has been set up to find Hunt’s successor. Chaired by Jay Harris, it’s made up of Reeve and Woodward, along with Alicia Adams, Jon Robin Baitz, Marge Champion, Tom Fontana, Deborah Lapidus and James Naughton.

Pointing out that his 1994 season, Williamstown’s 40th anniversary, broke all-time box office records, Hunt admits that the just-ended season was less successful: “but that was not given as a reason for dismissing me, no reason being given. We did have some softness at the box office early on in the season, possibly partly our fault – we didn’t open with a musical – but also partly because of a slump locally felt by other theaters as well.”

The festival, with an annual budget in recent summers of around $1.6 million for its two-month season, employs upwards of 290 people at its peak of activity. The last two main-stage productions of the 1995 season, Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” and James Whitmore and Audra Lindley in Emmet Lavery’s “The Magnificent Yankee,” were near-sellouts. Hunt admits, however, that the season would have ended slightly in the red.

Hunt also admits ruefully that because the festival – and the Berkshire Mountains college town for which it is named – have for so long been such an important part of his life, it will be hard to walk away.

“Will it be the end of my long relationship with the festival?” he pondered. “That’s tough to answer. I don’t know what way the new management will go.”

Hunt joined the festival as a lighting designer in 1958; he made his directing debut there and went on to work on scores of Williamstown productions. Following the death in 1989 of founding a. d. Nikos Psacharopoulos, Hunt, Austin Pendleton and George Morfogen were named co-directors of the 1989 season. A year later, Hunt was appointed sole a. d.

“I thought he’d done well and that both he and they were happy with the situation,” says Lantz, adding drily that as a. d. Hunt earned “a lot less than Sylvester Stallone.”

Back in California, Hunt is mulling over possibilities of work on TV projects this fall, together with some theater ventures.

“There’s talk of bringing ‘The Magnificent Yankee’ to New York,” he said, “and I’m still hoping for a Broadway revival of ‘1776.’ “Hunt staged the 1969 original Broadway production of that musical and revived it very successfully at Williamstown in 1991.

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