The Houston Shakespeare Festival debuted in 1975 when Dr. Sidney Berger, then Director of the School of Theatre at the University of Houston, met with UH administrators and the Miller Theatre Advisory Board to enlist support for a two-production season of Shakespeare's works to be played in repertory on Miller Theatre's bill. Dr. Berger and UH Theatre professor Cecil Pickett went on to direct a pair of plays each summer, performing free to the public at Hermann Park’s Miller Outdoor Theatre in this unique collaboration between a city and a university. Audiences from all over Houston, many unable to afford tickets in the regular venues around town, were given the chance to enjoy a professional production of live theatre together as a community.
In 1978, Dr. Berger also founded the UH-based Children’s Theatre Festival, producing plays for area youth with emerging and resident professionals as actors, designers, directors and stage managers. These productions included world premieres written with Obie- and Tony-award winning composers and writers such as Jerry Bock, Mark Bramble, Charles Strouse and Ntozake Shange.
In addition, Dr. Berger was the co-founder of the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America, an organization dedicated to exchanging best practices in producing Shakespeare for contemporary audiences in venues indoors, outdoors and on tour. The organization has gone international, and now includes companies in South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Poland, and Saudi Arabia. Houston Shakespeare Festival continues to be a strong member of STA.
Audiences for HSF have grown in successive seasons, performing for tens of thousands annually. A variety of foundations and individuals have contributed funding and resources to make these free performances possible each summer. The University of Houston, in addition to partial funding, provides the company with rehearsal space, offices, scenery and costume shops, as well as technical, administration and development personnel.
For many seasons, HSF engaged a number of Actors' Equity Association Guest Artists. In 1989, the Cullen Trust for the Performing Arts awarded a special grant so that HSF could enter into a seasonal agreement with AEA, forging a strong relationship with the national organization of professional actors and stage managers.
The Children’s Theatre Festival now has been reconceived as the HSF Youth program, which offers age-appropriate productions and training. High school students in the HSF Conservatory study with the HSF artists and take part in HSF productions. UH undergraduate theatre students perform in, stage manage, and design a number of youth productions presented both in-house and tour throughout the school year. Master of Fine Arts students build their resumes and professional contacts with significant roles and design assignments on HSF productions.
HSF is now run by Jack Young (Artistic Director), Jim Johnson (Executive Director), and Dr. Rob Shimko (Literary Director). While the summer performances at Miller Outdoor Theatre are still the most public face of HSF, the new leadership trio is looking to expand HSF’s offerings year-round, including touring productions, film presentations, lectures and master workshops. Building on Dr. Berger’s legacy, the trio is dedicating the company to share the works of the English language’s greatest playwright as a means for the great diversity of the country’s fourth largest city to find common ground together.