The Houston Shakespeare Festival has a long history.
Dr Sidney Berger, then-Director of the University of Houston’s School of Theatre, met with UH administration and the Miller Theatre Advisory Board in 1975 to enlist support for a two-production season of Shakespeare’s works to be performed repertory on the Miller Theatre’s bill. In this rare collaboration between a city and a university, Dr Berger and UH Theatre professor Cecil Pickett went on to direct a pair of plays each summer, performed free to the public at Hermann Park’s Miller Outdoor Theatre. Audiences from all across Houston, many of whom could not afford tickets at the regular locations, were allowed to enjoy a quality live theatre show as a community.
Dr Berger also started the Children’s Theatre Festival at the University of Houston in 1978, which produces plays for local children with rising and resident performers, designers, directors, and stage managers. These productions included world premieres by composers and authors who have won Obie and Tony awards, including Jerry Bock, Mark Bramble, Charles Strouse, and Ntozake Shange.
Dr Berger was also a co-founder of the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America, an organization dedicated to sharing best practices in staging Shakespeare for modern audiences in indoor, outdoor, and on-the-road settings. The association has grown to include South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Poland, and Saudi Arabia. STA continues to be a prominent supporter of the Houston Shakespeare Festival.
HSF’s audiences have swelled in recent seasons, with tens of thousands of people attending each performance. Each summer, several foundations and individuals provide cash and resources to make these free performances possible. The University of Houston offers the company rehearsal space, offices, scenery and costume shops, technical, administrative, and development employees, in addition to partial finance.
HSF used several Actors’ Equity Association Guest Artists for several seasons. HSF received a special grant from the Cullen Trust for the Performing Arts in 1989 to enter into a seasonal agreement with AEA, establishing a solid relationship with the national association of professional actors and stage managers.
The HSF Youth programme, which offers age-appropriate plays and training, has replaced the Children’s Theatre Festival. The HSF Conservatory provides high school students with the opportunity to learn with HSF performers and participate in HSF shows. Throughout the academic year, UH undergraduate theatre students play in, stage-manage, and create various young performances that are presented both in-house and on tour. With critical roles and design work on HSF plays, Master of Fine Arts students enhance their resumes and professional contacts.
Jack Young (Artistic Director), Jim Johnson (Executive Director), and Dr Rob Shimko now lead HSF (Literary Director). While summer performances at Miller Outdoor Theatre remain the most visible face of HSF, the new leadership trio hopes to extend the organization’s services year-round, including touring shows, film screenings, talks, and master workshops. Building on Dr Berger’s legacy, the trio has committed the company to share the works of the English language’s greatest playwright as a way for the country’s fourth-largest city’s diverse population to find common ground.