The Spirit of the Houston Shakespeare Festival

By Andrew Tello 

Dean Coutris played Julius Caesar in the 2019 production.
The costumes offer a modern-day take on the classic Shakespeare tale. Photo courtesy of Pin Lim.

No writer in the English language can lay claim to the fame of William Shakespeare, who has amassed a global fanbase in the four centuries since his death. One of those fans, Sidney Berger, loved Shakespeare’s work so dearly that he wanted to share his passion with others and turned it into a local tradition: the Houston Shakespeare Festival. Partnering with Miller Outdoor Theatre, the Houston Shakespeare Festival stages classic Shakespearean works for the public to enjoy every summer free of charge.

Despite Shakespeare’s fame, admiration for his work is far from universal. In part, that is, because most people first encountered Shakespeare as assigned reading in school when his work was written to be enjoyed on the stage. Dr. Berger, who joined the University of Houston as the director of the School of Theatre in 1969, claimed, “Far too many people regard his writing as a necessary cultural ‘medicine,’ a teaspoon which … if taken occasionally, may serve to maintain a civilized demeanor.” Berger wanted to change that perception, and the opportunity to share his passion for The Bard was on the horizon.

Dr. Sidney Berger speaks to a group of student. He served as director of the UH School of Theatre & Dance from 1969-2010. Photo courtesy of UH Photographs Collection Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.   

Much to Do About Something

Miller Outdoor Theatre has been a Houston mainstay for almost one hundred years.  Located in Houston’s Museum District in Hermann Park, overlooked by a grassy hill that countless children have rolled down squealing with delight, Miller provides the perfect space for people to enjoy a wonderful performance with the barrier of price removed. It is representative of Houston’s wide array of performing arts. Cissy Segall Davis, the theatre’s managing director, explained, “Houston is probably one of the best cities in the country for the breadth of performing arts and cultural arts organizations that exist in this city [and Miller is] fortunate because we can make those performances available free of charge.” Despite its diversity of productions, spoken word drama was underrepresented on Miller’s stage before the Houston Shakespeare Festival began.

In August of 1975, a summer heat wave caused Miller to consider taking a temperature-induced sabbatical for two weeks. Sidney Berger saw that as an opportunity to share his passion for Shakespeare via a festival. He found Miller’s unique venue appealing because he believed Shakespeare would have found it familiar. “Imagine the distractions in Shakespeare’s theater performing in broad daylight at three o’clock in the afternoon, with people shouting or carrying on business conversations, horses whinnying and vendors hawking oranges,” Berger remarked. “It’s very much the same at Miller … only our distractions are sirens, barking dogs, airplanes, and helicopters.”

On August 8, 1975, the Houston Shakespeare Festival debuted on Miller’s stage. Two shows christened the festival’s first season, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming of the Shrew, which ran weekends through August 23rd. The festival’s first season was a joint production between the University of Houston and Miller Outdoor Theatre, with each providing equal funding. That initial season was such a hit that the festival became a mainstay at Miller, which opened its air conditioned, full proscenium theatre stage to the festival staff to entertain those in attendance. Davis pointed out, “There’s just something about seeing [Shakespeare] preformed, in such a professional and wonderful way [that] … it’s what we’ve come to expect from UH each year.”

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Actor & director Jack Young discusses the significance of rhythm in Shakespeare’s plays.

For more information on Miller Outdoor Theatre, read our 2011 article from Houston History Magazine.

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