There was little or no children's theater being offered in the city.
Knowing that the best way to cultivate future theater audiences is by reaching them when they are young, Berger, then-director of the University of Houston School of Theatre, and UH student Bren Dubay developed the Children's Theatre Festival.
Its first production took the stage of the UH Lyndall Finley Wortham Theater in 1978, and now, 30 years later, the annual festival is still going strong. Each summer, it hosts original and world premiere productions featuring the talents of award-winning stage professionals.
"I felt that these plays had to be given priority," said Berger, UH's John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Theatre & Dance. "I wanted to commission the finest creative minds to develop first-class productions, and I did."
Among the noted writers who have brought their talents to the festival are Obie Award-winning playwright Ntozake Shange ("For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide"); Tony-winning composer and songwriter Charles Strouse ("Annie," "Bye Bye Birdie"); songwriter Mark Bramble ("42nd Street"); and Tony-winning songwriter Jerry Bock ("Fiddler on the Roof," "The Apple Tree").
"Getting these talents to work with us was not the hard part. Finding people who could write for children is always the challenge when seeking festival contributors," Berger said. "Many great playwrights simply cannot write for a young audience."
Some of the esteemed artists hired for the festival have learned the hard way that writing for young audiences is far different than appealing to crowds on the Great White Way.
"Charles Strouse did a fabulous job when he worked on the production of ‘Lyle the Crocodile,'" he said. "He wrote these very lovely ballads but was shocked when children started acting up during the songs. He found out that kids can be some of the toughest audiences and don't like slower numbers. Still, he had a wonderful time working with us, and the play was actually very popular."
Berger equates young audiences with those who witnessed Shakespeare's earliest works at the Globe Theatre. Not unlike those rowdy Elizabethan crowds who spoke back to actors and loudly expressed their pleasure or displeasure, children are also quite vocal with regard to theater. Such honesty, he said, helps drive the direction of the festival's plays and helps keep every production as sincere and unpretentious as possible.
"If an audience of children feels that a play is not genuine in how it is performed, they will dismiss it instantly," Berger said. "Actors can sense this reaction from the stage, so on many levels, working with children's theater is a very informative experience for any stage professional."
Children's Theatre Festival productions are often adapted from classic fairy tales or focused toward fantasy-based fare. Energetic musical numbers are staples of the festival, and each play has a positive message that audiences can contemplate as they leave the theater.
Recent festival productions have included "Land of Broken Toys" about a disabled boy whose toys teach him to rise above his physical limitations and "The Princess Who Could Not Be Heard," which tells the story of a deaf princess seeking acceptance.
This year's festival kicks off June 11 with "Sleeping Beauty," written and directed by veteran playwright/author Kate Pogue. Its second production "The Emperor's New Clothes" will begin July 8, written by Berger, directed by Chesley Krohn and featuring music from longtime Houston musician Rob Landes.
"I am always pleased to return to this festival," Pogue said. "It's a privilege to work on original works for this event. The sets and costumes are always exquisite. These are fantastic productions and have a quality you can't find in other children's theater plays."
For more information on show times, dates and tickets, call the Wortham Theatre box office at 713-743-2929 or visit www.theatredance.uh.edu/onstage_summer_festivals_ctf.asp.
The UH School of Theatre & Dance's MFA program includes a master of fine arts degree in theatre with specializations in acting, directing and design. It also offers a masters of arts in theatre with a focus on history and research, a summer master of arts in theatre that is focused toward secondary school educators, bachelor's degrees in theatre and teacher certifications in dance.
Each fall and spring, the school produces five plays performed in the Wortham Theatre and the Jose Quintero Theatre, two dance concerts, student productions, the New Play Festival, the Houston Shakespeare Festival and the Children's Theatre Festival. The school has benefitted from notable star faculty such as Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson, Sir Peter Hall and Jose Quintero. Among current faculty are Houston Shakespeare Festival founder Sidney Berger, Tony Award-winning playwright Mark Medoff and Tony Award-winning producer Stuart Ostrow.
For details on UH's School of Theatre & Dance, visit http://www.theatredance.uh.edu/.
About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas' premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 35,000 students