Turning 40 means often slowing down and taking fewer risks. That’s not the case for the Houston Shakespeare Festival (HSF). The city’s long-running salute to the Bard will head full steam ahead toward its 40th anniversary this summer.
Produced by the University of Houston’s acclaimed School of Theatre & Dance, the festival will present free performances of “1 Henry IV” and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” August 1-10 in the city’s Miller Outdoor Theatre (6000 Herman Park Dr.).
Performances begin at 8:30 p.m. Show dates are as follows:
- “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” – Aug. 1, 3, 5, 7, 9
- “1 Hentry IV” – Aug. 2, 6, 8, 10
“HSF has become an institution in Houston since it started 40 years ago,” said Jim Johnson, director of UH’s School of Theatre & Dance. “I think some of its longevity and popularity is that it appeals to so many different kinds of people. Some people come for the Shakespeare, obviously, but there are others who see it as a wonderful social opportunity to engage either in the seats or on the hill at Miller Outdoor Theatre.”
In addition to celebrating four decades of bringing the Bard to Houstonians, this year’s festival will deliver its first production of “1 Henry IV.” Directed by veteran HSF director and UH theater professor Jack Young, the play focuses on King Henry leading his army – including estranged son Harry – into a civil war, accompanied by Falstaff, an iconic Shakespeare comedian.
The 2014 festival marks the third year that the festival has produced “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” A director soon will be announced for this comedy, which has been cited by some historians as Shakespeare’s first play. Its plot follows Proteus and Valentine, two friends who find themselves in love with Silvia, the Duke of Milan’s daughter. The boundaries of friendship are pushed to their limits, and Proteus’ original love interest, Julia, dons a disguise to follow him.
The festival began in 1975 under the guidance of former UH School of Theatre & Dance director Sidney Berger. Since then, the festival has flourished in Houston attracting thousands of fans to view Shakespeare’s works under the stars. Berger passed away in 2013, and last year’s event was dedicated to his memory.
“I love that, for many people, this is their first time to see anything like this simply because it's free to the public - it's theatre that anyone can afford,” Johnson said. “In the beginning, I think it happened because Sidney Berger willed it into being, but then it became something that belonged to Houston. We have world-class ballet, opera, symphony, theatre, musical theatre and a Shakespeare festival. Sidney's creation has become another Houston icon.”
Festival highlights have included journeyman thespian Dan O’Herlihy (who starred in Orson Welles’s film version of “Macbeth”) taking on the title role in “King Lear” and regional star Ken Ruta playing Prospero in “The Tempest.” Recent festivals have featured guest artists such as Seth Gilliam (of HBO’s “Oz” and “The Wire”); alumna Cindy Pickett (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”); Mark Metcalf (“Animal House”); Obie Award-winning actor Brandon J. Dirden and Broadway veteran Crystal Dickinson.
Casting for this year’s plays will begin in February.
The festival also includes performances from young actors being groomed in the Houston Shakespeare Festival Conservatory. This professional development component of HSF provides theater training for high school students. Members of the HSF acting company and stage crew work with students for three weeks. Students are trained in acting, stage combat, movement, voice for the stage and text analysis. At the conclusion of the conservatory, they perform for audiences prior to each HSF production and join the professional casts on the Miller Outdoor stage.
The festival and conservatory are made possible by the talents at UH’s School of Theatre & Dance. The school produces pre-professional plays, dance concerts, studio productions, and school shows through the Theatre for Young Audiences program. Performances are delivered in in the Wortham Theatre and the Quintero Theatre. The UH School of Theatre & Dance offers bachelor’s and master's degrees in theater and teacher certifications in dance and theatre. Its graduate program consists of a Master of Arts in theatre and Master of Fine Arts in theatre with specializations in acting, directing and design. Alumni include actors Jim Parsons, Dennis Quaid, Brett Cullen and Robert Wuhl. Faculty includes Tony Award-winning producer Stuart Ostrow and Tony-nominated designer Kevin Rigdon. Among the greats who have taught at the school are Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson, Sir Peter Hall, Jose Quintero, Patsy Swayze and Cecil Pickett. In 2012 and 2013, the school was named “Best College Theater” in the Houston Press Theater Awards. For details on UH's School of Theatre & Dance, visit www.theatredance.uh.edu.