Compiled by Kevin Ferst
Renowned Shakespeare authority Arthur Lithgow founded what was to become the Great Lakes Theatre Festival during the 1950s at Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. After several years performing in Antioch, during which all of Shakespeare's works were produced, Artistic Director Lithgow and his company relocated for brief stints at Stan Hywet Hall in Akron, the Toledo Zoo, and Cuyahoga Falls. In 1961, through an arrangement between Lakewood, Ohio Board of Education President Dorthy Teare and Lithgow, the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival was founded. With a new home in Lakewood Civic Auditorium, Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival opened on July 11, 1962, presenting As You Like It, and five other Shakespeare productions in rotating repertory.
The Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival only produced Shakespeare plays until 1965, when Lithgow expanded the repertoire to include plays by Chekhov, Moliére, and Sheridan. Such notable names as Ruby Holbrook, William Ball, Donald Moffatt, and Lithgow's then-teenaged son, John Lithgow, performed during these early years. In 1966, Lithgow left the festival to join the McCarter Theatre, where he had been appointed Executive Director.
The second Artistic Director, Lawrence Carra, was appointed in 1966. Carra had been a professor of drama at Carnegie Tech, had been involved in the earliest days of television, and possessed national directing experience. One of the highlight's of Carra's tenure was the first production of Godspell (outside of New York City), written by Berea, Ohio native John-Mechael Tebelak. Carra left in 1975 to accept a position as head of the drama department at Carnegie.
In 1976, Irish native Vincent Dowling, formerly Deputy Director of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, was named third Artistic Director. Under Dowling, the Festival was committed to creating a company that would stretch from light comedies to modern classics, including Shakespeare. Future television and film star Tom Hanks began as an intern in 1977, co-starring in Two Gentlemen of Verona.
In 1982, a civic push to revitalize the Playhouse Square Complex in downtown Cleveland saw the Festival move from its original home at Lakewood Civic Center to Playhouse Square. The name was changed to Great Lakes Theater Festival, to reflect the company's commitment to a broader classics-based repertoire. The inaugural season in Playhouse Square was highlighted by the first American production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby, an 8 ½ hour retelling of Charles Dickens' novel that included 46 actors. Also in 1982, the company performed a Christmas production based on Dylan Thomas' childhood memories, called A Child's Christmas in Wales.
In 1985, Dowling was succeeded as Artistic Director by Lorain Ohio native Gerald Freeman, formerly of The New York Shakespeare Festival and the Acting Company. Highlights of Freedman's tenure include reviving The Boys from Syracuse and Broadway, in honor of George Abbott's 100th birthday; expanding outreach with community celebrations such as Festival Fantastico, in collaboration with his production of Lorca's Blood Wedding; and directing the 2,500-year-old Greek play, The Bakkhai, in 1995. In 1989, Freedman produced A Christmas Carol, which continued to be produced every year thereafter as a company holiday highlight. Such notable performers as Hal Holbrook, Robert Foxworth, Avery Brooks, Ruby Dee, Olympia Dukakis, and Tom Hanks performed during Freedman's tenure.
In 1998, Freedman was succeeded by James Bundy, formerly with Cornerstone Theater and The Acting Company. In 1999, Bundy produced a new translation of Ibsen's The Wild Duck set in Northeast Ohio, which called for the appearance of two dozen local celebrities on stage. In partnership with the Cleveland Municipal School District, Bundy produced Once on This Island with over 100 local students on stage.
In 2002, Charles Fee, Artistic Director of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival was selected as the new Artistic Director of Great Lakes Theater Festival, replacing Bundy, who had accepted a position as Dean of the Yale School of Drama and Artistic Director of the Yale Repertory Theatre.