The GREAT LAKES THEATER FESTIVAL began as the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival with a performance of As You Like It on 11 July 1962, with a 30-member acting company performing 6 plays by Shakespeare that summer. Funded by a Board of Trustees headed by Lakewood School Board president Dorothy Teare, the festival opened at the Lakewood Civic Auditorium with the financial backing of the City of LAKEWOOD, the Parma Fine Arts Council and the JEWISH COMMUNITY CTR., among other supporters. In 1961 Teare learned that the summer Shakespeare troupe at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH, needed a new venue. At Teare's urging, original producer/director Arthur Lithgow, who initiated the project at Antioch and produced all 37 plays there, proposed (and won approval for) professional Shakespeare performances in Lakewood from the Lakewood City Council. Initially, the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival had difficulty funding its seasons, and by 1964 had accumulated a deficit of $32,000. Fortunately, the CLEVELAND FOUNDATION made a $20,000 2-year grant to the festival, which was then used to subsidize the low-priced student matinees. Lithgow (father of actor John Lithgow, one of the festival's first performers in 1962) was replaced in 1966 by Carnegie-Mellon professor Lawrence Carra, who resigned in 1976. He was succeeded by Vincent Dowling, a 20-year veteran of Dublin's Abbey Theatre. In 1971 the festival performed Godspell, conceived by JOHN-MICHAEL TEBELAK, a former student of Carra's at Carnegie-Mellon. One of the young actors developed under Dowling's regime was Tom Hanks, who has since returned to perform in festival benefits.
In July 1982 the festival moved downtown to the refurbished OHIO THEATER, and Dowling won the first American rights to the 8-hour drama The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. However, Dowling resigned in 1984 as the festival faced its largest deficit in its 22-year history. In 1985 the festival changed its name to the Great Lakes Theater Festival, reflecting its broadened interest in classics of both the world and American stages, and Gerald Freedman was appointed its new artistic director. Freedman raised the festival's profile considerably by attracting such artists as George Abbott, Jean Stapleton, Hal Holbrook, and Ruby Dee. During Freedman's tenure, 8 GLTF productions toured outside of Cleveland. Mary Bill, who strengthened GLTF's relationship with the community, served as managing director from 1982-93, was succeeded in that position by Anne DesRosiers. Through means of actors' symposia and a variety of outreach programs for student and adults, the GLTF has created a rich educational context for its productions while enhancing the company's national visibility. In 1995 the GLTF was one of only a half-dozen Shakespeare festivals in the nation.
Engle, Ron, et al., eds. Shakespeare Companies and Festivals: An International Guide (1994).