Prior to 1976, there had been theatre leaders in the state who felt there was a need for an alternative to a statewide student theatrical event of a competitive nature. Several of these theatre educators formed local theatre festivals in their general geographic areas. Jerry Proffit of Niles East High School and Cary Libkin of Riverside-Brookfield High School were two of these leaders. They developed a regional, localized theatre festival for their high school students and, because of their success, provided the spark for the creation of the state-wide Illinois High School Theatre Festival.
The planning committee for the first Illinois High School Theatre Festival began work in the winter of 1975. The major goal at that time was to create a state-wide Festival event where students and teachers of theatre could share theatrical endeavors as well as learn more about the art. The challenge was to create an event at a central location that could involve a great many students from many different kinds of theatre programs from around the state in a non-competitive atmosphere.
The first Festival was sponsored by the Illinois Theatre Association, the Theatre Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, and the Illinois Office of Education. That base of sponsorship, with the addition of Illinois State University the next year, has continued throughout the years. The Illinois Theatre Association provides the not-for-profit organization sponsorship which allows the Festival to attract certain grant monies and a certain "legal" status for operation. The Festival Committee in itself is not a "legal" entity. The Illinois Theatre Association has continued as the main sponsor and administrative agent throughout the Festival's existence. There is a liaison from the Board of the Illinois Theatre Association on the Festival Committee. The Illinois Theatre Association president appoints the Executive Director of the Festival.
The Illinois Office of Education provided major coordination and communication with all committee operations the first year. The office provided all printing and mailing the first year of the Festival as well as coordinating the evaluators of the production and being the central address for all applications. Since the first year, the Illinois State Board of Education sponsorship has changed allowing the Festival Committee to take on more responsibilities. The Illinois State Board of Education is, however, one of the main sponsors and has been a sponsor each year.
The first year of the Festival, the Theatre Department at the University of Illinois was a co-sponsor allowing the use of facilities at a rate which was very beneficial for the beginning of the Festival. Since that time, university facility rates and regulations have changed so that more formal working relationships had to be established along with contractual arrangements.
The second year the Festival was held at Illinois State University, adding ISU as a sponsor. (The University was the sponsor and not the Theatre Department.) The third year of the Festival, Illinois State University also sponsored the Festival. It was during this time that negotiations developed so that Illinois State University and the University of Illinois officially became alternating locations. There is now a verbal agreement that there is an annual, four-way sponsorship with both universities, the Illinois Theatre Association, and the State Board of Education.
It should also be noted that every year about one-fourth of the high schools in the state participate in the Festival.