The Venice Biennale’s International Theatre Festival started in 1934, right after the Music (1930) and Film (1932) festivals. The festival was then directed by Renato Simoni. The basic idea was to perform classic works of a Venetian subject in the scenery of Venice. Among the first performances was Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, that was played in Campo San Trovaso, a little Venetian square, directed by Max Reinhardt and with music by Victor de Sabata. From the second edition in 1936 onwards, the festival took place annually.
After World War II, Guido Salvini, Adolfo Zajotti, and Wladimiro Dorigo were appointed directors. At the end of the 40s, works by Sartre and Cocteau were performed in French. In 1958, Ionesco’s The Lesson and Beckett’s Endgame raised much debate. In 1964, a section was dedicated to theatre for youngsters. The Theatre section was then joined to the Music section when the Biennale was reformed in 1973, and the directorship entrusted to Luca Ronconi.
Maurizio Scaparro was appointed director in 1979 and soon afterwards he realized his world-famous Theatre Carnival. Carmelo Bene’s directorship (1988-92) ended up with much controversy and a lawsuit. The Spanish director Lluís Pasqual was appointed director in order to prepare the festival for the centenary of the Biennale in 1995, then followed Giorgio Barberio Corsetti in the four-year period 1999-2002.
The latest festivals have been directed by: Peter Sellars (2003), whose experimental program was entitled Visionaries & Peacemakers; Massimo Castri (2004), whose festival was dedicated to modern Italian theatre; and Romeo Castellucci (2005), whose festival was entitled Pompei – The book of ashes and dedicated to the new ways of contemporary theatre.
In 2006 Maurizio Scaparro was appointed again as director: in February, he presented The Dragon and the Lion, a new edition of the Theatre Carnival; in July, the 38th edition of the Festival was titled Gozzi and Goldoni Europeans. In 2007, Scaparro further investigated Goldoni’s work with the 39th Festival, titled Goldoni and the New Theatre. The theme of the Mediterranean was the main focus for 2008 and 2009: an international workshop took place between the end of October and November 2008, as a preparing ground for the 40th edition of the Festival that was held from 20 February to 8 March 2009. This brought Scaparro's 4-year period as artistic director to an end.
In May 2010, Spanish director Àlex Rigola was appointed director of the Theatre section. The Board confirmed his appointment for the year 2016.