The National Theatre Conference took its name and its formal inception in 1931 at a conference at Northwestern University, and in 1932, at a second conference at the University of Iowa, a constitution was adopted and officers were elected to complete the formal construction of the NTC. The impetus for such an organization had gown out of the demise of theatre "road houses" after World War I, when theatre retreated to New York, and most of the "road houses" were converted to movie theatres. To fill the vacuum, a number of amateur or community theatres were organized. These theatres were paralleled by the development of theatre programs in universities. Among the leaders of such programs were George Pierce Baker at Yale, Thomas Wood Stevens at Carnegie Tech and Frederick Koch at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. These leaders would soon be joined by E.C. Mabie, University of Iowa, and Garrett Leverston, Northwestern University. And it was this group of educators who called the 1925 and 1927 conferences that would lead to the 1931-32 formation of the National Theatre Conference.
The NTC survived the Depression with the aid of grants from the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations and the provision of free office space first by Edith Isaacs, editor of Theatre Arts Monthly, and later by Case Western Reserve University. With such aid, NTC was able to publish of a series of basic handbooks in acting, scenic design, and theatre architecture. During World War II, NTC received a $55,000.00 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to set up amateur theatrical productions at every Army training camp. There was also the War Bond Project at which performances were given at community theatres across the country and admission was the purchase of U.S. War Bonds. After the war NTC helped to present non-professional shows at various Army hospitals and also conducted a program in which veterans were given advice on employment or educational opportunities in theatre. The Rockefeller Foundation was sufficiently impressed with NTC's war effort to present a $155,000.00 grant for the years 1946-1951.
Despite its successful war efforts NTC endured a growing unhappiness among its membership about its non-democratic structure in which the president was elected by the Board of Directors, and it was the Board who decided on new members. In 1946, the code was revised to require that the officers and Board members be elected by members attending the annual meeting. A major post-war project was a grant to Stanford University to create an attached professional company. A second project was providing grants to emerging playwrights such as Barrie Stavis. NTC also provided a grant to Lee Norvelle at Indiana University to create a touring company, which had two successful years and was followed by the creation of the Brown County Summer Stock Theatre, still successfully producing today. The final Rockefeller project was the overseeing of six regional theatre conferences throughout the U.S. When the Rockefeller grant ended, NTC was threatened both by lack of funds and by the growing competition from AETA, which had no membership requirements, but President Lee Norvelle was able to reinvigorate the organization and in the late 50's NTC had a series of distinguished theatre professionals such as John Gassner and Harold Clurman as featured conference speakers. When not listening to invited speakers, the tradition was for NTC members to meet and discuss their activities during the past year.
During the 1960's, under the guidance of Presidents Vieham, Canfield, Gillett, and Houghton, the NTC published Balch, Gard, and Temkin's influential work, Theatre in America: Appraisal and Challenge, and made the decision to limit NTC membership to 100 of the most influential leaders in commercial, non-commercial and educational theatre. It was also decided to cease meeting with AETA and to return to meeting at the end of November in New York at the Barbizon Plaza. The National Theatre Conference had now taken its current form. Another significant decision in the 60's was the creation of the award of Person of the Year. It was usual for NTC to spend an entire day in which the Person of the Year gave a talk, lunched with, and had a long discussion with NTC members.
During the early 70's, NTC gained increasing strength, but 1975 was a year of some changes. It is not clear who served as president, and for some reason no Person of the Year was named. But an important change was the moving of the annual meeting from the Barbizon to The Players Club. In 1978, the annual meeting was in Los Angeles, but the majority of members insisted on returning to New York. Unfortunately, the 1979 meeting failed to materialize and many argued for disbanding NTC. But NTC survived, and during the 1980's NTC dispensed with the day-long talks among members, replacing them with visits to important theatre sites about New York and discussions with groups such as the Nordic Theatre Council. In 1987, NTC created the Paul Green Foundation Award, the recipient of which, who was named by the Person of the Year, receives a $1,000.00 award. A decision was made in 1988 to increase the membership limit to 120, and in 1989 an important new award was created: the Barrie and Bernice Stavis Award for an emerging playwright.
In 1993, there was a discussion whether the NTC periodical, Broadside, was simply too expensive to publish and ultimately it was discontinued. In 1996, two additional awards were established: The Outstanding Achievement Award and the NTC Scholarship Award. The Outstanding Achievement Award is presented to a non-profit professional theatre which has achieved a high degree of excellence. The winner of the Outstanding Achievement Award names the recipient of the NTC Scholarship Award, of $1,000.00, given to a young person to spend a year with an established theatre studying acting, directing, writing or design. As the century turned, NTC created the category of "honorary," available to be chosen by members who have retired from active work. The NTC decided that members who had not responded to four requests for dues would be dropped from membership. As the century turned, NTC also instituted the staged reading of a play by the winner of the Stavis Award. In 2006, the Cindy L. Havens award was created to honor those who aided the NTC presidents in conducting the events of the annual conference.