The festival took place for the first time in 1966 under the name Slovene Drama Week and was re-named the Borštnik Meeting in 1972 (today its Slovene name is still Festival Borštnikovo srečanje, but it has come to be known as the Maribor Theatre Festival in English). Prior to 1990, the festival was also held in other Slovene towns; in the 1990s there were several unsuccessful attempts to move the festival from Maribor to Ljubljana. Until 1992, all professional Slovene theatres presented at least one production at the festival's competition programme, with independent productions appearing only in the off-programme. Subsequently, the selection became more rigorous, including only the most representative theatre productions. The 1990s saw the protest of numerous independent theatre producers and makers, arguing that with the festival's existing conceptually-closed orientation, it did not present the actual theatre production nor acknowledge the variety of aesthetics, poetics, approaches, and procedures.
On its 45th anniversary, the festival was reorganised and internationalised. In addition to the selected Slovene performances by repertory theatres from Maribor, Ljubljana, Nova Gorica, Celje, Kranj, Ptuj, Koper, and Trieste, as well as by a few independent theatre producers, the festival's programme featured international performances. A special showcase selection addressed international professionals who also participated in debates and symposia.
Since 1994, the selector of the festival has a two-year mandate. The jury usually comprises four to five persons (critics, directors, writers, theorists, artists, etc.). The Borštnik Ring Award recipient is selected by a different jury.
The festival is named after Ignacij Borštnik (1858–1919), director, actor, playwright, translator and the founder of the Slovene artistic theatre. He was the first Slovene theatre director in the modern sense of the word and a master craftsman of the most demanding roles, especially from turn-of-the-century modernist realism.
Each year, around 10 new performances are presented in the selected competition programme of the Maribor Theatre Festival. These stagings compete for the following Borštnik Awards: best performance (Borštnik Grand Prix), best director, best actor, best young actor, other achievements (set design, costume design, lighting design, musical score, and other artistic categories), plus a special jury award. The award of the Association of Theatre Critics and Researchers of Slovenia for the best performance in the previous season is also presented.
The accompanying non-competitive programme consists of interesting performances of the previous season, often created by a younger generation of authors, whose innovative approaches to creating performances challenge the established concepts and boundaries of theatre, as well as performances by as international artists and theatre houses.
The Maribor Theatre Festival also presents the annual production of the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television (AGRFT) and has recently started running an international student programme.
Each year the festival cooperates closely with the Association of Theatre Critics and Researchers of Slovenia in the organisation of conferences, symposia, round tables, workshops, seminars and talks, dedicated to relevant topics, such as festival production, criticism, dramaturgy, archiving, intercultural exchange, etc. The festival has also hosted several international symposia and conferences, which were prepared with international partners, such as the International Theatre Institute (ITI) or the international network of theatre critics AICT/IATC.
Digital collections (photo galleries) presenting outstanding authors (e.g., actors who won the Borštnik Ring Award) were compiled by the Slovenian Theatre Institute in collaboration with the institute Novi zato., Prodok teater TV, Slovene theatre houses and regional archives. Further digital galleries present some of the recent Grand Prix performances, referential documentary photos, video and audio excerpts which are accessible to the wider public on the Sigledal.org - Slovene theatre portal.
To bridge the gap to the international space and open communication with it, the festival has devoted special attention to the playwriting and theatre of a selected country. To this purpose, the Contemporary European Drama book collection was launched in 2011, which brought translations of contemporary plays written by authors coming from Finland, Sweden, Poland, the Czech Republic, Holland, Spain and Slovakia.