One night during a Shakespeare show at Sand Harbor in the 1980s, the power went out and there was a total blackout. But the patrons — who were encouraged to bring flashlights to every show so they could find their way back to their car — lit the stage, and the show went on by flashlight.
Then there was the couple who brought a candelabra to dine under during a performance. Volunteers who met at the festival and then got married. A woman who brought a case of gardenias every night and handed them out. And then there was a late-night impromptu police escort of the night’s earnings — $10,000 worth — from Sand Harbor to Tahoe City.
These are some of the memories that Ed Miller and his wife, Lolly Kupec, recalled from their days with the North Tahoe Fine Arts Council, which produced Shakespeare at Sand Harbor from 1978 to 1994. While the current Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, which is still produced at Sand Harbor, has become part of a national cross country theater alliance, it’s always been all about community.
“It is really a special thing we had there,” said Miller, who was festival director of Shakespeare at Sand Harbor during its run, as well as its nightly emcee. “It was a feeling of brotherhood and intimacy.”
But, before the Bard made his debut at the famous Sand Harbor locale, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed by the New Shakespeare Company on the lawn of the Ehrman Mansion in Sugar Pine Point State Park from 1972 to 1974. Those performances, according to Miller, were done to raise money to rehabilitate the interior of the mansion.
“It was magical,” recalled Kings Beach resident Liz Blaustein, who was a teenager at the time. “Those first couple of years was about bringing the arts to Tahoe. It was brilliant.”
After the performances at the West Shore location were stopped because the lawn was being destroyed, the shows went dark for two years, according to Kupec. Then, in 1976, the North Tahoe Fine Arts Council and the Tahoe City Public Utility District presented Shakespeare at Skylandia Park in Tahoe City for two years “until attendance eventually outgrew parking facilities, and another new home was sought,” Kupec said.
In 1978, the North Tahoe Fine Arts Council negotiated an agreement with Nevada State Parks to hold Shakespeare at Sand Harbor State Park in Incline Village, and Shakespeare at Sand Harbor was born. A stage was built, and more than 500 people attended each of the 12 performances of that first year. The capacity eventually went up to 1,000.
NTFAC contracted with several different Shakespeare companies through the years, and some local actors were included in the performances. “By 1988, the repertory schedule increased to 15 nights each August and often included a non-Shakespearean play,” according to the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival website.
Kupec recalled bringing in $10,000 in T-shirt sales alone each summer. She said the T-shirts, which she designed, became collectible items since a new design was released each year. The money raised was used to support arts in the community.
“This was a vibrant time of coming together of a community of all different socioeconomic backgrounds,” Miller said.
“TUNES IN THE DUNES”
Those early days of Shakespeare can’t be told without mentioning “Tunes in the Dunes,” which was brought to Sand Harbor by NTFAC in 1982, and ran concurrently with the plays. The likes of Tower of Power, David Grisman, John Mayall, and Leon Russell performed with Lake Tahoe as their backdrop.
“Had it not been for [the music], Shakespeare might not have been that successful,” said Miller, who served as NTFAC’s president and CEO.
Miller recalled the musicians, many of whom were headlining acts at the time, would jam with local musicians. And, he noted, “a tank of oxygen was kept in the wings for the musicians,” since many of them were not used to the altitude.
“To be able to bring that concentrated vibrancy to this tiny mountain town was very cool,” said Kupec, who was on the NTFAC board and designed posters for all the organization’s events as part of her and Miller’s business, Wild West Graphics and Communications. “The art scene was
really small.” (See this month’s story about how that has changed, p. 46.)
THE BARD TODAY
In 1994, NTFAC folded and the Incline Village/Crystal Bay Visitors Bureau took over management and production of the Shakespeare performances. The following year, the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival was incorporated as a nonprofit, according to the festival’s website. In 1999, the festival moved into the Donald W. Reynold’s nonprofit center run by the Parasol Community Foundation. The Warren Edward Trepp Jr. stage was built and dedicated at the start of the 2000 season, and is still used today.
Facing financial hardship following the 2008 recession, in 2010 the festival brought in Cleveland-based Great Lakes Theater to revitalize the organization, according to Rae Matthews, community engagement manager for the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. The Lake Tahoe festival, Great Lakes Theater, and the Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Boise share a unified management team and a single production staff. The three individual theaters share personnel, resources, and costs, Matthews said.
While the festival lost the 2020 season due to Covid, Matthews said, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) will run for five weeks, six days a week this season until Aug. 22. The venue can currently hold 1,100 seats, but is currently running at 80% capacity.
“It is fairly strong, considering we had to make a lot of changes,” Matthews said of the show. “It is one of the most beautiful venues in the world. There are lots of other outdoor [Shakespeare] festivals, but none of them are on Lake Tahoe.”