- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 6, 2002

SAND HARBOR, Nev. (AP) The snobbier Shakespeare set might think twice about settling into a sand dune on the shores of Lake Tahoe for a show, what with wine corks popping and an occasional crying baby.
But those who want to enjoy a picnic with family and friends while the sun sets over one of the world's most beautiful alpine vistas and take in a bit of the Bard to boot would be hard-pressed to find a better venue than the 30th annual Tahoe Shakespeare Festival at Sand Harbor.
If this year's opening week was any indication, the economic slowdown felt in some tourism markets hasn't made a dent in the number of folks flocking to the stage backed by Tahoe's azure waters.
"It's a different sort of crowd," said Philip Charles Sneed, artistic director of the Foothill Theater Co. based in Nevada City, Calif. At the more famous Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Ore., "it's a pretty hardcore, Shakespeare-dedicated audience," he said.
"This is an audience who comes more for the lake experience. Maybe they are new to Shakespeare or don't even like Shakespeare but are here to picnic, enjoy the scenery and take a chance."
The audience begins lining up with blankets and beach chairs hours before the gates open for the 7:30 p.m. performance. Coolers stuffed with lemonade and bottles of wine and beer are welcome. Picnic baskets are packed with everything from sandwiches to sushi, fried chicken to gourmet cheese.
Children dig in the sand and occasionally a toddler has to be shooed off the new $2 million stage.
"It takes some getting used to because you don't have the focus of the audience. They are involved in a party, a picnic, enjoying libations for an hour before the show," Mr. Sneed said. "Everything we know about Shakespeare is that food was sold. Nobody was shushing people who decided to have a conversation. We think it was a pretty rowdy crowd.
"We like to think we make the (Shakespearean) works accessible to an audience that is not usually exposed to the theater experience."
Bands of minstrels roam the audience before the show begins. This year's productions are "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Twelfth Night" on alternating nights Tuesday through Sunday through Aug. 25.
The former, set in the Caribbean in the 1700s, opens with five pirates rushing into the audience from behind, swooping up a female usher and hoisting her onto stage.
"She smells good," one bellows.
The audience howls and the show is on.
The festival began modestly in 1972 at Sugar Pine State Park on the west shore of Lake Tahoe. In 1976, it moved to its present location on the east shore at Sand Harbor in Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park.
"A bare-bones stage was hastily built for just $1,054," park supervisor Brad Kosch said. An average of 556 people attended each of the 12 performances that year.
The new Warren Edward Trepp stage was built at Sand Harbor for nearly $2 million and dedicated in 2000. Attendance averages 850 a night in the natural, sand dune amphitheater bowl, which seats 1,200 comfortably "1,500 if we squish them in," said Darolyn Skelton, festival director.
"Right now, we're up 22 percent from the same time last year. The first two nights we set records with $21,000 in ticket sales," she said. "A lot of our crowd is from the San Francisco Bay market. Those people seem to be driving up to Tahoe this year instead of flying someplace else."
About 80 percent of the crowd is typically making a repeat visit.
"But it seems this year a lot more people are coming for the first time," Skelton said. "We have a huge percentage who come by word of mouth."
Ms. Skelton said the theater performances along the lake are top notch, but she's under no illusion about the real draw.
"It's the most beautiful place on earth," she said.

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