Our writer, Matthew Bieker, had the pleasure of sitting down for a Q&A with Charles Fee. Fee is the artistic director of the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.
You are the artistic director of the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival, but you hold that position in several other cities as well, correct? I do, actually: Lake Tahoe since 2010; Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Boise since 1992; and the Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland since 2002. I produce all of our work in our three (combined) venues, and I move all of the shows and the cast and everything from city to city. It’s very unusual; we’re the only company in the United States that does this. Many of our company members in “Macbeth” have now played several seasons in Lake Tahoe and they just love it, but for all of the actresses that are in our musical “Beehive” this year, it’s their very first time (here), so they’re thrilled to be coming out. Just to come up over the hill and to see that lake, and then to get down into the theater at Sand Harbor and stand on that stage—it’s so breathtaking.
How did you get your start? I was an actor and theater major at University of the Pacific in Stockton, and then I went on to graduate school (at) University of California, San Diego, and worked in the Old Globe Theater, the La Jolla Playhouse, and then acted in Los Angeles. But I wanted to be a director and I knew that from really the beginning of my work. I got my first opportunity to start directing by moving up to Sonora, Calif., where I joined the Sierra Repertory Theater—a company that’s still going—and I became its artistic director. From there I was really deeply interested in working on Shakespeare, and I became the artistic director at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, where I’ve been for 26 years (and which eventually combined with Cleveland and Lake Tahoe).
What was it about theater that attracted you more than film? I really grew up in the theater and with a passion for live theater. But particularly, I grew up with a real interest in the great works of theater. And I’ve directed for 30 years now, Shakespeare and other classic plays as well. (But) now, look, let’s all be honest, if when I got to Los Angeles I’d landed a television series, I’d probably never have left.
[laughs] Sure, of course. There really is no way to beat the financial rewards of television and film. But I was able to carve out a very different kind of career for myself and I wanted to be in a leadership position—I wanted to be running a theater company.
And you’ve been very successful at it, if I can say, but is there a perception of theater as a relic or niche art form that you feel you’ve had to combat? Well, 70,000 people came to see our plays last year in Boise; 100,000 people saw our plays in Cleveland; 35,000 people came in just seven weeks in Lake Tahoe—this isn’t exactly a world that nobody’s going to. Ask anyone in America today if they’ve heard of a little musical called “Hamilton.” “Hamilton” is not a movie, “Hamilton” is live theater. The theaters are packed all over the globe right now. So, yes, television and film have a huge distribution channel because of the nature of those two things, but I’ve got to tell you, I meet actors every day of the week asking me, “How do I get into your company and get into a live production?” (It’s) the difference between recording music in a studio and playing a live concert. They’re completely different experiences, but there’s nothing that compares to being in front of a live house. You can imagine what it’s like to be on that stage at Lake Tahoe, with 1,000 people watching you and that sun setting over the lake behind you.
Undoubtedly, and I think that brings us to what people can expect from the program this year. Most people probably know “Macbeth,” but “Beehive” might be a little unfamiliar. What will this year’s shows entail? “Macbeth,” of course, is perhaps—along with “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet”—the most famous play written by Shakespeare and is about as exciting as any theater gets; it’s a thrilling production with witches and ghosts and murder and mayhem. And “Beehive” is the perfect antidote to a Shakespeare tragedy, (with) six powerhouse women singing music from the 1960s, from Aretha Franklin to the Supremes to Janis Joplin. It has about 40 songs, and it’s framed in a story about (societal) change. It’s like a great rock concert and a night of theater rolled into one.
I imagine it was a conscious choice to pair such disparate plays on the same bill? We have a big, broad-based audience, and I want to give them both a main course and a great dessert.
Are there challenges or triumphs that come with putting on a play at the lake that are unique to the area? [laughs] One could argue there is a challenge in putting a play on that stage given the fact the natural environment is so overwhelmingly beautiful. The scale of the lake behind the stage and the granite mountain that’s right next to us—you can feel somewhat overwhelmed as an artistic company just by the view. (But) outdoor theater is very challenging: Rain, wind—anything can happen to you when you’re performing outside. There are critters running around. We had about a five-minute interruption last year because a squirrel walked onto the stage and would not leave; it was scampering around and the actors were just staring at it and then chasing it; and that squirrel would not give up. And you couldn’t compete with it, the show just stopped. (But) you’re also in the world that’s being described in the Shakespeare plays, (which) are written for an outdoor stage, so Shakespeare is constantly referring to the weather and birds and owls and all kinds of things. And you’re liable to see an owl or hear an owl at Lake Tahoe; owls are mentioned three times in “Macbeth.” It’s kind of the perfect place.
Is that kind of accessibility important to modern show-goers who might be envisioning a formal affair? Absolutely, it’s a whole night and it’s an experience. It’s dinner, it’s cocktails, it’s being with friends, it’s watching a play, it’s listening to music; and it’s an entirely immersive experience. Audiences of every age love this.
And how has that experience changed in the time since you started with the Lake Tahoe company? Remember that I got here in 2010, just coming off the Great Recession of 2008–09. That was a very difficult period for the resort communities in America, particularly Lake Tahoe, and it affected all of Nevada and California in very significant ways. The economic reality when I arrived was—we all knew—tough. So there’s not only been a real recovery, but a sense of real growth, particularly in and around the Reno area. Matt, where are you right now? Are you in Reno or Sacramento?
I’m in Reno. I was born and raised here and live north of downtown. Well, then, you see it—there’s just been huge growth in Reno. Getting Tesla there and the many, many tech companies that are following. You’re seeing it in Reno in terms of the arts, too. It can be a challenge for everyone, but I think there are a lot of positive things that come from it.
You mentioned attendance numbers: So there’s been an obvious growth in ticket sales as well? Oh, yeah, we’ve grown tremendously. Our total sales—in the eight years that I’ve been there—are up 40 percent, which is great.
Looking forward, where do you see the company going from here? Last year, we did a non-Shakespeare, non-musical with “Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles.” That was a lot of fun and a very different kind of experience. But I’d also like to be able to produce large-cast musicals. They’re more challenging at Tahoe just because of the physical space we have, but I think we can overcome those things. We want to do work that you feel you can bring your whole family to (and we want to keep it) an affordable experience—we have tickets that start for students at $15. There are ticket levels for everyone, it is an experience you will feel very welcome in, and if you’ve never done it, take a risk and come up to the lake. (If nothing else) it will be the most beautiful view you’ve ever seen with friends and a great bottle of wine. And the truth is what you’re really going to find is an extraordinary acting company on stage doing plays that are absolutely first-rate.
By Matthew Bieker
Photo of Charles Fee by Robert Muller