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The Hidden Gems of Rural WNY: Shake on the Lake

Author: Nicole Murray

All too often, “Western New York” is a term used to describe the city of Buffalo and its immediate suburbs. Maybe names such as Clarence, Orchard Park, Tonawanda, and Lancaster come to mind. But if you take just a short 45 minute drive outside of any of these places, you’ll find that you’ve left the suburbs and hustle and bustle of city life far behind and entered the beautiful rural areas of Western New York.

These types of rural settings have historically attracted artists of all disciplines who have packed up their crowded city studios to seek an artistic retreat in the quiet countryside. Here you’ll find seasoned professionals as well as skilled artisans and craftspeople who have taken up a creative path, perhaps as a means to distill the beauty of the surrounding countryside. Arts events in these communities are well attended and serve to strengthen the local economy by drawing in large crowds from surrounding cities as well as bringing together those who live locally.

This month, we’re delighted to spotlight three organizations that are doing impactful work in their rural communities – Shake on the Lake (Perry, NY), North Shore Arts Alliance (Fredonia, NY), and Griffis Sculpture Park (East Otto, NY). We hope their stories inspire you to make the trip to one of their upcoming events so you can see these hidden gems of the Western New York arts community for yourself.

Shake on the Lake was born in 2012 from the artistic mind of Silver Lake resident Josh Rice as a means of supporting himself as an artist when he was home for the summers. One fateful summer evening, while riding his bike around the Perry Public Beach, he noticed the natural amphitheater qualities of the space which called to mind his past experiences doing outdoor performances of Shakespeare in Little Rock, Arkansas. He swiftly reached out to Pilar McKay, a high school friend (now Co-Founder and Managing Director of Shake on the Lake), who had been doing work in the community to put Perry, NY on the map and the stars quickly aligned to give Josh and Pilar the green light for their very own Shakespeare production company.

From humble beginnings, Josh and Pilar have created success in the small town of Perry from understanding two things better than anyone, 1) their audience and 2) their impact.

Josh knew that it’s not easy to convince your friends and family to come out to a full-length performance of Shakespeare so the first work he produced with Shake on the Lake was “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (Abridged)” a 90-minute comedic romp through the complete works of Shakespeare and his audience ate it up. “Okay then,” he said. “If you liked this, you’re going to love ‘A Comedy of Errors.” And from comedies, Shake on the Lake has moved on to tragedies and through this continuous building of trust, Josh has been able to build a loyal audience of new Shakespeare fans.

Shake on the Lake represents the very best of “creative placemaking” in which artists, arts and culture organizations, community developers, and other stakeholders use arts and cultural strategies to implement community-led change. Josh and Pilar have taken Shake on the Lake on tour to other rural areas of Western New York and what they’ve noticed is that each time there was an event, other local businesses such as hotels, restaurants, breweries, and shops also saw a boom. They are now enjoying the fruits of their labor which have culminated in their own storefront theater space for rehearsals and performances as well as recent renovations to their original performance space, Perry Public Beach.

This summer, Shake on the Lake is back to in-person performances. Their season was kicked off with the Storefront Theatre Festival, a series of site-specific performances in partnership with the New York State Puppet Festival. Most recently, the annual Sea Serpent Parade encouraged children and families to come out to create a large-scale pageant puppet of the Silver Lake Sea Serpent that was paraded throughout the town.

You still have the opportunity to see Josh and company during “Shake on the Lake Presents: Songs and Sweet Airs” which will take place from July 29th through July 31st. They invite you to bring a picnic and come enjoy the performance which will feature music, puppetry, comedy, and of course, Shakespeare. Ticket information is here.

Stay tuned for North Shore Arts Alliance (Fredonia, NY), and Griffis Sculpture Park (East Otto, NY).

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