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Published on March 13th, 2012 | by RLn Staff

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Saving Shakespeare From a Thousand Cuts

By John Farrell

A 15th annual miracle will take place at Point Fermin Park in San Pedro this summer. Putting together Shakespeare by the Sea can be considered a miracle because of the amount of work it takes to produce.

For four weeks you will be able to drive to San Pedro’s signature park, sit on a bench in the starlight, spend no money and hear one of Shakespeare’s classic plays — for free.

And, like all miracles, it requires a miracle worker: actually a lot of miracle workers, from the vendor’s selling hot coffee, sweat-shirts and blankets (we didn’t say you couldn’t spend money – you don’t have to but you can) to the actors, directors, stage-hands – you get the idea. But there is one big miracle worker at the top of this miracle-working conglomerate, one go-to person who handles much of the magic that makes it all seem so easy. Her name is Lisa Coffi, producing artistic director for Shakespeare by the Sea. Elegant and thin, calm and always cheerful, she has nonetheless the hidden fire that makes the annual festival possible.

She lives in Sacramento with her very understanding husband Curt Coffi, but spends a lot of time locally.

“I can’t imagine anyone else putting up with my North Coast-South Coast schedule,” Coffi said in a recent phone conversation.

More than 14 years ago Coffi, then just a novice at play production, fresh out of college and looking for a project, proposed doing Shakespeare at the band-shell in Point Fermin Park. She wanted to charge a modest fee for the plays, but the City of Los Angeles wanted her to do them for free, alongside the summer music festival they were planning. She raised $12,000 in donations for that season and has never looked back.

Founder of Little Fish Theatre, Lisa Coffi.

Coffi is just back from the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America conference that took place this year in Orlando. There are more than 150 members in that group, presenting Shakespeare all over the country, from well-known festivals in Oregon and Utah to much smaller operations in places like West Virginia and Montana. Shakespeare by the Sea is one of only five companies that charge nothing for what they provide. In the 14 years that Shakespeare by the Sea has been around, they have produced in all 41 plays, more than 500 performances all over Southern California, and have raised roughly $3 million for those performances. This year they will be presenting Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet in parks from Beverly Hills to Torrance to Orange County, in 19 parks throughout the map (and there may be more– stay tuned.) Their budget will be $270,000, some of it raised by sales at each venue, much more raised by grants, gifts and donations.

And, as Shakespeare says, “…there’s the rub.” For while everyone is glad to have the festival in their parks, as cash-strapped cities have to make cuts, the ongoing Shakespeare by the Sea festival is a convenient place to start.

“Cities like Torrance that used to pay us for performances can’t pay any more,” Coffi explained. “But I have booked performances there anyway. We have important supporters in Torrance and I didn’t want to abandon them just because the city couldn’t afford to give us any money this year.”

Shakespeare by the Sea is free for everyone who comes to see it, in Beverly Hills or Torrance or Pasadena. But that doesn’t mean that the people who are performing, the persons who design the portable sets, the production crew, the actors and stagehands, are working for free.

“I’m adamant about paying everyone for their work,” Coffi said. “Lots of people say ‘Why don’t you short-change your people?’ and that just goes against the grain. I really understand their importance and the value of the work they do for us.”

Coffi has to struggle every year to keep producing these shows. Even at Point Fermin, where the free Shakespeare originated and where it has become a big hit, there can be problems.

“At year four the city wanted $30,000 to rent their facilities,” Coffi said. “We were able to negotiate that down. Now we just pay for the electricity we use. But every year there are new charges and different rules.

“I haven’t heard from Target yet about funding. It’s a $25,000 dollar chunk that sponsors the bags we sell. I haven’t heard from the Port of Los Angeles, either. They used to give us $10,000 every year but now it is $2,500.

“People think that because we have been successful in the past we will continue to be successful. One sponsor decided we didn’t need a $2,500 grant because it was too small and could be used by someone else. That was a lot of money to us.”

Coffi has already raised some $87,000 for Shakespeare by the Sea this year, but that leaves nearly two-thirds of the budget still to be raised.

“I have sent out the letters but haven’t heard back from many supporters so far,” Coffi said. “Now I am going to have to start calling them.”

Shakespeare by the Sea’s sister company, Little Fish Theatre, on Centre Street in San Pedro, is doing 13 productions this year and has proven itself a success. With regular shows Friday through Sunday and a second series of plays on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the company sells more than 7,000 tickets a year and is healthy and very busy.

“We have lots of people who want to act and people who want to produce, so it’s always busy.” Coffi said. “We were originally just doing weekends but now for three years we are doing Wednesday through Thursday evening productions as well.

“We have had people call us about using our building for other things, but we have a full-time production company there now, with rehearsals, meetings about sound and lights and sets designs and other matters. It is a little crazy when we are doing two productions the same week, but it is very successful.”

Coffi was in town this week after a week in Florida, looking at sites for productions, making calls and holding meetings.

“I try to do as much as I can when I’m here,” she explained, “working overtime for these companies. Then when I go home to Sacramento I can take time out for going to wineries and having a relaxed life.”

Shakespeare by the Sea begins its summer series of production in San Pedro June 7. Details: www.shakespearebythesea.org.

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