Half a lifetime ago, 27-year-old Lisa Coffi needed a meaty thesis project to complete her MFA at Cal State Long Beach. Not sure what she wanted to write about, she decided to stage her own outdoor Shakespeare festival to see what would happen.
Today the 52-year-old Coffi is a little hazy on the details of what she wrote — “It was 25 years ago!” — although she knows it had something to do with coming down against the idea that theatre emerges from chaos, finding that the process comes down to a well-defined series of steps.
What is sure is that in 1998 over 1,000 came out to Point Fermin Park to see nine performances of The Comedy of Errors spread out over three weekends, the first iteration of Shakespeare by the Sea, an unbroken tradition that is embarking on its 25th season of bringing the Bard to communities all over Southern California at no charge.
What’s also sure is this will be Coffi’s last.
Her departure has been a long time coming. She started thinking about it in 2017, she says, but did not have a solid succession plan in place to enable Shakespeare by the Sea to press on without her. But now, with Stephanie Coltrin and Suzanne Dean — who have a combined 35 years’ experience as Coffi’s producing partners at both SbtS and Little Fish Theatre (which Coffi retired from in January) — set to take the reins, Coffi is ready to step away, although for now she will remain on the Board of Directors and help with recruitment, fundraising, and advisement.
“It is a mixture of sadness and pride to talk about Lisa’s retirement,” says Coltrin. “It is a tribute to Lisa’s tenacity that she has created an organization that will continue past her tenure. It’s vital to keep Shakespeare by the Sea and Little Fish Theatre alive and well. For 13 years I’ve personally witnessed the impact of our work in our artists and our audiences — and in myself. The magic of SbtS bringing the greatest words ever written into communities all over SoCal and seeing people develop or hone a lifetime love of theatre because of their SbtS experience is priceless.”
But Coffi will be as active as ever during her final season at the helm. She talks to me for this article at 9:30 p.m. two weeks before the season kickoff at Point Fermin, unable to connect during the afternoon after being called away to deal with staffing issues at the tour’s Santa Ana and Mission Viejo sites; and she’ll be helping paint the Point Fermin set the following day — work that was supposed to be complete by now. “We’re way behind,” she says. “But it’ll all come together. It always does. That’s the magic of theatre.”
The build-up to her final season, however, has been less than magical. In January her father passed away, and her mother temporarily moved in with Coffi and her husband in the Sacramento house that’s been home since 2003, leaving Coffi to play catch-up as summer approached. Moreover, she’s also been increasingly buried in administrative work over the years (“I’m not going to be sad to leave that behind”), a task made all the more onerous by AB 5, the 2020 law that required theatre troupes to process every single actor — even those coming on board for only one show — as a company employee, which Coffi estimates increased the necessary paperwork ten-fold.
Despite her joy at Shakespeare by the Sea’s reaching its silver anniversary, Coffi says that this season “does bring a lot of emotional upheaval, because I am going to miss a lot of people. For me coming out to the shows [in Southern California] is a lot like Thanksgiving. It’s like seeing a huge family once a year at all the tour sites, so it’s heartbreaking [to leave it].”
It is estimated that over the course of its 25-year history Shakespeare by the Sea has brought the Bard to over 350,000 people — all for free. Although SbtS hasn’t produced all of Shakespeare’s plays (generally shying away from the histories), they have staged several of his lesser-known works, including King John (2013), Cymbeline (2016), and The Winter’s Tale (2018). And while more often than not SbtS favors a traditionalist bent (at least if you don’t count the music that usually plays during scene changes), they’ve been far from afraid to bend the rules. For example, rather than use Shakespeare’s very weak finale for Cymbeline, they substituted an alternate ending written by George Bernard Shaw (to my mind, a great improvement).
Along those lines, while purists might kvetch at how much cutting Coffi and co. sometimes do to get the plays they present down to two hours including intermission (for comparison, Hamlet, which they staged in 2006 and 2014, runs four hours sans cuts), the result has sometimes made Shakespeare’s weaker plays shine a bit brighter. Plus, as Coffi found during SbtS’s sophomore year when they staged an unabridged Taming of the Shrew, the park simply ain’t the place to try people’s attention spans.
“That’s when I went, ‘You know what? I don’t want to sit out there ‘til 11:30 [p.m. …] as I watched audience members leave the park because they were cold or it got too late,” she recalls. “I don’t think the attention span of today’s audience in our environment, out in a park, is going to sit that long. […] Shakespeare by the Sea is for [the] everyman.”
Coffi’s also learned that people turn up for what they know.
“When you pick shows where people are familiar with the titles, people will come and watch it,” she says. “So, like, Cymbeline was not particularly well attended because people didn’t know the title. But you pick Romeo and Juliet (which opens June 30), and we’re going to have a huge year this year.”
One plus from the COVID-19 pandemic, when SbtS stayed active by producing straight-to-streaming shows staged on Little Fish’s outdoor backlot (“There was a temptation to stop producing the festival, but as always with SbtS it seemed right to push through the dark times and back into the light”), was the opportunity to do the early, obscure Titus Andronicus, a show Coffi says they never would have mounted in the park due to its over-the-top grotesqueness, including rape, mutilation and feeding a mother a pie made of her sons’ ground-up bodies.
“We would never have been able to take a play like that out to the parks,” she laughs. “It’s just evil. […] ‘Free! Family-friendly!’”
Without getting into detail, Coffi notes that there have been ups and down in SbtS’s relationship with San Pedro and Los Angeles. She’s learned the value of diligently keeping a paper trail (electronic or otherwise), because on more than one occasion the city has repeatedly asked for a form she’s already submitted.
“I think we’ve had a few little hiccups, but we’ve been able to make our way through,” she says. “[…] It depends on who the [Department of Parks and Recreation] person is. So let’s just say some years have been more difficult than others. Some years it feels like you’re banging your head against a brick wall, other years it’s just easy peasy. […] We haven’t really had any issues with the park for quite a few years.”
Although Coffi admits to regrets, her recollections of the last quarter-century are dominated by pride: patrons who donate year after year, castmembers who have become lifelong friends, letters from people who may not have seen Shakespeare or any theatre without an admission-free festival in their neighborhood, mothers who brought their children who now bring their children.
“I’ve definitely had nights where I go to sleep remembering […] some things I wish I had done differently,” she says. “Maybe I was too snarky to someone or fired someone and then two years later wished I had talked it out with them. As you get older, you’re not as hot under the collar as you were at the beginning. I’m not sure whether it’s maturity or your passion is lessening. […] There are some things I regret, but there are a lot of shows that I can hold up and say, ‘Here we are. This is what we did.’ And it’s really nice to know that this will continue beyond me, which is something I always wanted to have happen.”
Shakespeare by the Sea kicks off its 25th season with Much Ado About Nothing at Point Fermin Park (807 W. Paseo Del Mar) on June 23 to 25. For a complete list of dates and locations visit ShakespeareByTheSea.org.