After 35 years, Sara Garonzik departs Philadelphia Theatre Company

A critic's fond farewell to Sara Garonzik

Last week Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC) announced that Sara Garonzik, its producing artistic director, will step down during the 2016-17 season after 35 years at its helm. Thirty-five years is a hell of a run under any circumstances, but to remain at the top of your game in a position of influence in a local arts scene is truly remarkable.

Sara Garonzik steps away from the spotlight. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Movers and shakers

Garonzik took the reins of the Philadelphia Company (as it was called back then) in 1982. The late 1970s and early 1980s marked the beginning of a theatrical renaissance in Philadelphia, a three-pronged jumpstart. Bernard Havard started the commercial juggernaut that was the Walnut Street Theatre, Jiri and Blanka Zizka were starting to turn things upside down at the tiny Wilma Theater, and Sara Garonzik lit a creative fire at PTC.

Only the Walnut had its own space; everyone else found such rental space as they could. PTC was one of the resident companies at Plays and Players Theatre (the other was the American Music Theater Festival — now known as the Prince Music Theater).

It was during the Plays and Players days that I first became aware of Garonzik and what she was doing with PTC. I started reviewing theater for the Philadelphia Gay News in 1986, and I was in full saturation mode, seeing everything in order to educate myself as quickly as possible. Early on, I fixated on the Wilma as my favorite company because of their out-of-the-box experimentation and the intensity of their presentation. However, I felt that PTC ran a close second to the Wilma in terms of quality, imagination and sheer creativity.

An American voice

Garonzik’s choices were often adventurous and boundary pushing, but with a distinctive American voice quite different from that of the Zizkas, who had a European sensibility. One of the most memorable PTC productions of that time (for me) was W. Colin McKay’s Nagasaki Dust. Its opening image has haunted me to this day: as the curtains opened, the twirling body of a woman was lowered from the rafters. She (and the entire stage) was awash in a deep crimson light. It made me think of a lost soul tumbling through a void, buffeted by nuclear fires.

From her opening night speeches, Sara quickly became a familiar figure. Of course, I was sure that she didn’t know me. After all, she was a major cultural figure, and I was a small-time critic from a community newspaper. I didn’t try to forge any kind a relationship with her, though some critics did. It was my belief then (and now) that a professional distance needed to be maintained, lest my critical objectivity be compromised. And Sara (mostly) respected that distance.

In 1988, PTC presented a new musical, John Olive’s The Voice of the Prairie. It was not well-received by critics, except by me. I liked it, and explained in my review what I thought the creators were trying to do. A few days after publication I received a postcard in the mail from Garonzik, not only thanking me for my kind words, but telling me that I was the only critic who understood the play. I got it, she told me.

That postcard and those words meant a great deal to me, and I have been eternally grateful to Sara Garonzik for her words in season. It was my first professional validation, when I was first told — and believed — that, yes, I did know what I was talking about and that I was just as good as any critic at any paper in town.

The Avenue's anchor

Time passed, and Garonzik and PTC became essential partners with Mayor Ed Rendell in his plan to turn Broad Street into the Avenue of the Arts. The trip to Broad Street was not easy, but Garonzik’s tenacity made it happen. It was a great day for her and for PTC when the Suzanne Roberts Theater opened.

One of the things that set Garonzik apart was that many of her outside efforts were aimed at benefiting the city’s cultural scene as a whole, not just improving PTC’s profile. Her work as a past president of the board of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, or on the Mayor’s Cultural Advisory Council, or at PlayPenn (a new play development organization), has enhanced the city’s cultural scene beyond measure.

Sara’s post-PTC plans are still vague, but she will move on to the next phase of her career and her life leaving PTC — and Philadelphia — much improved.  That is a legacy to be proud of.

Our readers respond

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on August 31, 2016

Of Sara Garonzik's tenure at Philadelphia Theatre Company, you write, "Thirty-five years is a hell of a run under any circumstances, but to remain at the top of your game in a position of influence in a local arts scene is truly remarkable." Really? Blanka Zizka has run the Wilma for 37 years. Bernard Havard has led the Walnut for 33 years. Terrence Nolen and Amy Murphy are still at the helm at the Arden 28 years after they founded it; ditto for Seth Rozin at InterAct. Abigail Adams has been artistic director of People's Light for 19 years and has directed plays there for 34 years.

This lack of turnover could be a reflection on the stability of Philadelphia's theater community, or of its complacency, depending on your point of view. I'm grateful to these theatrical entrepreneurs for building relatively solid companies in a notoriously precarious business. But I also applaud Sara for taking the risk of starting over, which is what creativity is all about. As Jon Stewart put it when he left "The Daily Show" after 16 years as its host, "You shouldn't stay somewhere just because you can."  

Author's Response

It seems Dan thinks I was implying something I didn't intend. Just because I feel that Sara Garonzik's long tenure at PTC is remarkable doesn't mean that I feel that any of the people he listed (worthy personages all) are necessarily unremarkable. I just wasn't writing about them, and thus, my small bit of hyperbole was Sara Garonzik-specific. I didn't mean to slight anyone who contributes to Philly's impressive and vital theater scene.

Sara Garonzik

of Society Hill/ Philadelphia, PA on October 15, 2016

I am very late in responding to Gary Day's kind words about me. Gary, not only do I appreciate your recollections of our shared history, but I thank you for your passionate and consistent reporting about our theater scene in Philadelphia and what all of us have been trying to accomplish. Thank you also for your rational and tolerant explanation to Dan Rottenberg, who almost (but not quite) killed this lovely moment for me.

Dean Carvin

of Philadelphia, PA on January 31, 2017

I am grateful to have been involved briefly with Sara Garonzik in the early '80s. Her office space then was at a lawyer friend's office at the Bourse. I volunteered, typing labels of names and addresses and stuffing and collating, basically, and I got lunch. All the years at Plays and Players with such success. I never knew her ever to direct a show. Also, when she wanted to purchase P and P, that board of trustees refused to sell. So like Blanka and Jiri Zizka, Sara put a theater on Broad Stret with something profitable on top. To have silently witnessed her success is a fond thing for me.

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