by Clark Groome
Sara Garonzik, who will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre ceremony next Monday night, wasn’t a typical theater devotee as a kid. (Garonzik, 65, is currently the executive producing director of the Philadelphia Theatre Company, which she has been a part of for four decades and has led for the past 35 years.)
During the time she was growing up in Mt. Airy, where she lived from 1956 to 1970, she focused on academics. An excellent student, Garonzik attended the F. S. Edmonds Elementary School, Leeds Junior High and Girls High, from which she graduated in 1968. For the next four years she commuted to Temple where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish in 1972. She says that her fondest and most vivid memory of her years living in Mt. Airy was the annual Fourth of July fireworks held at Temple Stadium.
After graduating from Temple, she moved to Center City (where she still lives) and enrolled in the graduate program at Penn, aiming to get a doctorate and then teach college-level Spanish. That pursuit lasted about a month until she saw a notice that a new theater group was forming at St. Mary’s Church on Locust Walk. After becoming involved with that group, she gave up graduate school, fell in love with theater and eventually hooked up with what was then called The Philadelphia Company (now PTC), becoming its leader in 1982.
Chestnut Hill’s Eliot Schwartz, the company’s president and a long-time board member, said Garonzik has “meant everything to the company. She has been there for everything, whether it was the theater itself, the building, the shows, everything.”
Just before the Barrymore Awards committee named her this year’s Lifetime Award winner, Garonzik announced that she would be leaving PTC, “not retiring.” In a letter to the PTC family, she wrote, “I will be actively pursuing a life of independent producing, consulting or perhaps even offering up interim leadership to companies in transition.”
During her 35 years at the PTC helm, it became the third local theater company to join Actors Equity; moved into Plays and Players Theatre on Delancey Street, where they stayed until building the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on the Avenue of the Arts; faced and survived two financial crises; produced, among its more than 150 productions, 27 world premieres and dozens of Philadelphia premieres by such name playwrights as Terrence McNally, Christopher Durang, Bill Irwin, Charles Busch and homeboy Bruce Graham; brought Richard Thomas, Len Cariou, Zoe Caldwell, Audra McDonald, Celeste Holm, Kathleen Turner and other nationally known artists to PTC’s stage; and partnered with, among many, the Kennedy Center and locally with Theatre Exile and Freedom Theatre.
Garonzik recently sat down with the Local in the lobby of the Roberts Theatre to talk about her decision to leave PTC and what it means to receive the Barrymore Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I’m completely honored to get this,” she said, “because I represent a generation of leaders and founders who began their theater companies in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and stuck with it and grew them.” She specifically mentioned the Wilma’s Blanca Zizka, the Walnut’s Bernard Havard, Bristol Riverside’s Sue Atkinson and People’s Light and Theatre’s Abigail Adams. “I’m emblematic of that generation. I feel honored that I’m the one who’s getting it because so many people are qualified to receive the award.”
Schwartz noted that during Garonzik’s time as PTC’s leader, she has also served as president of the Philadelphia Community Fund, on the Mayor’s Cultural Advisory Council and on the advisory board of PlayPenn, a play development organization based in Chestnut Hill.
“Her national reputation is impressive,” Schwartz said. “Every actor and actress who … works at our theatre company can’t get over the warmness, the friendliness [and] how comfortable they are.”
“What I hope I’ve brought the theater,” Garonzik said, “is that it’s absolutely critical to the making of excellent art to create an environment where that art can thrive . . . a sense of openness, positiveness, welcoming, collaboration, a safe zone where people can do their best work. That’s what I’ve tried to do here for 35 years.”
Among her most noted productions were Howard Fast’s “Citizen Tom Paine” starring Richard Thomas, co-produced with Washington’s Kennedy Center; Kathleen Turner’s lead turn in “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” and several plays by Terrence McNally, most notably the 1995 production of “Master Class” that went on to Broadway, where it won three Tony Awards.
“What I like most about [my role at PTC] is getting to work with extraordinary artists and bringing them to Philadelphia. I love introducing them to our city and creating the environment where they feel very comfortable working.“
She says she’s going to miss working with her staff after her successor is hired following the national search already underway. She won’t miss, she says, 15-hour days.
On a personal note: I’ve known and covered Sara Garonzik since I started writing about theater for this paper in 1980. In that time we’ve had our differences about individual productions. Those differences were always professional, never personal.
The Barrymore Awards Ceremony at the Merriam Theater on Monday, Oct. 24, 7 p.m., is open to the public. Ticket information at 215-893-1999.