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This Man Thinks D.C. Theaters Are Amazing And He Wants You To Think So Too

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Victor Shargai accepts his Helen Hayes Tribute Award in an emotional speech at The National Building Museum.
theatreWashington
Victor Shargai accepts his Helen Hayes Tribute Award in an emotional speech at The National Building Museum.

Victor Shargai glowed as he took to the stage at the 30th Annual Helen Hayes Awards to accept his Helen Hayes Tribute award. In an emotional acceptance speech, the longtime Board Chairman of theatreWashington, which organizes the prestigious theater award show, thanked the people who make theater happen, from the actors and directors to the audience members to the folks who sit on boards.

His passion for the dramatic arts and for D.C.’s theater scene specifically, is clear. Although he says he'll always identify as a New Yorker, the D.C. resident has made a home for himself in the local theater community and has worked tirelessly to champion and support the work being done in theaters large, small and avant-garde.

'Champion of a community'

TheatreWashington President and CEO Linda Levy says the tribute award has been given to members of the professional theater community such as James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, Edward Albee, August Wilson, and Terrance McNally.

“I mean the extraordinary talent and artistry and contributions to the American theater that these honorees were recognized for is astounding, and there was no question whatsoever that Victor Shargai belonged on that list,” she says.

Levy says it’s not just because of his long leadership of theatreWashington or of Washington theater.

“It wasn't just about leading a board. It wasn't just about raising some money. It was about being a champion of a community,” she says.

She describes Shargai as a type of cheerleader for local theater, convincing naysayers that they should give it a try.

“It was Victor who was out there every night saying, ‘Try it. You’ll like it. Please, go with me. I'll take you to the theater,’” she says. “It was that important to him, not just that he enjoyed it and that he understood the work but that everybody did.”

Shargai admits that theater is a dominant topic of conversation in his house, but he doesn't just bring friends to the theater. He recalls having dinner one night with his partner Craig Pascal, when he overheard a couple at the next table saying they’d been sightseeing all day and didn’t know what to do next.

“He said, ‘you go over there and I'm leaving,’ and I said, ‘I'm sorry. I just have to do it,’” Shargai says. “I walked over to the table and I said, ‘I happened to overhear that you didn't know what to do. Well, within three blocks of where you're sitting there are three theaters. They're all running at the moment. I think you could find something at one of these theaters you might enjoy.’”

He says he wants everyone to enrich people’s lives through theater. “I just believe that everyone should have this experience and know whether it brings something to their life, adds to their life,” he says. “I know it will. No matter what it is. There are people who I can only get to a musical. Well, that’s fine. There are people who like dramas, but we have everything in Washington.”

Victor Shargai (second from left) goofs off with friends John Hager, Tom Bower and Len Lathem (L to R) at the 30th Annual Helen Hayes Awards. (theatreWashington)

A connection to Helen Hayes

Shargai says it was “overwhelming” to receive the Helen Hayes Tribute, but the most meaningful aspect was the recognition by his peers. “To be recognized for something you love doing is a marvelous feeling.”

An interior designer, Shargai started his career as an actor. He says he first caught the bug when he was 8 years old.

“My sister was taking dance lessons in Jamaica, New York at a little storefront dance studio and I said, ‘I can do that! Why can't I take lessons?’ So I was allowed some lessons, and I was discovered very early on,” he says. Soon after, he started going into New York for auditions.

“One of the great things in the world is that there is no degree of separation,” he says. “When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I went in to New York and interviewed for a show.” He says the theater was dark and there were about a half-dozen people, but he recognized one of them as Helen Hayes herself.

“So the first time I met Helen, I auditioned for her,” he says. “This incredible connection is something that’s very precious to me, and she loved it.” He says he told her the story years later when the pair were at the circus. “I said to her, ‘you know that was the highlight of my entire career was you recognizing and thinking I could play a role,’” he says, “and she of course loved it, because she was a dear human being and when you gave her love, she gave it back to you.”

Theatre blossoms in the District

Shargai came to D.C. after a series of unfortunate events, including an apartment fire and a banged up ankle, convinced him that it was time to leave New York. When his partner landed a big job in Washington, he moved to the area. He hasn't looked back.

He says D.C. is a “wonderful place now” with a variety of theatrical entertainment. But it hasn't always been that way. “I came to Washington and I thought I would have nothing to do with theater,” he says. “I would go to theater, but there was nothing else for me.”

At that time, there were only three theaters. “I had a subscription at Folger. I had a subscription at Arena. I went to the pre-Broadway shows at The National Theatre,” he says.

“I just found that people didn't know about theater in Washington,” he says. “People weren't interested in theater.”

Several years later, he was introduced to Studio Theatre at its first location on Church Street. “It was a hole in the wall, literally,” he says. But he decided to give the new theater a chance, and went to see a production of Fifth of July. “I was blown away by the talent in this small, small theater where there was one bathroom that everyone shared and hopefully it was working, and I thought, well there’s something in this and I accepted to join the Studio board,” he says.

“It was when 14th Street was a terrible, terrible place. It wasn't many years after the riots. There were prostitutes all over the streets, drug paraphernalia all over the streets. My car was broken into twice, windows smashed when I parked there,” he says. “When Joy Zinoman wanted to get my friends to come to her theater, I said ‘my friends aren't going to come to your theater. Move it to Bethesda!’” He says he can’t believe he said that, but Zinoman refused to abandon the neighborhood.

“When the theater was financially able to move, the argument came up again and we stayed there and we moved into the corner of 14th Street and that was the beginning of it,” he says. Other theaters set up shop, and 14th Street eventually grew to be the hot spot it is today.

He says one great improvement has been the change in demographics in Washington theater. From the now-closed H Street Playhouse to Atlas Performing Arts Center to the Anacostia Playhouse, he says people are coming out of the woodwork to visit areas they might not have otherwise ventured to.

“You go there and it is so exciting and you see these people going into the theater for the first time and it’s an incredible experience,” he says.

“That’s what I want,” he says. “I want to get the kids who haven’t been to a theater. I want to get them in. I want to get people in the seniors home who in their later stages of life have never been to a theater, and I want them to get there and I want them to see what’s great and enrich their lives.”

He says people can be an educational experience. “It teaches you,” he says. “It makes you learn, learn about yourself, even if the play has no relationship to you, and that’s what’s important. That’s what we have to do now.”

Although he’s no longer the chair of theatreWashington, he still serves on the board, and he says he won't stop fighting to spread awareness and appreciation of local theater. “I’m going to be kind of an emissary,” he says. “I’m going to be out there in the trenches getting people to learn to enjoy theater.”

Music: "There's No Business Like Show Business" by Sonny Rollins from The Very Best of Sonny Rollins

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