One on one with Jeffrey Sanzel

One on one with Jeffrey Sanzel

Jeffrey Sanzel in front of a portrait of the late Brent Erlanson by Al Jones in Theatre Three’s lobby. Photo by Heidi Sutton

By Katelyn Winter

Theatre Three in Port Jefferson has been a treasured fixture in the community for 47 years. Each year, the theater presents a Mainstage season of musicals, plays and “A Christmas Carol” while the Second Stage serves as an intimate venue for its annual Festival of One-Act Plays and Friday Night Face Off. The theater’s Children’s Theatre presents original musicals and acting classes are offered throughout the year. 

This summer, exciting events like the Sizzling Summer Concert Series and the Director’s Dinners, where you can dine with directors and designers pre-show, offer new ways to appreciate theater arts.

The upcoming Mainstage season has an especially personal meaning for Jeffrey Sanzel, who has been the artistic director there since 1993. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Sanzel in his office at Theatre Three.

What can you tell us about the upcoming Mainstage season? Are any of the shows a personal favorite, or do you have a connection to them in any way?

Well, that’s an interesting question, because “A Christmas Carol” obviously I’ve made a life out of. I’ve been doing “A Christmas Carol” since 1988 so that has a very personal connection.

However, this season we’re actually doing an original play that I wrote called “Where There’s a Will.” I first wrote it 30 years ago, and a youth theater in Cleveland did it last fall. I hadn’t looked at it in 28, 29 years. The director of that company and I knew each other from the original production, so we had talked about it — I pulled it out, I did some rewrites, and they did it.

I went and saw it, and then I passed it around our staff, and people read it and said, you know, this is really worth looking at. So I’ve been in the process of rewriting it, and we’re doing that next April. So that has an incredibly personal connection for me. It kind of spans, when you look at the beginning of my career to where I am now, all of that.

Do you have any other hobbies, beyond playwriting?

No, I don’t really have any … wait, that’s not true. I started playing the ukulele two years ago! I started taking lessons two years ago, but that’s the first time I’ve ever had anything that is not directly related to theater.

In theater, actors wear costumes. But what’s your favorite article of clothing in your own closet?

I’m very partial to ties. I love ties, and there’s actually a story behind that. Our associate artistic director, Brent Erlanson, who actually was here before me, was an actor, a costumer, a musician, a composer and a designer — just a jack of all trades. We worked together for over 20 years. He passed away eight years ago, but he always used to give me shirts and ties for birthdays and Christmases, because he felt my wardrobe was really drab. And he’d give me these vibrant ties, and as I mentioned he passed away.

Now we have an actor who’s worked for us, off and on over the last few years, Brett Chizever. I told him that story, so he has started to, at every opening, bring me a different tie. So I have this whole collection that spans from Brent Erlanson to Brett Chizever, so it kind of ties the arc of my time here together.

Wow, that must be a lot of ties!

It is. I mean, he started doing this a few years ago, and originally Brett was just giving me ties for the shows he was in. Then it was the shows I was directing. Now every time he comes to an opening, there’s a tie. One time he hadn’t seen me before the show, and I did the pre-show speech, and I walked off the stage and up the aisle and out stretched a hand with the tie in it.

So, in your opinion, what makes doing theater here in Port Jefferson so special, as opposed to someplace else?

Well, we’re part of a community. And we’re part of a tradition that was started by Jerry Friedman, and then passed onto Bradley Bing, and then to me. We have this rich history, and we’re coming up on our forty-seventh season. We’ve had thousands of people come through our doors, as performers, craftspeople, musicians and designers, as well as patrons. There’s something about being in the same place, in this very cultural community, and watching things evolve over the years. This has been almost my entire adult life. I came here when I was 22, and I’m going to be 50. I’ve spent more of my life here than I haven’t.

Outside of Theatre Three, what is  the best show you’ve seen recently?

I saw “Fun Home” last week, which I thought was a beautiful production. I think it’s one of the best directed, designed and acted productions I’ve seen in years. It’s extraordinary — what they’ve done to tell the story. The artistry is jaw-dropping, and I thought that was impressive. I try to see a lot of shows, but it can be difficult because I’m here all the time. In the last year, I saw and loved “Something Rotten,” which was pure fun. I thought it was just terrific. It was smart, and funny, and spoke volumes to theater people. Also “Matilda” I thought that was a glorious mess. It’s kind of all over the place, but it’s so much fun. I’ve been theater-going my whole life, but as of right now, those are the things that jump out at me.

Do you have a go-to order at any restaurant in Port Jefferson for those late hours at work?

Yes, at The Pie, the lunch special. It’s the chicken teriyaki sandwich, which is definitely my go-to.

That sounds delicious. Looking toward the future, are there any shows you’d like to direct or see on the Theatre Three stage?

Well, I’ve gotten to a lot of shows on my bucket list. I’ve gotten to do “Next to Normal,” I got to do “Les Miserables” and “The Laramie Project.” As far as classics go, I love “Hello, Dolly!” We did that years ago when I was first here, and I didn’t get to direct it but that show just has a special place in my heart. There’s also a playwright Simon Grey, and I just love all his plays. He wrote one called “The Common Pursuit,” which is about academia, and I just think it’s a brilliant, beautiful play. I don’t know if it’s something we’d ever do, but as far as bucket lists go, it’s on there. And “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” by Jean Giraudoux, which I just love. I think it’s a beautiful, fantastical, dramatic show. It’s one of those things where on the page it’s okay, but if you saw it would be so vivid, so exciting!

What do you like the most about your work at Theatre Three?

Working with actors. I think what I’ve enjoyed the most, out of anything I do, is that interaction. The dynamic of working with actors on scripts, on developing roles, on character. As a director, the real heart of the work I get to do here is that.

Theatre Three’s 47th season opens with “Legally Blonde the Musical” on September 17. In the meantime, head over to one of its Sizzling Summer Concerts, the first of which is The Ghost of Jim Morrison: The Doors Tribute Band on Friday, July 8, at 8 p.m. For more information, visit

Author Katelyn Winter is a rising junior at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.,  majoring in English and creative writing. She is from Stony Brook and hopes to one day work in the publishing industry.


Leave a Reply