The Irreplaceable Victor Shargai

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Victor Shargai with actress and singer Karen Akers at the 2012 Helen Hayes Awards. Photo by Neshan H. Naltchayan.

Word came today that the irreplaceable Victor Shargai, founding chairman of TheatreWashington, which started out as the Helen Hayes Awards, had passed away this week, on Dec. 24.

My immediate reaction was that someone should do what they do on Broadway when a theater luminary passes on, which is to dim the marquee lights. Then I thought about it again. Here in the Washington theater world, they should turn the lights on, and keep them on for a while, in Shargai’s honor, because he was one of the guiding inspirations, the make-things-happen guy, the gardener and grower of the city’s theater community.

He was a member of that community, and through his work on the Helen Hayes Awards and TheaterWashington a huge contributor. In part thanks to Shargai, Washington became — outside of New York and perhaps Chicago — one of the top theater towns in the country, going from 20 theaters when he became chairman to some 90 theaters today.

Always destiny’s child when it comes to theater — he studied in his youth at the Bristol Old Vic when, he told us, no less an actor than Peter O’Toole was there — Shargai had his true professional beginnings as an interior designer, a designer with a Big D, most notably when he came to Washington to work with W. & J. Sloane.

But the theater — people inside and out of it and his own proclivities to be in a theater, to go to plays — beckoned, making it inevitable that he would become a leader in the that world. “I’ve always felt,” he said once, “that theater is the place where you can be most alive, that theater touches lives in the most intimate, real way.”

As founding chairman, he touched people’s lives. He was Washington theater’s most avid booster, connecting people from different worlds to theater, and he participated by working with and being part of the boards of many performing arts institutions, including Studio Theatre, Signature Theatre, the Kennedy Center and the Washington Ballet.

Where there were plays or moving parts onstage, you could usually find Victor Shargai. “You know, it used to bother me, I couldn’t go to all the plays, and I went all the time,” he said. “I would look at the papers or a notice and say, ‘Oh my God, I missed that,’ and I wanted to see it.”

“Victor was a fan,” Joy Zinoman, founding artistic director of Studio Theatre, where Shargai also served on the board, said in a video of Shargai friends and admirers shown in 2014, when Shargai received the Helen Hayes Tribute, the highest award you can get in the Washington theater world.

In the clips are vivid meetings with Shargai himself, a man who in his demeanor and conversation could seem theatrical himself. If you met him, you might sense a kind a tug of war: he seemed very outgoing, loquacious, friendly, knowledgeable, willing to share, but also somewhat shy. “I was always an extrovert,” he said, “but also a loner.”

He had a bit of a pinch-me quality about him, as if he couldn’t believe how fortunate he was to find himself in the theater world he loved, and to be honored by it.

“I don’t think I ever wanted to be an actor or even a performer, although I had the energy and personality. And I could dance a little, sure,” he said.

Noted actor Ted van Griethuysen, a stalwart presence at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Studio Theatre, among many Washington-area companies, said: “Victor was especially strong in his support for smaller theaters, of bringing them into the Washington theater community. He was invaluable to all of us.”

“Theater,” Shargai said, is “a force in the community.” He strongly believed that theater brings communities together and, as he witnessed, transforms them.

It’s easy to see that Shargai, an entirely original persona, was also beloved in the community that he represented so well, with such class and with what Zinoman described as “his exquisite taste.”

He promoted new theater, and was a big fan of cutting-edge Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which continues to challenge theatergoers.

Born in New York City in 1936, Shargai was a graduate of Queens College. He is survived by his husband, Craig Pascal.

You always ran into him at the Helen Hayes Awards, at plays, at receptions. And you always promised to do what you sometimes ended up doing: to get together and talk about theater. I already miss the talks we never had.

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