Jeff Sanzel Heats Up Theatre Three in Port Jefferson

Jeff Sanzel performing "Oliver!" at Theatre Three
Jeff Sanzel performing "Oliver!" at Theatre Three, Photo: Elizabeth Castrogiovanni

The name Jeffrey Sanzel has been synonymous with Theatre Three since 1989. This man is fully immersed in his element. His eyes sparkle as he shares the rich history of this 160-year-old historic building situated in the heart of Port Jefferson. Once serving as a vaudeville house, the banter of Milton Berle and Bert Lahr can almost still be heard on this stage. Today it is a year-round professional, regional theater.

It seems Sanzel never sleeps, and neither does Theatre Three. From a bustling cornucopia of entertainment and activities with the mainstage shows—consisting of musicals, plays and the ever popular A Christmas Carol, to Second Stage productions of an inviting cabaret, Theater Three offers something for everyone. Its Festival of One Act Plays, an annual event, features world premieres. For comedy, try Friday Night Face-Off. Children’s theater abounds with in-house as well as touring shows. The dramatic academy offers acting workshops for teens and adults that culminate in performance. And if all of that wasn’t enough, Theater Three puts on a full series of summer concerts and special events.

A chat with Sanzel in his office overflowing with books is an education in itself.

Theatre Three's Jeffrey Sanzel
Jeffrey Sanzel, Photo: Steve Ayle

What was your background before coming to Theatre Three?
I went to SUNY Purchase, got a degree in theater and taught high school for two years. In 1989, was hired as the children’s theater coordinator. I became artistic director in 1993. I came here when I was 22 and will be 49 this year.

How do you feel about essentially having your entire career here at Theatre Three?
I am someone who gets up and works in his chosen profession every day. I’m a very lucky man. I’m really into beautification of this building. We have new wallpaper, carpet, seats—we are now wheelchair accessible with a lift that can take up to 525 pounds.

Are your children’s shows all originals?
I’ve written about 150 children’s shows over the years. I collaborate with about six people on lyrics and books. I’m working on a new Alice in Wonderland for the fall. After we run in-house, we tour. Everything we do is original.

The norm when I came here was original stuff and I just fell into that. The first summer I was here I wrote a new children’s show every other week.

Let’s talk about A Christmas Carol, since it is a tradition here.
I came here and actor Billy Van Horn and I adapted it, then I directed it. Soon I was readapting it yearly, directing and playing Scrooge. I’ve played Scrooge over 1,100 times.

I have an entire room full of A Christmas Carol paraphernalia and many things Dickens. I even went to Dickens camp where scholarly lectures center around one book, that year it was Bleak House. I’m a Dickens fanatic, A Christmas Carol devotee.

I work on it 12 months a year. I keep exploring to find new things. I have a notebook that I jot ideas in all the time. You get fresh stimuli from the different actors, from my amazing designers; Randy Parsons, resident scenic designer and Robert Henderson, resident lighting designer. We’re always working, thinking and readapting. I read anything about A Christmas Carol to see if it inspires. We also have Steve McCoy, my artistic associate, director, composer and a ridiculously talented person. I workshop and rehearse ideas.

Why the fascination with A Christmas Carol?
It just happened. It was a fluke. I was hired by a theater that was bringing it back. There’s no better character than Scrooge.

Which do you prefer—writing, acting or directing?
Directing, but I’m fascinated with all aspects of theater.

What are your plans for the future?
I’d like to do more original work. This year we had our 100th world premiere at the play festival. We have From the Fires: Voices of the Holocaust, which toured 19 years. We have Class Dismissed and Stand Up, Stand Out; both are anti-bullying plays. We will always present A Christmas Carol. We have a commitment to the story and to telling it as honestly as possible with production values. People know it is the core of Theatre Three.

You are so busy, but do you go to the East End?
I go out to Sag Harbor and frequent Bay Street. I love their work.

What are you excited about?
Sweeney Todd! I first heard it in 1979. I was 10. I had to have the record and became obsessed with it. Here it is almost 40 years later, I’m finally getting to do it! The one-act festival, the new Alice in Wonderland [Alice’s Wonderful Adventures in October] and directing teens this summer. Godspell with adults. I love working with kids in their 20s.

It’s a very exciting season. It’s nice to have this many things to look forward to.

See Alice’s Wonderland Adventures in October and Godspell in the new year at Theatre Three, 412 Main Street, Port Jefferson, 631-928-9100,

Jack & the Beanstalk at Theatre Three
“Jack & the Beanstalk” at Theatre Three, Photo: Courtesy Peter Lanscombe

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