Daniel Schay cornered me at a cocktail party a few years ago. Usually, encounters between myself and theater people don’t go well, and often involve a thespian telling me how disappointed they are in my recent critique of their work. But not Dan, who died suddenly last Thursday. Dan wanted my take on the shows he was hoping to option the following year for Theater Works, the Peoria theater company he executive directed.
“He was like that,” says playwright Richard Warren, a longtime friend and colleague of Schay’s. “Dan was not an art dilettante. He wasn’t just theater-obsessed, he wasn’t just a good business person who knew how to run a theater. He was someone who loved what he was doing and wanted to talk about it with other people.”
Warren, like the rest of the Valley’s creative community, was shocked by Schay’s sudden death from complications of treatment for esophageal cancer. “When I heard Dan had died, I was gasping for breath,” Warren says. “It was a giant punch to the gut.”
Born in Middleton, New York, Schay graduated from Yale, where he majored in English but dabbled in theater, mostly as an actor. Later, he worked administrative jobs at prestigious companies including the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut; Pittsburgh Public Theater, and the Hippodrome in Gainesville, Florida. He came to Arizona as executive director of the Sedona Cultural Park, where he helped launch the Sedona Film Festival, now a cultural mainstay of that town. After an eight-year stint as managing director of Phoenix Theatre, he moved to Theater Works. He had completed directing a production of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike for the company just before his death.
Despite a solid career in managing theaters, he remained, according to his friend Veronica Carmack, an actor at heart. “He used to joke about how he and Christopher Reeve carried spears onto stages when they were kids, but the truth is he had quite the acting pedigree. He worked with a lot of the greats, and on more than one occasion I saw him jump into a role at the last minute, because something happened to an actor.”
Schay was kind and talented, Carmack says. “You usually get one or the other with a director. He was both. He always had his take on what a play or a performance should look like, but then he had this great way of letting you think what you were doing was your idea.”