Producing Artistic Director of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Spiro Veloudos, is nominated for two 2013 Boston My Theatre Awards, Best Director of a Play for the Lyric’s 33 Variations and Best Director of a Musical for the Lyric’s On the Town. Given his tireless efforts and high artistic integrity, such an honor comes as no surprise. In his interview, Spiro explains about his journey and successes with the Lyric, his artistic and professional philosophies, and even shares why audiences and reviewers alike should be excited for his current production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, both at the Lyric.
Let’s start off easy. Can you talk about the work for which you’re nominated by My Theatre in 2013? What made you choose these plays? Why do you think they became award-worthy?
I never think that something is going to be worthy of awards. I just don’t think that way. When I first saw 33 Variations, all I could think about it was what a fascinating story, both of them. The fact that [playwright] Moises Kaufman integrated the story of Beethoven, his struggle with deafness and his obsession, with the story of Dr. Brandt and her struggles with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and her obsession with Beethoven struck me as a story that I wanted to tell. I love the works of Beethoven and I love working with Paula Plum, so there you have that.
With On The Town, it really was about the love of music (especially Bernstein) and the period of the play. Sometimes, I think I was born into the wrong generation, given my fondness of all things late 1930’s to all of the 1940’s. In addition, we have made a little cottage industry of taking huge-scale musicals and finding a new way of telling them. Finally (and you might see a theme here), I like the story. Three sailors get leave in NYC, they look for some dates, make a connection, and then they have to ship-out. When I was putting the show together I kept asking: “What happens the next day??” Do they ship-out for Europe?? D-day?? Or some other theatre of war? That’s why the song “Some Other Time” was so important to the production. All of us worked very hard to get that song correct. I think we did.
I know that much of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s successes comes from your work, knowledge, and accomplishments. How long have you served as Producing Artistic Director for the Lyric? How have your role, and the company as a whole, changed during your tenure?
You are too kind to give me so much credit. There have been a lot of people working here since I became the Producing Artistic Director in February 1997. This season marks my sixteenth year here at the Lyric, and, without the efforts of those people, I’m not sure where we would be.
When I started here, I felt that I couldn’t let a day go by in which I wasn’t involved in every aspect of the company. I was literally working 7 days a week sometimes 12-14 hours a day. The company began to grow past where it was before I took over. The company was always well-respected but, as we started to grow, it became impossible for me to deal with every aspect of the company. I think that every theatre needs a person that says “No” to the Artistic Director on occasion. That person is the Managing Director. After a dismal season ten years ago, I approached the Board of Directors about hiring a Managing Director. They agreed. Oddly, that evening, a good friend of mine, Sara Glidden, then the Manager of Emerson Stage, asked me if she could use me as a reference. I was shocked to hear that she was leaving Emerson. I asked her if she would be interested in the job. And the rest, as they say, is history. We have the strongest staff that the theatre has had since I have been here. That really is the major difference. Instead of having to deal with every little issue, I can concentrate on our product, no matter if I am directing or if I have an outside director.
The Lyric is celebrating its 40th Season this year; that’s such a great milestone for the theatre! How do you see the company growing and changing over the next ten years to get to fifty years?
First, I hope to be here when we celebrate. The Lyric, but more so, Boston is my identity. I think the Lyric will continue to find works that entertains, challenges and provokes an audience; that we will find new ways to challenge ourselves as artists through ambitious and somewhat risky programming; and that our programming and casting reflects the growing change in Boston. Finally, that we will be considered a home for artists in all of the wondrous diversity for which they represent.
Talk to us about how you choose a play. What makes a play or musical worth staging at The Lyric for you? What makes a show worth seeing?
I’m starting to sound like a broken record. For me, it’s really about the story. Do I want to tell it? Should the Lyric be the place where the Boston audience hears it?? Will the audience respond to it? These are the artistic questions I ask to start. Then, the choices have to pass muster in term of being producible. We aren’t going to have three realistic rooms on our stage. While we have had large cast sizes (1776 and Nicholas Nickleby topped out at 25), we have to consider the space available to us, or have a real wonderful way of retelling those large scale pieces. And, in the final analysis, while the final decision is mine, it’s great if the staff (who have input into the choices) are on-board with them. It makes the producing into a happy experience.
I am so disappointed that I missed Nicholas Nickleby; it’s a fine play, and just the sort of challenge that I think the Lyric is capable of tackling, unlike many other theatres in Boston. What have been some of your biggest challenges as Producing Artistic Director and regular director for many of the Lyric’s shows?
The two biggest challenges that we face are: rehearsal space (we don’t have our own) and, now that the Huntington and A.R.T. are using Boston talent, an idea I applaud, we sometime can’t or don’t get the casts we want. It’s rare but it has happened.
You’ve had some incredible success working with a broad range of actors, young, old, students, Equity. How do you get the best performances from your actors? How do you approach your role as both director and acting coach?
Thanks for noticing this. First and foremost is treating all performers with an equal amount of respect. If they weren’t right for the role, then they wouldn’t be on our stage. After that, I think it is about not compromising on the acting values of the play. To instill into every cast member that there part of the story, no matter the size of the role, is important. I think the best directors have always had a little acting coach in them. If not, then they would hardly be able to talk in the language of acting.
I love the idea of not compromising! Does your directing process change whether you’re directing a play versus directing a musical? If so/not, why?
Truly the only difference in musicals is that you have more collaborators. I have been blessed with a number of collaborators, but two in particular since we worked together on On the Town: Ilyse Robbins and Jon Goldberg. The three of us sometimes disagree and have to work that out, but, at the bottom line, we all have respect for our individual contribution to the whole. I like to think of musical theatre as just theatre that sings. So my process changes only in how I get to tell the story. Not only with words and lyrics, but with music and dance.
Ilyse is a gem! Speaking of stars, a number of your actors this year were also nominated for acting awards (John, Paula, Victor, Michele). Can you speak to why perhaps their performances resonated with audiences and reviewers?
The simple truth is they were just real good. I think John is a wonderful musical talent, and his Gabey was both entertaining and heartbreaking. Victor is one of the best young talents in this city. His work is always so detailed. Michele is a delight to watch on stage and also can make an audience feel what her character feels without just playing some vague emotion. So much has been said and written about Paula that it’s tough to pin down this performance over the many other brilliant performances she has given. I told her this near the end of the run of 33 Variations: “You have performed admirably and artistically in many productions; in 33, you were transcendent.”
I have to respect you for nailing each of the reasons for which I believe these actors were nominated! What are the most inspiring productions and performances that you have seen? Why did they affect you so profoundly?
Three productions come to mind.
1) Macbeth with Christopher Plummer: The director had people coming in from all over the stage even though they were supposed to be together in conversation. I found it thrilling and actually used the technique in a production of Twelfth Night that I directed.
2) Fiddler on the Roof (the original production): Zero Mostel was an amazing talent and I was enthralled by how this man could move, sing, act, and dazzle an audience. It was my first Broadway production and it still rings in my head.
3) The film version of The Music Man: Not only was it the epiphany moment for me (I knew I wanted to be in theatre) but Robert Preston’s performance was without question one of musical theatre’s finest.
Can you give our readers any inside glimpse into what you’re doing with Death of a Salesman? It’s a classic play, so why now? Why you? Why the Lyric?
I’ll answer the last parts first; because I think I understand the play and I can tell its story well. The Lyric is perfect for the play with its intimate actor-to- audience relation. I’m always reticent of the question: “So, what are you going to do to it?” as if Death of a Salesman needs my help in telling the story. What is different about this production is that it’s ours: the Lyric, the cast and designers, and mine. As to why now, I always think that the attempt to achieve the American Dream is always relevant but also, with the aging out of the work force, the middle class struggle to keep both ends meeting and the effect of a family in crisis will always resonate in our society. The play has not lost any of its bite or trauma in sixty-five years.
Okay, ditto, I want to know about Into the Woods. One of my favorite Sondheims, and I’ve heard that you’re a genius interpreter of his works. Any information that you can share about your upcoming work on this production?
Genius??? You have to stop reading press releases. I think my work with Sondheim comes from and understanding of the people about whom he writes. His storytelling through music is unique, no matter what many new composers say. In Into the Woods, he looks at the nature of wishes and what we get when those wishes are fulfilled. It’s not just a fairy-tale land of make-believe. Mr. Sondheim gives us a world that make-believe is just that: make believe. In the first act, he (and book writer James Lapine) create the make believe world of “I wish.” The second act is when the responsibility of your wishes comes into play. It’s that part of the story on which I think needs to be concentrated. And, in my production, it will.
Despite my praise for some outstanding Boston theatre this season, other Boston critics have remarked on the paltry 2013 Boston Theatre Season. Do you have any comments for why these critics (and perhaps some audience members) feel that way?
I know, and I am frankly appalled by the notion. The fact that the Flagship Boston Theatres won three Tony awards, collectively; had two productions transfer to Broadway; and continue to show excellence throughout their work (let alone the wonderful work by the mid-sized, small and fringe companies), the thought baffles me. It seems that some of the disappointments were in the commercial theatre. To that I say, what about The Book of Mormon? On top of it, the commercial productions are not “Boston” theatre. To think that puts the theatrical landscape in Boston back twenty to twenty-five years, when Boston was a “try-out town.” I, for one, hope that we don’t regress. As a community, we have moved forward; perhaps the critics should take that into consideration. Some have, and they have helped the Boston theatre scene grow in the last decade and a half. Even Elliot Norton, before his passing, recognized that the commercial theatre in Boston was passing and that the strong regional companies were the future.
As you may know, I don’t review or even see commercial theatre (for a number of reasons); Boston has too many good regional productions! Do you see any change in theatre audiences or marketing for a strong regional and professional company like the Lyric and others in Boston? If so, why? How is the Lyric responding to these changes?
I think we are all facing an ever-graying audience. That, as well as seeing so many white faces. I know that the Lyric is responding to these issues not only through marketing, but also through our programming and our casting initiative to be more diverse. Since we have been doing these things, we are seeing a much more diverse and younger audience.
I was always taught as a director to pursue stories that scare and challenge me. Do you believe in this artistic philosophy? What plays or stories scare you?
Scare??? Not really. I like to think of myself as a bit fearless theatrically. Challenge? Certainly. Nicholas was the most challenging story that we had ever produced. But I want all of our artists to be challenged in our work, no matter what the story. I usually tell my casts and students, find new challenges in your roles, new ways of thinking about them. Never settle. Settling is the hallmark of mediocrity.
What inspires you? Artistically? Professionally?
Interesting new ways of looking at classic work. Finding ways to tell epic stories in the intimate confines of the Lyric. Reaching further than my perceived grasp and grabbing onto what I am reaching for. Maybe the most inspiring thing I have come across in several years is this:
Excellence can be achieved if you:
Care more than others think wise,
Risk more than others think is safe,
Dream more than others think practical, and
Expect more than others think is possible.
Every morning I read that on my refrigerator door. I think about it and it really does give me inspiration.
How is the Lyric (and your work) engaging with the community? Do you think that the community responds to the Boston theatre scene?
I think our deepest engagement with the community is in our commitment to show the varied diverse stories that we tell. The second half of your question is answered with a short word. Yes!!
Do you have anything else you would like to share or tell our readers?
Go to the theatre: plays and musicals. Take the risk on a new play or a fringe company. As I like to say, to the Elizabethans, Hamlet was a new play. What would the world be like if there was no Shakespeare because the audience said: “I have never heard of that play,” and didn’t go. To your readers, I say: “GO, and go often.”