“‘When I say ‘me,’ I am usually talking about the Lyric,” Spiro Veloudos says and shrugs.
Man and theater can be hard to separate. Veloudos, producing artistic director of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, is a larger-than-life character in the local theater community, both because he’s a character and because he’s had a big impact.
On this afternoon, Veloudos’s office is cluttered with books and CDs, empty Coke Zero cans and gifts like a Punch-and-Judy change bank. With his longish hair and mustache, and wearing a three-piece suit and no tie, Veloudos has the cheerful, slightly disheveled look of a perpetually busy person. He downs one of the cupcakes delivered to celebrate his 61st birthday, cackles over jokes at his expense, and brushes off his reputation as a yeller — “that’s when I was an enfant terrible.”
ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS
“August is always that strange month for me, the month of my birthday and the beginning of the season. I’m in that kind of ‘what’s next?’ thing for me and the Lyric,” Veloudos says.
But he doesn’t seem especially reflective. He’s excited, as ever, about the new season — the company’s 40th. He’s directing three of the seven shows: “One Man, Two Guvnors,” “Death of a Salesman” and “Into the Woods.”
Season opener “One Man, Two Guvnors,” beginning Friday, is a recent Broadway hit, an uptempo British comedy based on an 18th-century Italian farce. Neil Casey stars as Francis Henshall, a young man of appetites who finds himself caught in an increasingly complex plot in a British seaside resort in the early 1960s.
“I really like farce, that runaway-train style that a farce has,” Veloudos says. “It requires really good acting and very specific timing, and I’m blessed with this great cast that understands that.”
The main difference between the Lyric’s production and the ones in New York and London is size, he says, as the six different sets required will be a little more “suggestive” than fully realized in the 244-seat Lyric.
Big picture, Veloudos is not especially concerned that collaborations with other institutions, bruited a year or two ago, have not panned out. He’s working to find the company a regular rehearsal space beyond rented digs at the Boston Center for the Arts. Ask him what’s new, really, and he talks about picking up on a StageSource initiative for more diverse casting.
“When we did ‘Chinglish’ last year, I was really concerned that we weren’t going to be able to find Asian actors. I never see any Asian actors at auditions,” Veloudos says. “But boy, we announced we’re doing ‘Chinglish,’ and we had Asian actors coming out of the walls. During the run of ‘Chinglish,’ we had a Christmas party, and I said to one of the [Asian] actresses, ‘Why haven’t I seen you before?’ And she said, ‘I never thought you had anything for me.’
“Well, then, whose problem is that? I figure it’s mine, that we haven’t really opened the doors up to a diverse community,” he says.
Last season the company held an open house for actors, emphasizing diversity, and this year it’s working at it even harder, he says.
“We’ve made the commitment starting this year that we’re going to make auditions and parts available to diverse communities, when the subject matter is not race or socially connected,” he says. “I think audiences will notice that in ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ where the daughter of a main character is Asian. Not that she’s playing an Asian character, she’s playing an Englishwoman. But she was absolutely perfect for the role. I wanted someone who was tall, someone who was attractive, someone who was funny, and someone who could sing, and she could do all of those. And a good actress.”
Veloudos is upbeat about a more active, cohesive theater community. He sees signs of it in next week’s Greater Boston Theatre Expo and the support for an arts-themed mayoral debate.
“I think it’s a much bigger sense of community than there ever has been,” Veloudos says. “I think part of that is because more people are staying here, more actors are staying here certainly, more designers are staying here, people are choosing to make their careers here because they can actually make a career here now. It’s still cobbled together. I’m not going to say you’re going to be an actor in Boston and work at the same theater for a year, because you’re not. But there’s opportunity.”
Veloudos “supports and nurtures talent, he thinks about people, he thinks about what could be next for them,” says Larry Coen, who directed “Chinglish” for the Lyric last season and is now in the “One Man, Two Guvnors” cast.
“That comes from his commitment and the Lyric’s commitment to hiring local people,” Coen says. “It’s not just, ‘We’ve got to put up this play, we might have to get people from New York to fill these parts.’ ”
Springfield native Veloudos was the longtime artistic director of the Publick Theatre when he began directing occasionally for the Lyric in 1985. In 1998, after the Lyric’s founders departed, Veloudos took the wheel. He has moved a company that was once seen as stale to the front rank of local theater. His work earned him a 2006 Elliot Norton Award for Sustained Excellence.
In 2004, he divided his duties, carrying on as artistic director, with Sara Glidden as managing director. Veloudos has been working without a contract since about his third year on the job, he says, and has no plans to retire or move on.
The way Veloudos works is illustrated by the short drama of Jordan Clark and how she got cast as Miss Forsythe in the upcoming “Death of a Salesman.”
(Scene One: At Boston Center for the Arts.) Veloudos goes to a lot of plays around town, but says he often has his best times at small and fringe companies. He thinks he doesn’t get recognized as often and doesn’t have to make as much shop talk, so he can just enjoy the play, which is usually new to him. Among the ones he enjoyed this spring was “She Kills Monsters” at Company One, in which Clark starred.
Unrecognized? Not so much.
“I was told multiple times he was in the audience,” Clark says. “A couple of people in the cast know him, and at least a couple of times we thought he was there. I don’t even know which time he actually saw the show. Each time it was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be on my A game.’ ”
(Scene two: At Flour Bakery + Café in the Back Bay.) Veloudos makes lots of introductions and keeps his eye on promising local performers. Clark’s day job is at Flour, across Clarendon Street from the Lyric, and she says they “had a nice barista-customer relationship” before she knew who he was. But one day he introduced himself and mentioned he had seen and liked “She Kills Monsters.”
“I thought, Oh, God, I should be giving him free coffee,” Clark says with a laugh.
(Scene three: At the Lyric.) See “more diverse casting,” above. Clark, who is Korean-American, auditioned for the Lyric, but didn’t see Veloudos again until a callback for “One Man, Two Guvnors.” She didn’t get that part, but he recently cast her as Miss Forsythe in “Salesman,” which plays early next year.
“I had actually been turned down for, like, five roles that were meant for an Asian actress this casting season,” she says, “so I was starting to get a little disheartened that I was maybe not Asian enough. So it was nice to be cast in just a character role that doesn’t rely on my ethnicity. That’s what I’m most excited about.”