By Christina Constantine
BU News Service
BOSTON – The scent of coffee and Sunday morning nostalgia fills the air of the packed eatery. Behind the chatter of conversation is the consistent rhythm of beating eggs in a bowl. A waitress skips over to the table and asks, “How are you doing Spiro? Can I get you something to drink?”
Spiro Veloudos, a regular at The Breakfast Club, orders without a glance at the menu.
“I’d like a coffee,” he said, “And a tomato juice with ice.”
It’s his routine order—inspired by his love for Bloody Marys.
Veloudos’ presence in the room is much like his ordering style. His voice carries and bystanders can’t help but notice his aura. He’s got a cinematic stache, practically out of a movie, and John Lennon eyeglasses. With slacks and a blazer, he wears a red shirt, left unbuttoned atop. His cane, or “prop,” is by his side, resting against the booth.
“Can I get a Niko, please?” he asks the waitress.
As a proud Greek in a diner owned by a Greek, it’s only fitting that he orders the Kalamata olive twist on eggs benedict.
“Eggs poached loose,” he said firmly. “I don’t want them to come back like golf balls.”
The Breakfast Club’s tribute to the ’80s goes beyond its namesake film: the diner’s walls are lined with the decade’s cinematic collectibles. The 1985 Molly Ringwald classic also happens to mark the year that Spiro Veloudos, 67, started as a director in Boston. After a 30-year career, most of it spent as the producing artistic director at The Lyric Stage Company—Boston’s oldest professional theater—Veloudos sets the theater’s vision.
From the start, he wanted to revamp the theater scene by focusing on contemporary works and prioritizing local actors.
After 22 years, 40 Eliot Norton Awards and 65 productions, Veloudos recently announced his retirement from The Lyric, which sits on Clarendon Street.
His legacy includes the nurture and growth of Boston’s theater community. While he is stepping down from a hectic administrative role, Veloudos said he cannot imagine a life without storytelling and directing.
It was pouring rain.
In the spring of 1970 Veloudos and his high school best friend were driving to his audition for Emerson College’s theater program. The rain plastered against the windshield, while driving on I-95 from New London, Conn.
Midway through the trip, in Providence, Rhode Island, the windshield wipers came to a halt.
“I still remember that day,” he said nostalgically this fall.
The drama of making it to Boston influenced the rest of his scene-driven career: full of passion and drive. His dream was put on pause after being rejected from Emerson the first time around, but today he is a graduate and adjunct faculty member of the college.
His passion for the arts came at a far younger age. As a sixth-grader in Springfield he discovered his interest in theater. At the Capitol Theater’s back-to-school events, Veloudos would sneak into screenings.
“I said, well, if I go downstairs to the bathroom and stay there, because the changeover was 10 or 15 minutes, I could see the movie,” he said. “The movie I saw was of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man and I was hooked.”
His mother, who later subscribed to the theater, explained that it was first a musical performed in New York. He called The Music Man his “moment of epiphany.”
In these early years, he fed his interest with stories.
“I was an avid reader, which has made me the fount of useless knowledge.”
Being a literary database has been an asset to understanding nuance, essential for a director.
“You have to know what’s going on in the world and be aware of it,” he told his students. “You will be ready for the State Department before you are ready to be a director, because you have to negotiate all the time.”
Veloudos uses The Lyric’s past production of Sweeney Todd when recalling his love for composer Stephen Sondheim.
“It amazed me how many people had not seen it before,” Veloudos said. “They had heard of it, but never seen it, and how they were surprised by it—some pleasantly and some not so much.”
His greatest motivation was always to tell a new story to some and freshly retell it to others. His motto remains, “If it’s an interesting story, I want to tell it.”
The lobby of The Lyric Stage Company is empty.
As the elevator doors open, Veloudos grabs his cane and walks out—his prosthetic left leg slowing him down. He takes a seat at the row of tables that overlook the mezzanine and pops open a can of sugar-free Coke, taking in the sights of a place oh so familiar.
In preparation for the production meeting, the manager comes in and greets him—ready to talk shop.
“I’m really excited to hear your thoughts on everything,” she said.
While they debate the use of fire in their 1900s piece, a handful of The Lyric’s finest filter in and out of the elevator, each stopping with open arms, ready to greet Veloudos.
Courtney O’Connor—the acting artistic director and a longtime friend—exits the elevator.
With a smile, she greets him and delivers the mail he’s missed since last visiting the theater. He gestures to his empty office, tucked beside the elevators, just steps away from the heart of the theater.
“The first five years, before the board decided to hire a managing director, I was here seven days a week—easily 80 plus hours,” he said.
Out of the theater, into the lobby, comes Scott Edminston: a director and Dean of Theater at Boston Conservatory. He warmly greets Veloudos and they chat about the latest acting prospect. He believes that Veloudos changed the narrative around New York being the destination in theater. Boston was no longer “the freeway by which good theater was traveling somewhere else.”
One of his greatest contributions was welcoming women and members of the LGBTQ community to the theater.
“I give him credit for being really responsive to the world and helping us to envision a new kind of diversity and inclusion in Boston theater,” O’Connor said, calling him a “force that is larger than life.”
After running theaters for more than 30 years, he is able to champion people.
“The number of people who can say, yeah, he strongly influenced my career or decision to stay in Boston—the list is massive,” she said. “The legacy he has left behind is this belief in the Boston actor.”
The Lyric itself grew during his time from what Veloudos calls “the theater above the hardware store.” From a tiny one room theater, The Lyric grew into one of the most dynamic stage companies in the city.
He took on his formal role as artistic director in 1997, a point of turbulence in The Lyric’s politics.
“It was a very consistent, safe theater company that did things from the western canon,” he said. “Every once in a while they did a new thing, and oddly I would be the one to direct it.”
He made his intentions known to the board, he didn’t intend on being the “curator of a museum” and maintaining the historically set themes. His first productions set the precedent: Stephen Sondheim’s Assassin, which was outside the company’s comfort zone.
“I wanted to make a statement about what I was going to keep doing,” he said. “I’m not going to turn my back on the traditions of The Lyric, but at the same time we have to move forward.”
And over the years, Veloudos sought to demonstrate this through his work and casting, while remaining guided by the Lyric’s tagline of “your theatrical home.” He ensured the Lyric opened its doors to everyone and grew into a diverse and inclusive stage.
During his nearly two decades at the company, Veloudos can only recall bringing in three actors from New York. He remained focused on manifesting his local vision. The Eliot Norton Awards recognized this and in 2006 granted Veloudos the Prize for Sustained Excellence, Boston’s most prestigious theater award.
His time at The Lyric was also full of great stories, both on and off the stage—one of his favorites is when he borrowed a friend’s New England Emmy for a prop and the cast accidentally broke it. After a frantic call to the Academy, he had the real-life prop speedily replaced.
Veloudos’ professional move forward was also driven by the stage. The song “Next,” from Pacific Overtures and “Move On,” from Sunday in the Park with George, were his symbolic cues from the theater.
“They all hit me at the same time and I thought, what’s next? Moving on,” he said.
Veloudos’ battle with Type 2 diabetes was a major factor leading to his retirement. While his 2016 leg amputation didn’t stop him from directing, it has been a physical setback.
“Can I sit here and say with a straight face that I wasn’t depressed? Of course not,” he said.
He resorted to what he called the egg-timer depression: three minutes of self-pity.
“Someone once asked me, ‘What do you do when the three minutes are up and you are still depressed?’” Veloudos said. “I said, you reset the timer.”
As for his position, Veloudos hopes O’Connor takes the reigns and brings female representation to The Lyric’s administration. His last show is what O’Connor called “the end of his Sondheim cycle,” noting that Veloudos is a Sondheim super-fan.
“If it were anyone that was going to help him take that step, it would be Sondheim,” O’Connor said.
Veloudos has considered parting ways with his role for the past two years. Retirement doesn’t mean he’ll slow down artistically, he said.
He joked that he has already applied to new jobs—as far as Canada—with hopes to move on to less demanding work.
“I still want to focus on directing,” he said. “That’s the prop that holds up my house.”
The man is a brilliant and dynamic force in theater. I saw his work as early as 1979 or 1980 at the Boston Arts Group. He was an inspiration to me even then, when I was just running the elevator and working as house manager.