Spiro Veloudos, larger-than-life force in Boston theater, dies at 71


Spiro Veloudos, one of the most colorful and consequential figures in Boston theater history, has died at the age of 71.

His death in his Boston home was confirmed Monday night by his sister, Shelia Demetriadis, who lives just outside of Richmond, Va.

Demetriadis said she did not know the cause of death. Mr. Veloudos had battled complications from diabetes for years, and in 2016 a diabetes-related infection required the amputation of his left leg below the knee.

The longtime producing artistic director of Lyric Stage Company of Boston, and, before that, the leader of the Publick Theatre, Mr. Veloudos put his own directorial stamp on scores of dramas and musicals while also playing a central role in the emergence of midsize theaters as a vital force in Boston.

Believing the stage should reflect both the local community and the wider world, Mr. Veloudos was an early champion of diversity in casting, and he made it a priority to open doors for up-and-coming women directors. Part of his mission — now his legacy — was the discovery and nurturing of many young theater artists, whom he encouraged to remain in Boston rather than automatically decamp for New York or elsewhere.

Explaining his own career path, Mr. Veloudos told the Globe in 2006: “I started as an actor, but it became obvious to me that at some point in my life, I would be a director. It suited, for lack of a better term, my need for controlling things.”

Indeed, Lyric Stage patrons grew accustomed to the sight of the burly, 6-foot-tall Mr. Veloudos roaming the lobby of his theater on Clarendon Street before performances, chatting with audience members and not-so-casually buttonholing reviewers. (In sports, it would be called working the refs.) Then, with practiced élan, Mr. Veloudos would take the stage and deliver pre-show remarks that were sometimes more entertaining than the show itself, rife with thunderous, mock-solemn warnings against the “odious” practice of texting during performances.

When he retired from Lyric Stage in 2019 after more than two decades there, having earlier spent nearly two decades leading the Publick, Mr. Veloudos told the Globe that his goal across the years had been “to produce theater that was entertaining, challenging, and inspiring.” Then he added pointedly: “And to do it with local people.”

That loyalty had been reciprocated when, in 2016, Mr. Veloudos faced the fight of his life. When part of his leg was amputated, the Boston theater community immediately rallied to his side. Actors, directors, designers, and administrators whom Mr. Veloudos had helped along the way brought food, magazines, books, and crossword puzzles to his hospital room, as well as small Christmas trees. Once he was back home, they drove him to medical appointments and even went clothes shopping for him.

It was a reflection of the fact that he inspired considerable affection, even though he had a tempestuous streak, especially when he was younger. “Spiro has been part of our lives,” veteran actress Paula Plum explained at the time. “Boston theater is his family.”

His sister said of her brother: “He looked on the surface like he was blustering. But underneath, he was kindhearted. He was a second father to my kids.”

Mr. Veloudos introduced his niece, Dee Demetriadis, and his nephew, Stefan Demetriadis, both the children of his sister, to his world. When Dee Demetriadis was a student at Emerson College, she worked at the concession stand at Lyric Stage. Stefan Demetriadis played trombone and euphonium in the Lyric Stage production of “Urinetown.’’

“I’ll miss our relationship a lot,” said Dee Demetriadis. “A lot of laughter at holidays, and a lot of great advice over the years whenever I faced any kind of situation.”

During his severe medical challenge, Mr. Veloudos was moved by the outpouring of support and companionship from the local theater community. “It’s kind of like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ” he said in a 2017 Globe interview. “You don’t know how you’ve touched people until people come out and say, ‘You gave me my first job.’ . . . It made me say, ‘I want to beat this thing.’ “

Over time, he did, but there were major setbacks and struggles. Though Mr. Veloudos managed to return to his Lyric Stage post, it wasn’t long before he decided to relinquish the pressure-laden job of running a theater company and focus exclusively on directing.

After so many years as a ubiquitous, imposing, and vital presence, his absence left a hole. Mr. Veloudos usually directed nearly half of the company’s shows each season himself. All told, he helmed more than 65 productions at Lyric Stage (some of them before he became artistic director). Known as an insightful interpreter of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals, Mr. Veloudos directed 10 of them at Lyric Stage, the last one being the challenging “Pacific Overtures.”

Throughout his career, there was an ineffable quality to a Spiro Veloudos production, perhaps captured best in 2006 by his friend Rick Lombardo, the former leader of the New Repertory Theatre: “That big Greek heart: You always feel that somewhere in his work.”

Mr. Veloudos defined his work in broad civic terms. Always, he was driven by the conviction that midsize and small theaters, not the city’s large institutional companies or commercial playhouses, represented the true backbone of the Boston theater community. It bothered him when people would ask, as he put it, “Hey, is there theater beyond the corner of Tremont and Boylston?”

Always, Mr. Veloudos fought to ensure that the answer was yes.

He operated as a kind of talent scout, heading out into the city to see as many small, fringe, and college theater productions as he could, always on the lookout for fresh faces and voices who might warrant a shot at Lyric Stage. There are working actors, directors, and designers all around the Boston area today whose careers were either launched or advanced by Mr. Veloudos.

Mr. Veloudos was considered a strong supporter of women directors, including Summer L. Williams, Courtney O’Connor, A. Nora Long, Dawn M. Simmons, Rachel Bertone, and Ilyse Robbins. He strongly backed O’Connor to succeed him as head of Lyric Stage, and she was chosen for the post.

“When he champions people, it is not just lip service,” O’Connor told the Globe in 2019, after she became artistic director. “It’s so hard to even talk about how much he means to me. He has been a voice in my life for almost the entirety of my career. He gave me my first opportunity, and ever since it has been an ongoing mentorship: challenging me, pushing me, giving me the opportunities that have enabled me to grow as an artist. On top of that he has been a friend.”

Mr. Veloudos made sure to showcase performers of color in a wide variety of roles and provided early opportunities to Black actors, including Davron S. Monroe, Lindsey McWhorter, Omar Robinson, Maritza Bostic, and Brandon G. Green. The Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black-led theater company whose goal is to advance racial equality through theater, opted to partner with Lyric Stage for “Breath & Imagination,” about the pioneering Black tenor Roland Hayes. Explaining the choice in 2018, Front Porch cofounder Maurice Emmanuel Parent said that the Veloudos-led Lyric Stage was “committed to racial diversity and nontraditional casting.”

Mr. Veloudos began his theater career as an actor, and he specialized, unsurprisingly, in portrayals of outsize characters such as Prospero in “The Tempest,” Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing,” and Cyrano in “Cyrano de Bergerac.” In 2009, after not having acted for six years, Mr. Veloudos played Big Daddy in a Lyric Stage production of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

“He’s Big Daddy,” director Scott Edmiston said then, explaining his casting choice. “It’s hard to find a Big Daddy that has the power and authority you want him to have. I thought, ‘What about Spiro?’ “

When Mr. Veloudos was growing up in Springfield in the 1960s, his mother took him to productions like “Kismet” and “Bells Are Ringing,” but his interest in theater was really kindled by Robert Preston’s portrayal of the bombastic Harold Hill in the film version of “The Music Man.”

The first Broadway show Mr. Veloudos saw was “Fiddler on the Roof,” and he never forgot the thrill of Zero Mostel’s performance as Tevye. (Later, Veloudos would get to play Tevye himself, as well as another role Mostel was famous for, “Pseudolus,” in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”)

After his participation in school plays convinced him he should be an actor. Mr. Veloudos attended Emerson College. Upon graduating in 1974, he spent several years performing at the Publick Theatre, then made a one-year sojourn in New York. Returning to Boston, he was offered the artistic directorship at the Publick, which presented a summer season of shows at an outdoor amphitheater on Soldiers Field Road.

Mr. Veloudos ran the theater for the next 17 years, with his work at the Publick ranging from Shakespeare to Stoppard to Sondheim. He was often forced to operate on a shoestring budget. To bankroll a production of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” Mr. Veloudos had to borrow $2,500 from the mother of his then-girlfriend.

In 1998, Mr. Veloudos got an opportunity that would define his career and reshape the Boston theater landscape when he was named producing artistic director at Lyric Stage, succeeding company founders Ron Ritchell and Polly Hogan.

At a company then known for its focus on the classics, Mr. Veloudos ruffled some feathers as he set about sharpening Lyric Stage’s artistic profile with edgy musicals like “Assassins” and, later, “Urinetown,” as well as challenging dramas like Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” and Caryl Churchill’s “A Number.” (Coincidentally but fittingly, a production of Sondheim’s “Assassins” is currently onstage at the Lyric.)

“I had felt that the work that the Lyric was doing was museum-like, tired, musty,” Mr. Veloudos told the Globe’s Ed Siegel in 2006. “I tried to do two things — establish the Lyric as a contemporary theater company, and secondly, frankly, bring down the median age of the audience. The way you do that is with programming. People want to see themselves onstage, so we started to find things that were more contemporary to a younger audience.”

In a 2014 interview with the My Entertainment World website, Mr. Veloudos was asked: “What makes a play or musical worth staging at the Lyric for you?” The answer Mr. Veloudos gave was, as usual, straightforward rather than abstract or theoretical, and it offered an insight into the overall ethos that guided him during a long career in theater.

“For me, it’s really about the story,” he said. “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.”

In 2010, Mr. Veloudos took an especially big swing with an ambitious, two-part “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.” That production featured a cast of 24, who juggled more than 150 speaking parts.

“Nicholas Nickleby” won the Elliot Norton Award for outstanding midsize production by the Boston Theater Critics Association, and Veloudos won for his direction. They were among the 40 Norton Awards that Lyric Stage earned during his tenure. As an indication of his range, those awards were for productions of works as different as the raunchy puppet musical “Avenue Q,” Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” Stephen Karam’s “Speech & Debate,” David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and three works by Veloudos’s beloved Sondheim: “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods,” and “Assassins.”

Consistency was a hallmark of Lyric Stage during Veloudos’s tenure. He made space on his stage for works by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Caryl Churchill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, Simon Gray, Tracy Letts, and Oscar Wilde — and also for adventurous new works including Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue,” Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves,” and Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play.” He reached out to Boston’s diverse communities with productions of works like David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish” and Quiara Alegria Hudes’s “Water by the Spoonful.”

In 2006, Mr. Veloudos won the Boston Theater Critics Association’s highest honor, the Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence. That same year, the Globe’s Siegel wrote that Veloudos “has been one of the most instrumental figures — perhaps even the key person — in the growth of the local theater scene.”

A memorial service in the Boston area for Mr. Veloudos will be scheduled at a later date, according to his longtime friend Rebecca Curtiss. He is survived by his sister, niece, and nephew.