Theater Interview: The Lyric Stage’s Great Expectations

Smike (Jason Powers) and Nicholas Nickleby (Jack Cutmore-Scott) in the Lyric Stage production of Nicholas Nickelby. Photo: Mark S. Howard

Like just about everything nowadays, the word epic has been downsized, cut and packaged for the short-attention-span generation. Sure, there are ballyhooed mammoth projects, such as the recent films of James Cameron, but the director/producer pulled them off after years of preparation and with millions of dollars at his disposal.

By Chantal Mendes.
You want real, gut-wrenching epic? Take a look at The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s upcoming production of David Edgar’s award-winning stage adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel. Let’s scan some of the intimidating stats: 324 page script, 150 named characters, 24 actors, and a set that has to deal with serious threats of mid-Victorian traffic gridlock. And the local company is whipping all of this together in a matter of weeks on a budget that’s less than what was paid to keep Cameron’s Titanic or Avatar afloat for a few hours. We are dealing with the Homeric here.

The production will be presented in two parts (from October 21 to December 19). You can find news about the preparations here. Spiro Veloudos, the producing artistic director of the Lyric Stage, is the artistic mastermind/ringmaster behind the project (aided by associate director Courtney O’Connor). As opening night approaches, I decided to see how he was doing. Did he have any regrets about taking on such a huge undertaking? And what were the biggest challenges so far?

ArtsFuse: How long have you been working with Lyric Stage?

Spiro Veloudos: I started as a freelance director with the Lyric Stage in 1987. I became the artistic director of the company in 1997, and I’ve been the producing artistic director since then.

AF: So tell me a little bit about what you’ve been working on with Nicholas Nickleby.

SV: We’ve been in rehearsal now for three weeks. There are 24 actors doing 150 named characters, there are over 1,500 costume pieces, the set is one of the largest ever done at the Lyric Stage Company. This is the kind of ambitious, challenging project that stretches the artistic boundaries of our company. For example, a costume designer that is certainly one of the best in the area will be challenged by designing an epic production.

AF: So you are hoping that production takes everyone working on it out of their comfort zones?

SV: I’m not hoping this pushes their boundaries, but I know it will. And our audience is also going to be stretched by this because viewers can’t hide in a theater that’s only ten rows. It’s a three quarter theater, so the audience is part of every show. What more, we’re doing scenes in the audience so it will be a part of the play.

AF : Have you run into particularly big issues with working on a production of this scale?

SV: Well, the script is 324 pages long! A normal musical script is 108 pages long so that gives you an idea of the scale and the scope of the production. Right from the beginning everything is doubled, tripled. Actors play three or four roles each in the course of the play, they jump from roles as narrators, active participants, and casual observers. Directing this play is like directing a musical, a Shakespeare tragedy, and a family drama all at the same time.

You want epic? Smike (Jason Powers), Nicholas Nickleby (Jack Cutmore-Scott), and Mr. Squeers (Nigel Gore). Photo: Mark S. Howard

AF: How do you think the audience will react to you having actors playing more than one role?

SV: They’ll notice but hopefully won’t be distracted. The actors that I have in the company are all very gifted. One of the reasons why I chose certain actors is because of the way they could play those varied roles and have them all be very real and exciting. For example, the gifted Larry Coen (Mr. Crummles, Young Wackford, C. Cheerryble, Ensemble) can use his body and his voice in so many different ways that he can not only comfortably play many different characters but they are each incredibly believable. When we were casting the show, I was looking for actors of that nature, shape-shifters who would be able to handle multiple roles with ease.

AF: You’re not playing any characters?

SV: One of the things that people ask me is why do I direct plays since I started my career as an actor. When I direct I get the best of both worlds: as a director I get to work with all of the characters, play all the parts, tell the complete story, and become part of the unified vision of the production.

AF: What about this show is most exciting to you?

SV: It’s never played in New England or Boston and this is the first company to do it—that’s a very exciting way to work. In some ways it’s like putting on a new play even though the play’s been around since 1981. The original production opened in New York in 1981 on Broadway and won the Tony award for outstanding play. There was a planned tour of the show, which was supposed to play in Boston, but it never happened. No doubt the play’s scope had something to do with that.

AF: Do you have any specific connection to Dickens or Nickolas Nickleby that made you want to do this show?

SV: In high school I was an avid reader and one of the very first books I ever read was Great Expectations by Dickens. I got so hooked on the way Dickens tells his stories that I’ve become a great admirer of his writing.

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