Last spring, as Spiro Veloudos was overseeing rehearsals for “Pacific Overtures,’’ the 10th and last in his cycle of musicals by his beloved Stephen Sondheim, the words of the show’s final number, “Next,’’ suddenly took on a new meaning for him.
“Winds are blowing/ See what’s coming/ See what’s going/ Next!/ Roads are turning/ Journey with them/ A little learning/ Next!’’ As he listened to those lyrics, Veloudos thought to himself: “OK, Spiro, what’s next? Where are you going next?’’
He’s about to find out. After 21 years as the producing artistic director of Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Veloudos is stepping down and moving on.
No longer will he be the mustachioed face and booming voice of Lyric Stage. At 67, having maintained leadership of the company while fighting his way through a major health crisis and an arduous recovery, Veloudos has decided to relinquish center stage. From now on, he will focus his time and energy on his first love, directing.
“I’m not going to sit at home and watch ‘Judge Judy,’ ’’ he emphasizes during an interview outside a coffee shop near his Brighton home, already mapping out the landscape he’ll now be navigating as a freelance director. “I’m not retiring from theater by any means. But the administrative aspect of the job, I’ve done it enough.’’
Those duties will now fall to former managing director Matt Chapuran, who has returned to Lyric Stage in the newly created position of executive director, and to associate artistic director Courtney O’Connor, who will serve as acting artistic director. Veloudos calls Chapuran “an excellent choice’’ and says he hopes O’Connor will be named to the permanent artistic director position.
The leadership change will be a jolt to theatergoers who’ve gotten used to seeing Veloudos roam the lobby and schmooze before the curtain, then deliver pre-show speeches with the flair of the actor he once was. (He never deviated so much as a word from his tried-and-true script, complete with mock-solemn thundering against the “odious’’ practice of texting during shows.) While he’ll be helming two productions at Lyric Stage this season — “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express’’ next month and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder’’ next spring — the Spiro Veloudos era at Lyric Stage is officially over.
Indeed, from now on, Veloudos will be pitching his services as a director not just to Lyric Stage — where he has helmed more than 65 productions — but to other theater companies in the Boston area. He’s got his eye on out-of-state opportunities as well. “Have Gun — Will Travel. I think that’s what my business card will be,’’ Veloudos jokes, alluding to an old TV western about a gunfighter for hire.
Almost three years have passed since a diabetes-related infection forced the amputation of his left leg below the knee. It took a while for him to adjust to a prosthetic limb, and he had setbacks along the way, including a fall that required him to use a wheelchair for a time. But through it all he managed to direct the shows he was scheduled to direct, and late on a recent weekday afternoon, Veloudos looks pretty nimble as he makes his way across Washington Street in Brighton. As he takes a seat, jovially describing his cane as “mostly a prop,’’ he seems content with his decision to retire from Lyric Stage — a decision arrived at after a period of soul-searching during a board-approved sabbatical — and energized by the new professional vistas that lie ahead.
“I don’t have a lot of disappointments,’’ Veloudos says. “I’m proud of what we accomplished, I’m proud of the artists, and I’m proud of the company. I’m really proud of where I started and where I ended up.’’
Over the course of his career in Boston — which included a stint of nearly two decades as artistic director of the Publick Theatre — Veloudos was a leading force in solidifying the role of midsize and small companies as an essential part of Boston’s theatrical identity. There was a time, he recalls, when “people said, ‘Hey, is there theater beyond the corner of Tremont and Boylston?’ ” In both word and deed, the answer Veloudos gave was: “There is.’’
No other theater company in Boston is as indelibly imprinted with its leader’s personality as Lyric Stage has been, and few have been more wedded to that leader’s artistic sensibility. Veloudos directed several shows a year himself, and he was vigilant about maintaining a high standard of quality when he yielded his company’s three-quarters-thrust stage to other directors.
Over time, he turned the 244-seat Lyric Stage into a combination of launching pad and home for many talented young actors and actresses, directors, and designers, trying to convince them they could forge theater careers in Boston. Not all of them stayed, of course, but even a partial list of performers for whom Veloudos provided an early showcase is an impressive one: Erica Spyres, Davron S. Monroe, Jared Troilo, Omar Robinson, Patrick Varner, Maritza Bostic. Veloudos has also championed such directors as A. Nora Long, Rachel Bertone, and Ilyse Robbins.
His mission from the start, he says, was “to produce theater that was entertaining, challenging, and inspiring,’’ before adding pointedly: “And to do it with local people.’’
As often as not, they were people of color. Under his leadership, Lyric Stage featured casts that were among the most diverse in the city, not just in productions of plays like Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark’’ and David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish’’ where diversity was built into the script, but also in works where it was not, such as Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.’’
“The right thing to do is include everybody but not patronize anyone,’’ Veloudos says in a matter-of-fact way. Last year he embraced the chance to work with the Front Porch Arts Collective, a new, black-led theater company, presenting a coproduction of Daniel Beaty’s “Breath & Imagination’’ that was helmed by actor and Front Porch leader Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who was making his professional directing debut. (At the time, Parent told the Globe he was “so grateful for Spiro’s confidence in me.’’)
It would not be accurate to call Lyric Stage cutting edge, but a certain eclecticism characterized the company’s production slate under Veloudos. Yes, you would encounter familiar titles like “Gypsy,’’ “My Fair Lady,’’ and “Death of a Salesman,’’ but Veloudos was not afraid to challenge audiences with works like Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play’’ or Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves.’’ (He says he believes there should be more emphasis in Boston theater on new plays, adding, “There needs to be a more adventurous audience.’’) In 2010, assisted by O’Connor, Veloudos staged a six-hour, two-part production of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.’’ He counts that as one of his proudest achievements, also citing as favorites his productions of “Assassins,’’ “Sunday in the Park With George,’’ and “Noises Off.’’ During his tenure, Lyric Stage won 40 Elliot Norton Awards from the Boston Theater Critics Association. In 2006 the BTCA gave Veloudos its highest honor, the Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence.
“I rely on great artists,’’ Veloudos says. “I’ve been very lucky.’’
The Lyric Stage audience has proven a doggedly loyal one, with the year-to-year renewal rate among subscribers consistently hitting 75 percent. When Veloudos took over at Lyric Stage in 1998, the company’s annual budget was $586,000 for seven productions. By last season, he says, it had grown to $2.3 million for seven shows. But Veloudos readily acknowledges he will not miss the pressures of fundraising. So what will he miss?
He cites the challenges, excitement, and anticipation of choosing the season, which builds to that moment when, he says, “You start to see things fall into place.’’ And, of course, he will miss Lyric Stage itself.
“Its legacy is, finally, my legacy,’’ says Veloudos. “It’s been a nice ride.’’