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Interview: Stephen Spinella from “Spring Awakening”

 Broadway Bullet interview Stephen Spinella about "Spring Awakening" and his career in this first installment of six interviews. Spinella also discusses "Angels in America" and advice for actors.

 

Our interview with Stephen Spinella is part one of a six part series, "Going Geeky on Spring Awakening" being presented in conjuction with BroadwayWorld.com and the podcast, Broadway Bullet. At the conclusion of the series, we are giving away 10 pairs of tickets to "Spring Awakening" including a meet-and-greet with the cast and creatives afterwards. CLICK HERE for more information on the contest.

You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet vol. 17. Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.

Part two of our series with four of the cast members making their Broadway debut will be posted this weekend!

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Broadway Bullet Interview with Stephen Spinella

Broadway Bullet – Steven Spinella is one of the most esteemed actors we have on the New York stage, while he also has a healthy career in film and television as well. He is currently one of the leading characters in the new musical “Spring Awakening” on Broadway, and he stopped by the studio to talk to us about his career and “Spring Awakening”. How are you doing Steven?

Stephen Spinella – I’m very good.

BB – Well first off, I guess we’ll start with the water point of the career. You really came to prominence in the theatre scene with the one-two punch of Angels Of America volumes one and two.

SS – Volumes, that’s a good one. Yea. I think volumes is probably appropriate, yea. That was back in 92-93 or 93-94 actually I guess it was.

BB – You were involved in that process even before it hit Broadway, weren’t you?

SS – Oh yeah, Tony Kushner met when we were in graduate school in NYU and we had an extended argument one afternoon in the student lounge about, y’now the relative merits of the Village Voice verses the New York Review of books and we sort of became friends and he started directing stuff. He was in the directing program and I was in the acting program. And he put me in a couple of projects and that summer he wrote a play called “The Age Of Assassins” which I don’t think has ever been published, and asked me if I would do it. If I remember right it was a four hour evening in a very small theater on 18th street and the cast had about, I don’t know twenty different actors in it. It was a huge, huge production.

BB – Even “Angels In America” was a huge production for a straight play.

SS – Well, yea that was eight actors, but that was seven hours so I guess, you know. Well, I guess it went for length, but we doubled up and we played a lot of characters. He’s a loquacious man.

BB – How long was the process between when “Angels of America” started to come into development and when it hit Broadway?

SS – Well, we were doing another play called “Bright Room Called Day” and that was about 1985 and he said he had an idea. We were talking one afternoon, he said he had an idea to write a gay play and it would be just gay men and his preliminary idea was that it would include Roy Cohen, at least one Mormon character and it would deal with AIDS. Then the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco picked up “A Bright Room Called Day”. They actually came to see the production we did in this tiny theater on 22nd street. They decided to do the play at the Eureka and while he was doing it there with Oscar Eustis. Oscar Eustis was then the artistic director of the Eureka Theatre who is now running the Public Theatre. Oscar asked Tony, y’now if he had a gay play because it was San Francisco and Tony said, “Well I’m thinking about this play that would include Roy Cohen, a Mormon character and it would deal with AIDS.” And he said “well, if you can write it for the company I’ll commission it.” The Eureka Theatre company had three women in it and one man. So the play that originally was supposed to be all men now had to include three women, so he created the angel, Harper and Hannah. And by bringing those characters in the thing sort of grew exponentially and that’s how it turned into a two evening play.

BB – Were you shocked to win your second Tony for the same role?

SS – I was shocked to win both. I was absolutely, completely convinced that Joe Mantegna was going to win that first one. I just thought that there was no way I could possibly compete with the tour de force he did in “Democracy In America”. He has an eight page monologue in the beginning of the third act of that play and I didn’t think there was anything I could do ever to compete with that. He was just so amazing in that. I thought it was such a scene stealer role, I thought there was no way I could eclipse him on that. And we had this deal, he was sitting right behind me at the Tonys and we had this deal that if he wins I would stand up and he would give me a hug and a kiss before he ran on stage and if I won he would stand up and I would give him a hug and a kiss and he was sitting behind me and he had this panic, he told me afterwards. He said, “Y’now I suddenly had this panic as I was sitting there that if you forgot to do that and I jumped up waiting for you to give me a hug as you ran on stage the entire audience, the entire television audience would look at that and think ‘oh that poor boy, he thought he was going to win and he stood up’”, but I did remember and so it had a happy ending.

BB – That wasn’t just a winning role or show, that was a real watershed show on Broadway that garnered tons of national attention. How important do you think that has been in terms of launching your career? You’ve been continuously working since then in a lot of high profile projects.

SS – Oh, that was it. I mean that made my career. I didn’t have a career before that. I mean I hadn’t done anything really significant. I don’t think I had more than two paying jobs in New York City before I came in with that over a ten year period. I had done some regional stuff and a couple of interesting projects, but it was all regional stuff and that changed everything. That absolutely changed everything.

BB – What have been some of your favorite projects since “Angels in America”?

SS – “The Dead” which I think next to “Angels” and I think “Spring Awakening” is. I have three things in my life that I really, really treasure and that’s “Angels” and “The Dead” and “Spring Awakening”. I mean “Spring Awakening” I think is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s one of the best projects I’ve ever been a part of. I just think it’s powerfully important and an incredibly beautiful musical. But other stuff that I really, really have enjoyed is I did a wonderful production of “Travesties” at Williamstown three or four years ago. An impossibly difficult Tom Stoppard play, and just had a spectacularly good time with that and only got fifteen performances out of that but such a spectacularly good time. I had a scene with Michael Stuhlbarg and I played James Joyce, Michael played Tristan Tzara. When Stoppard wrote the play he wrote this extended scene at the end of the first act which mirrors the chapter in Ulysses’ “The Cataclysm” where there’s a question and response, question and response. And he mirrors that in “Travesties” with me asking Tristan Tzara about Dada in these incredibly complex sentences and these incredibly complex questions, to which Tzara answers with these incredibly ornate, almost Dada-ish answers. And it goes on for, like seven pages and it’s usually cut… and in fact Stoppard, I believe, wrote a cut version of it. And Gregory Boyd who directed it asked if we would be interested in reinstating the original scene, and so Stoolbarg and I being the absolute hams that we are jumped at the chance. And we had rented a house, actually he had rented the house and I hated the place I was staying so he let me stay in one of the spare rooms, and so over breakfast every morning we would sit there and we would run this twelve minute scene and walking to the theater we would run this twelve minute scene. And it turned into one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had on a stage, just working with Stoolbarg on that scene and doing that scene for fifteen performances. It’s sublime, it was absolutely sublime. Incredibly difficult scene, but what a pleasure it was to play in the end.

BB – As an actor you’ve done numerous things in stage, television and film, and I’m kind of curious from an actor’s standpoint what do you feel the differences technique-wise that you have to change up for each medium?

SS – Well, you do everything internally the same. You live internally the same way. Your external life… I had a wonderful teacher once who talked to me about when I was doing a scene from “The Importance of Being Ernest” and she said something that has sort of translated into a lot of things. She said, “Remember that these people, they don’t have any television and they don’t listen to the stereo and they don’t have the things that make our world smaller, that fill our rooms with music and sound and the only thing that fills their rooms with music and sound is them actually making the music or them speaking.” And so the voice and the words that you say are the things that fill the room. They’re the things that make the energy in the room and it was kind of an epiphany in a way, because you live larger in the theater. In television you really need to just take up the space between you and the camera, but on the stage you have to take up the entire space and yet you still have to have a real internal human life. So that for me is the biggest difference in terms of performance. In building something, you don’t get that kind of rehearsal in film and television, so you build it differently. You build it very, very much in film and television, especially in television, on yourself, and it’s very rare that you have the opportunity to create something that is significantly other than yourself. There are so many actors… they’ll just find the actor that is that. I just got to do a really great thing on “Nip/Tuck” where I played someone who is incredibly tight and constrained and just really a kind of a crazy scientist guy who shows virtually no emotion but is incredibly emotional. And it was a great scene because I got to do it with Rosie O’Donnell. And she was Rosie, she was like this powerhouse and I played this incredibly tight, anal scientist and that was a real departure because they normally would get an actor who does that all the time. And so they gave it to me, I got the opportunity to do it and it was really fun and really unusual to play that kind of role because usually you play some kind of extension of yourself. Because you have so little time you have to build it on yourself, where as in the theater like one of the characters I play in “Spring Awakening” because I play I think nine characters in this, one of the larger characters I play is a pinched, really mean, incredibly ancient, monstrous man. A teacher, the headmaster of a school, I had to find what that guy was, I mean that’s something I would never play in film or television. They would just get that guy. And there was a long process of finding out how comedic he was and I do the scene with Christine Estabrook and we had to figure out together how it would work best. So in the theater you get this long process of building, almost from just the words, the character and in that way it’s very, very different.

BB – So I guess this is a good time to start talking about “Spring Awakening”. I find it interesting that for such a straight actor, so to speak, now you’re drawn to your second musical on Broadway.

SS – Yea. I mean I don’t sing much and I don’t dance much at all. I lucked out in “The Dead” because they found a wonderful role. Freddy Mallins who is a drunk so I got to sing the drunk song and I was actually taking a lot of wonderful vocal lessons for, like a few years. I had been studying because I had had such an abominable audition for the MC in “Cabaret”. I was so horrified by it and I just thought I’m never going to go through, I mean I literally apologized for throughout the entire audition. “Oh I’m sorry, that sounds so bad. Can I try that again?” And then of course I didn’t get the part and I swore that I would never do that again because I love musicals and I wanted to do something like that. I started taking singing lessons. And “The Dead” came along and didn’t require that I have a great voice and I sang the drunk’s song and had an excellent time and that was such an incredibly beautiful piece of theater. And then in this, I play all of the adult men and Kristina Estabrook plays all the adult women. We don’t have any songs, we sing in a few songs so there’s not a lot of vocal requirement in that sense. But I’m legitimately the supporting actor in this, I create the scene, I create the conflict. My job is to put those kids under enough pressure in the story that I’m involved with them, put the screws to them in such a way it justifies what they do. So in that sense I’m the supporting actor. I always call it the engine of the play. If you have a character like Karen Ziemba’s character in “Contact” a few years back, her husband, I would say, is the engine in that he generated within her the energy for her to do what she had to do, so that he’s the thing that drives her to do what she has to do. And I function in a lot of ways as the engine in this, so I have to get the scene to a certain place so the kids have to do what they have to do.

BB – Now I don’t think it’s unusual anymore for actors to play multiple roles in theater things, but what struck me as a bit different about this is the range of characters and the tone. A lot of time there’s a comedic angle playing so many characters but for instance there is one particular scene where you have to switch on a dime, where you go from very emotional silent scene, you don’t actually have any lines in it, but you just kind of break down over the loss of your son and then two seconds later you’re switching over to a character…

SS – The headmaster, yea. You know, actually it was something that really scared me at first. But y’now, actors, what we’re doing up there is even though the affect, the emotional life is coursing through us, it’s coursing through us on the energy of our imagination. And I’m not really grieving at the grave of my son, but I am really grieving at the grave of my son. I mean I imagine that I’m there and when I turn that off everything stops. Y’now I’m not an emotional recall actor, I don’t go out there and remember my father’s funeral or that sort of thing, I go out there and grieve at the grave of my son. And so when I turn that off, even though my body is still very much recovering from that grief, the grief is done. And what’s great about it then is I get to go into Knockenbrook, the mean, nasty headmaster, and kick the crap out of poor Melchior. And because he’s so fierce and monstrous in that scene I have all of this facility because, y’now everything has been incredibly alive in the previous scene grieving at the grave of my son. So while it is immensely difficult to build, it has been and it is still an ongoing process. I mean just yesterday Michael (Mayer) and I have been still working on exactly how he leaves and other details in the scene to be very, very specific about what happens in the story where I have no lines and I grieve at my son’s grave site. Building it has been incredibly hard, but playing it… maybe you should ask me in three or four months or six months how hard it is to play it. But playing it at this point, it’s really a leap of imagination and depending on how well I can do that decides how well I can do the scene at the grave and then going into the next scene is just a matter of letting go of what I am imagining and moving on to the new scene I have to imagine, the new event.

BB – How long was the process between the producers courting you and you deciding you wanted to take the show? Is it something you jumped at immediately or is this something that took a little coaxing?

SS – Well, Michael and I went to NYU together, he was in the acting program. He was a year after me in the acting program so I’ve known Michael for twenty five years. So I knew about this project, I didn’t see it this summer. When they called me with the offer I said “Oh my god, I’m very excited. Send me the script.” My agents made it sound like really the only thing we’re concerned about is that it’s not going to be enough for you to do.

BB – On paper I can see that it doesn’t look like an exciting role, although you embody all the characters with so much life and you really do give a fantastic performance, but I can imagine on paper it’s not…

SS – Well, you know I’ve got to say I didn’t really know what they were talking about because I got that script and I was like, “Whoa, it looks like he’s all the way through.” I don’t know what you mean by there’s not going to be enough for me to do, it seems like there’s an awful lot for me to do. And during the rehearsal process they added things and they changed things and then they added more things and they brought in a whole character and then that whole character went away again and I mean, it was like there’s been a lot for me to do. And also the challenge of doing nine different characters, many of which are in very similar situations. I mean a lot of the fathers are in very similar situations and Michael’s job is to tell the story of the play and my job is to tell the story of each of the individual characters, so he’ll give me the same note about three different fathers and I’ve got to find to make that same note, “You got to be harder on them” or “Push them further”, I’ve got to find a way to those three notes very different for each character and so three different fathers don’t come off looking exactly the same. And that has been arduous, you know it has been a challenge and it’s an ongoing challenge and there are characters that you… what is the way to say this without diminishing the other characters? There are characters that you look forward to and, like Moritz’s father, who’s name is Renter, his name is Renter Schteifel. And so Renter, for me, is even though I actually have more to say as Malcior’s (sp?) father but because of what happens to Moritz’s father, it’s a character I have sort of fallen in love with more. It’s a more dangerous character for me, because he walks a very terrifying line and I’m drawn to those characters more and I sort of fall in love with those characters more and look forward to them more. The nasty headmaster, we just have these two little blips in the first act and then in the third act where we crucify the poor boy, again my favorite one is the third act one.

BB – Which leads to a very funny song.

SS – Oh, yea. Yea. No, no. And you want to know something? The punch line of the first line of that song is always at the back of my head. I have to build that scene, and that’s again what I mean about being the engine of the scene.

BB – We can say the line, I mean it’s internet radio.

SS – Oh no, I don’t want to give it away. Let them see, let them see.

BB – It’s in the Playbill.

SS – It’s in the Playbill?

BB – Yea, the song title.

SS – Oh yea, but we don’t have to give it away though. No, no, lets’ not give it away. It’s such a great moment when they, when that song comes out. And it’s just, you know, but that’s again what I mean about being the engine is that I know what the first line of that song, which is also the title of the song is and I have to set up the situation so completely so that when he says that everybody in the audience laughs with recognition because they all know what that is like and know what it’s like to be there. So that’s another reason I really enjoy that scene, I have a place to go.

BB – So as we start wrapping up here, one of the things I’m sure that a lot of listeners might be interested in is what would be a couple of your biggest tips for up and coming actors trying to pursue a career here on stage?

SS – I would say go to a really good school. And I would say get your favorite people to work with who have the best ideas about the theater and do stuff. Make things happen, put up stuff, put up vanity projects, put up whatever you can. I mean, Kushner had a group of people around him for years, and he would write plays and we would do them and we did it again and again and again. And finally one of them got noticed and things started to happen and then you just got to try to be as good and as professional. And it’s hard to say this because there’s so many creeps and assholes out there, but you sort of have to be as easy going as you can. You got to recognize the creeps and the assholes and try to avoid them, but when you’re working with really good people appreciate that and have a certain amount of humility and always recognize that there is someone who knows more than you and that there’s someone you can learn from. But really, mostly I would say gather together your favorite peers and make things happen for yourselves.

Geeky Question #1. What was your very first play and the role you were?

SS – Answer in Vol. 17 of Broadway Bullet

Geeky Question #2. you mentioned that you were in “The Age of Assassins” by Tony Kushner which was never produced elsewhere, what was your role in that show?

SS – Well, I played a number of roles but the big role, the assassin that I played in “Age of Assassins” was Luigi Lucani who assassinated the empress of Austria by sticking a knife through her bodice. Her corset was so tight that she didn’t bleed and she went all the way back to her hotel room and died of internal bleeding. Anyway, Luigi Lucani I guess is the answer to that question.

BB – Alright, well I know you have to head back to rehearsals for “Spring Awakening” but I thank you very much coming and taking the time to share so much information about yourself with our audience.

SS – Thank you very much.

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You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet vol. 17. Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.

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