by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Whether you know him as Prior Walter in the original Broadway productions of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America plays or are just meeting him in Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn, one of the first things you notice about the award-winning actor Stephen Spinella is his truly giving nature and his love for theater. Passionate, dedicated and inquisitive, he brings a heart and vulnerability to the role of Chris that is a joy to watch. We sat down during the early days of rehearsal to talk about the language of Velocity, the birth of Angels, and the moment he knew he wanted to be an actor.
What attracted you to The Velocity of Autumn and the role of Chris?
There are incredibly beautiful, lyrical passages in The Velocity of Autumn, and I love that, but mostly, it’s the speech of the way most of us speak. There's nothing heightened about it. Eric allows it to be deliberately clumsy. I've never seen that before, and I found it really interesting. I've never run across a new play that had such an exquisite ear for unadorned language – sentences that are kind of clumsy, attempts at wit that fall completely flat – I’m not particularly witty. Sometimes I attempt to be witty and it just doesn't work. And I've never seen anyone actually capture that.
Also, I wanted to do it because I get to act with Estelle Parsons. She asked me to do it, and I have admired her for forever and, you know, you don't pass up chances like that.
How similar are you to Chris?
We're not very much alike at all. My process for acting is: I start with myself, and then as I realize, "Oh, well, this isn't what I would do" I imagine what I would do if I was the kind of person who did this kind of thing and I do that. But everything comes from me, so it really is a way of editing away things about myself and also just discovering in the play - what the play is asking me to do, and then just doing that.
You won the Tony Award for your portrayal of Prior Walter in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America plays. Did you know at the time that you were part of something theater-changing?
That was a really, really long process. Tony first talked to me about it in 1986, I want to say, about an idea he had for writing a play about gay men and Roy Cohn and AIDS and Mormons. And then he did one of his other plays at the Eureka Theatre and told Oskar Eustis (then the Artistic Director) about the idea and Oskar said, "We'll commission it." So Tony wrote it for the Eureka company, which included three women, so he expanded the play to include three women characters.
The first time I actually worked on the play was a workshop in the summer of 1989. Tony didn't have a page written, we just talked about things and then, about nine months later, we did a reading of the first play, which he wrote pretty intact. It came out pretty much the play that you see, Millennium Approaches.
Then Oskar was hired as Associate Artistic Director at the Mark Taper Forum. So the first full production of Millennium happened in Los Angeles. We did it at the Anson Ford Theater, in the little theater underneath the huge amphitheater, and we got a really great review in Variety."
By the time we got to the San Francisco production Tony had finally finished Perestroika. Now we're talking about 1991, I believe. He finished the second play, and it was six and a half hours long – it was so long that we couldn’t read the entire play during the six hour allowed rehearsal period! And so, when we did Millennium at the Eureka, we did excerpts from Perestroika, and then Perestroika started getting edited down and rewritten, and edited and rewritten.
We did the full production at the Mark Taper a year later, as well as a couple of workshops in between. By then, Joanne Akalaitis was running the Public, and she came in and sat in on one of our rehearsals and they were officially looking at it. And I was thinking "Wow, wow, wow! We're going to go to Public Theater!"
And then, Millennium opened in London, and Frank Rich loved it. He was just ecstatic for it. So we thought, "Okay, well we'll do really well at the Public." And then, we did both plays at the Taper, and he was just over the moon about them. I remember seeing him standing at our bows at the Mark Taper Forum – we all knew where he was sitting. We saw him stand up in the audience like one of the first people out of his seat.
And then the Shuberts were coming and Streisand came, and it was like, "What is this?!" I'd never experienced anything like it. We closed in LA and within a few weeks I was hearing, "George Wolfe is directing and we're moving to Broadway," and then, you know, seven months later I won a Tony. And the show won a Tony. And it just - it was crazy. It was a whirlwind.
This is Velocity’s third production, and Angels was a new play at the time. What do you like about working on new plays?
There are a lot of new plays that come out, and they speak to what is happening in the world at the moment or what has happened with some resonance for us now. And I think they're exciting in that you get to approach a character that no one has approached.
Do you have any pre or post-show rituals?
I brush my teeth and I floss. When I have my dental check-ups after I'm doing a play, I get gold stars. I don't have any rituals though. I usually get to the theater a little bit early, and, you know, a little stretchy-stretchy, a little vocal warm-up, but it totally depends on the play.
What creature comforts do you bring with you when you perform out of town?
I rarely go out of town. I actually don’t like to. I only do in very, very special situations. I had my bike shipped down here, so now I get to ride around Washington. It's a bike-friendly city, so I really like that. Estelle is very athletic so we're going to do some biking together. I want to hit all the museums. And I want to do a tour of the White House. Do I have to make reservations for that?
The New York Times recently ran a series called "Your First Theater Crush" about the inspiration for people who have dedicated their life to theater. When did you decide that acting was for you?
When I was in the fourth grade, Geraldine – what was her last name? Porch, Geraldine Porch. We were in the same grade school, same grade. She was really tiny, really, really tiny, and the high school did The King and I, and she played the littlest child, and at one point the actor playing the king picked her up and carried her and sat her down in another place, as they do in The King and I in that very funny moment, and I saw him do that with her and I was so filled with envy. I was so filled with "I want to be up there and get all that attention and everybody looking at me and wear those cool, like, Siamese clothes." And it just looked magical up there. I mean it was real; it wasn't a movie, it was real and magical and the clothes were real, and that seemed absolutely mind-blowing to me. I remember – I actually remember sitting there – I can see it in my mind's eye right now. And I wanted that. And by the time I got to high school I started working on plays, and then that was my group. And then I had to be serious and learn how to do something, and I just couldn't. I tried to be a business major at the University of Arizona, and I couldn't do it. I called my mother at the middle of the semester to tell her I was going to be an acting major and she said "you were always good at that," you know, like Lady Macbeth, she encouraged me to my own demise. And so here I am today.
To quote Velocity, "you really should write Mothers' Day cards."
And now for the lightning round … What three words best describe your character?
Passive, excitable, lost.
What does the title of The Velocity of Autumn mean to you?
How fast the end comes.
What do you think of when you think of home?
The second house from the corner on Colter Street in Glendale, Arizona. Still. Where I spent sixteen years of my life.