Interview: Emmy-Winner Joe Spano Always Returning To His Theatrical Roots

The Laguna Playhouse will be streaming a virtual staged reading of D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, THE GIN GAME February 14 through February 16, 2021.

By: Feb. 01, 2021
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Interview: Emmy-Winner Joe Spano Always Returning To His Theatrical Roots

The Laguna Playhouse will be streaming a virtual staged reading of D.L. Coburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, THE GIN GAME February 14 through February 16, 2021. Jenny Sullivan directs this much-produced two-hander with a pair of very juicy acting roles for Joe Spano and JoBeth Williams as two nursing home residents.

The continuously working Joe (even in these pandemic times) managed to carve out some time to answer a few of my queries.

Thank you taking the time for this interview, Joe!

You bet, Gil. My pleasure.

I caught both of your Zoom plays for Skylight with JoBeth Williams and director Jenny Sullivan, ALLERGIC TO WALNUTS and ALLERGIC TO WALNUTS PART II: FLYING AND FLAPPING. Have you physically met/worked either ladies before?

Oh, yeah! I have known Jenny for many years, through the Rubicon in Ventura. She directed me in Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, one of the most important theater experiences I have ever had. And since then, we have been working on these Zoom plays and plotting to get back to work on stage in front of people as soon as possible!

I have also known JoBeth for quite some time, maybe even longer than I have Jenny. I was actually supposed to play opposite her in Poltergeist, but I was contracted to Hill Street Blues at the time, and Steve Bochco was leery about possible time conflicts and wouldn't let me go do it. We were also both in Susan Loewenberg's and Judith Auberjonois' L.A. Classic Theater Works.

I enjoyed the rapport you and JoBeth had, and thought these two-person plays were a perfect fit for Zoom. Was it during that Zooming production that the three of you expressed the desire to work together again?

Oh, yeah! Zoom can work if it isn't trying to be something it isn't. It was so much crazy fun. Sort of flying by the seat of our pants. We would be rehearsing and somebody would say, "I think you need a hat." And I would run all over the house looking for hats. Found the perfect one, too. Never knew what we might come up with.

Will you and JoBeth be sharing the Laguna Playhouse stage? Or will you both be Zooming your respective parts in the safety of your homes?

Don't I wish! Maybe sometime soon. But, no. This time we will be at our respective homes. But somehow when there is a real and fun connection, we can overcome the distance.

THE GIN GAME first won its Pulitzer Prize in 1978. Which productions of THE GIN GAME have you seen before?

Interview: Emmy-Winner Joe Spano Always Returning To His Theatrical Roots I have only seen the 1981 television version with the original cast, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. I remember it as terrific.

What spurred you onto establishing Berkeley Rep in 1968?

I wish I could say I established it, but that was the doing of our sweet leader, Michael Leibert and his wife, Flicka McGurrin.

When did you get non-profit certification?

It was established as a non-profit in 1968.

You've also founded The Wings in San Francisco in 1968. There's a few more theatre companies you gave birth to, right?

That was "The Wing," an Improvisational Theater Company created as a Monday (dark) night experiment at The Committee in North Beach. I was also around for the beginning of Antaeus and LACTW.

As a founding member of all these theatre companies, what insight do you have on the resurgence of live theatre, large venues and 99-seaters?

Not sure what you mean. You mean post-pandemic? The future? There will be one. Or, do you mean its resurgence up until everything went dark, except for the ghost-lights? AlI I can say is that live performance is as necessary a shared social act as church-going or voting.

With such an extensive resume in film and television, what draws you back to the theatrical boards?

It's the only place where I am in control of the audience's experience. Seriously, it is where I learn the most emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.

Was your voiceover as Pasqually the Chef for Chuck E. Cheese, from 1977 to 1983, your first major commercial booking?

I didn't know I did it that long. Me and Scott Paulin got tossed out as soon as we asked Nolan Bushnell for union wages. I don't think I had a major commercial booking until I was the voice of Walgreens for nine years.

We have something in common. We both graduated from Riordan High in San Francisco. Were you a jock or a theatre geek then?

Wow!! You saved that until now? How about that Jimmie Fails' Last Black Man in San Francisco.

I was neither a jock or a theater geek. I played football, but only as far as JV and never very well. I think I quit when one of my best friends, Pat Sullivan, broke my front tooth with his helmet during a tackling drill. He was hard-core. I was a fat kid, 195 lbs. I threw the shot put and discus, too. But I was so bad, I had to practice by myself across the street at City College.

Interview: Emmy-Winner Joe Spano Always Returning To His Theatrical Roots I was in the chorus of a couple musicals, but the real learning moment was when I tried out for Sakini in TEA HOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON. My first audition for anything. It was in my senior year, and though I didn't get the part, the director said, "Where have you been the past four years?" Gave me courage to switch from pre-med to dramatic arts when I got to UC.
What in the near future for Joe Spano?

More NCIS, hopefully, Have done four so far this season. THE GIN GAME with Jo-Beth and Jenny, of course. Then SHADOWLANDS with Faline England, who I did HEISENBERG with, at Laguna and Rubicon. Also, working on a production of Will Eno's THE REALISTIC JONESES with Faline, again, Robin Pearson Rose and our great friends and brilliant Beckett "widows" Judy Hegarty-Lovett and Conor Lovett.

Thank you again, Joe! I look forward to seeing you spar with JoBeth again in THE GIN GAME.

You bet, Gil. My pleasure. Go Crusaders, I guess. Though they really ought to change that name. Maybe they already have. I know Riordan is now co-ed. And I check in with dreams department occasionally, even though I was never a member. All best!

To view this video-on-demand, staged reading performance of THE GIN GAME between February 14 at noon and February 16 at 10:00pm, log onto


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