Paul Spera ’08 is a French-American actor and a graduate of Yale College. He is based in Paris and trained at the Parisian conservatory Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique. Appearing in both film and on-stage engagements since 2010, Spera recently performed in a production of “The Merchant of Venice,” which was produced in the historical Venetian Jewish Ghetto. Commemorating the 500-year anniversary of the creation of the ghetto, the show began its run in 2016. Spera, labelled by Jewcy magazine as a “total babe,” has also featured in movies such as “The Summoning” and mini-series, including “Versailles.”
I recently had a chance to interview Spera, who touched on his theatrical experiences at Yale, his involvement in “The Merchant of Venice” and his upcoming engagements in film, theater and elsewhere.
Q: You starred in a production of “The Merchant of Venice” which was performed in a historical Jewish ghetto. Could you describe that experience?
A: It’s a staging of “Merchant of Venice” in which five actors play Shylock — a different actor in each act. It’s directed by Karin Coonrod, who is on the faculty at Yale School of Drama, and produced by her company, Compagnia de’ Colombari. I’ve been involved in the production for the past three years. I play Lorenzo, the young Venetian who elopes with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. We premiered the show in the summer of 2016, in an open-air staging in the Venice ghetto. Venice was actually the first city in Europe to create a ghetto, that is, a gated community within the city where Jews were permitted to live. In most places back then, Jews weren’t allowed to live in town, so in a certain respect, this was progress for the time. That said, the gates of the ghetto were locked at night, and Jews didn’t have the right to live anyplace else within the city limits. The Venice ghetto was created in 1516, so 2016 was the 500th anniversary, and our show was one of several events commemorating that. We performed it in the main square in the ghetto — it all basically looks the same as it did five centuries ago — and we used some of the “natural” features of the setting like the well, the synagogue and even the second-floor window of an apartment!
Q: Are you excited to bring “The Merchant of Venice” to New Haven this summer?
A: Totally! We’re performing at the Arts & Ideas Festival from June 19–23. On a personal level, this will be my first time performing in New Haven since college, and I’m especially excited about that.
Q: How do you think “The Merchant of Venice” will translate from an Italian Jewish ghetto to New Haven?
A: I can’t wait to find out. We performed the show in the US last year … so playing for an American audience isn’t new for this production. But we were in a theater that time, whereas this summer we’ll be outdoors again on the campus of Yale Law School, and that, in my opinion, is how this particular show is meant to be. … We’ll see how we can transform the Yale Law School campus into a fantasy Venice, too.
Q: You mainly work in France and in the rest of Europe. How does European theater and film differ from American theater and film?
A: To me, the difference lies not so much in the kind of show you might see at any particular theater in France, but more in the place theater holds in the general culture. Theater in Europe, in France especially, is considered an essential part of the cultural heritage. It’s institutionalized and largely nonprofit with a whole system of government subsidies and a hierarchy of venues, from provincial playhouses to big-city operas, schools take students to the theater from a pretty young age, theater is regularly rebroadcast on TV, ticket prices are usually quite affordable. Rather than unlimited runs for as long as a given show is successful or closing a show after opening night if it bombs, most theaters have a set season, which means there’s a lot of turnaround and many offerings over the course of a year, even in a town with only a couple playhouses.
Q: How would you describe your acting style? What is your process for getting into a character?
A: I’d say my “process” is all about the text. To me, the actor’s mission is to be a bridge between an author and an audience, to make the author’s text come to life, so to speak. And by text, I don’t only mean words on a page. A text is also choreography, gesture, silence — any form of expression created by an author, embodied by a performer and shared with an audience. … I try as much as I can to find my inspiration through repeated, limitless study of the text. First you learn to know it by heart, then you try to know it by soul.
Q: When you were an undergraduate at Yale, in what capacity were you involved in theater? What were some of your favorite memories of your Yale theater career?
A: I was a Theater Studies major, so theater was my main academic interest. It was my main extracurricular interest, too. I was a member of the Dramat, I performed in several of their productions, and I also participated in a fair share of [Creative and Performing Arts Awards] shows. I’ve never counted how many plays I did as an undergrad — at least a dozen, I’d think, including some really stellar work, projects I remember fondly to this day. There was Satya Bhabha’s ’06 wonderfully ambitious production of Brecht’s “Mother Courage [and Her Children]” in which I played Swiss Cheese, the simpleton son. That was a Dramat mainstage in the University Theatre my freshman year. Another mainstage my junior year, “Our Town,” directed by Toni Dorfman, the head of Theater Studies at the time — she’s still a friend and mentor. I played George Gibbs. But my all-time favorite was also the most obscure: Professor Donia Mounsef, who was in the French Department back then, convinced me and another fluent French speaker, Eyad Houssami ’07 — who has been a close collaborator in my theatrical life since college — to let her direct us in a powerful but highly complex and very wordy contemporary French play by Bernard-Marie Koltès, “In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields.” In French! It was incredible.
Q: What college were you in while you were at Yale? Any thoughts about rival residential colleges?
A: I was TD ’08. I enjoyed it, especially freshman year, and I made several great friends in my college, but I wasn’t overall very invested in the residential college system. I moved off campus junior and senior years. In my day, there was sort of a general injustice because the renovations were still in process. Some colleges had been renovated and were brand spankin’ new on the inside, whereas others hadn’t yet been renovated and were in pretty bad condition by comparison. I remember that being the case about Jonathan Edwards in particular. Same for the dining hall menus: Everyone envied the Berkeley kids because they had that fancy Alice Waters menu and the rest of us didn’t. But mostly, I remember the residential colleges in terms of which ones had the best theater facilities. Berkeley had a great studio space — those Berkeley kids really were spoiled! Pierson had a very nice space, too, if I recall, and so did Morse or Stiles — who could ever tell those two apart? And then, of course, there was the amazing Calhoun Cabaret, where we staged the Koltès play I mentioned previously, among other things.
Q: Do you have any words of inspiration for Yale actors and other collegiate artists and performers?
A: Yale offers you a rare freedom to experiment and go wild creating theater. If things are the way they were 10 years ago — and I can only imagine they’ve gotten even better — the space is usually there, the money is usually there, and amazing people to collaborate with are always there. Don’t feel like you have to be a theater major — or even a “theater person” — if you’re interested in performance, go for it! You have nothing to lose but the opportunity.
Q: What are some of your upcoming engagements that we can look forward to?
A: I’m in a video game! First time I’ve done that. It’s called “Detroit.” It’s about androids. I believe it comes out for PS4 very soon. I also have a small part in an American movie called “On The Basis of Sex,” which will be released in the next few months. I’m also in a series called “Immortality,” which you can watch on the Blackpills streaming platform — if you’ve never heard of Blackpills, it’s basically a new Netflix competitor that Luc Besson’s production company launched last year. But first and foremost: “The Merchant of Venice” at Arts & Ideas this June.
Nick Tabio | firstname.lastname@example.org