Bullied Boy Fights Back in ‘UK Underdog’

September 20, 2018
Steve Spiro (Photo by Natalie Ford)

As a skinny teenager growing up in a working-class neighborhood southeast of London where Jews were the minority, Steve Spiro was beaten and bullied on a regular basis. His autobiographical solo play, “UK Underdog,” dramatizes how he gained confidence and self-esteem through martial arts, boxing and acting, and fought back against his tormentors and his own inner demons.

In constant motion, Spiro plays multiple roles, among them his teachers, his cabdriver father, his bullying nemeses and most amusingly, his American TV show-obsessed grandmother and how he ended up in Los Angeles.

His show’s message is simple: “You get knocked down. You keep getting up. You keep going,” Spiro told the Journal explaining that the work originated as a short piece he wrote for acting class 20 years ago. “I’d put it away and come back to it, working on various versions over the years,” he said. He performed it in a workshop at the Pacific Resident Theatre late last year “to see what worked and what didn’t.”

A large portion of the show concerns Spiro and his tormentors, and although he doesn’t reveal it on stage, he said that the bullying he encountered in school and later on was partly motivated by anti-Semitism. He dreaded taking communal showers after gym because he felt inadequate and different, teased by the uncircumcised majority.

When he became a boxer, he wore the Star of David on his shorts and “got a lot of anti-Semitism for it. I got cigarettes thrown at me, beer thrown on me. They’d scream ‘Yid!’ and things like that,” he said. 

Spiro’s forebears were forced to wear that star. “Most of my mother’s side of the family was killed in the Holocaust,” he said. “Her mother was Dutch and her father’s family was from Belgium. He was born in England and moved to Belgium as a baby, so he had a British passport. He got family members out on three boats. One made it to England. One sank. One was turned around. The people that didn’t get out died in Auschwitz.”

Spiro, who has several uncles on his father’s side who were rabbis, and celebrated major Jewish holidays while growing up, is not observant now and he’s married to a non-Jew. “But my Jewish identity is very important to me. It’s who I am,” he said. At 18, he thought about joining the Israeli military, like a friend had, “but I ended up boxing instead. I’m going to take my wife to Israel,” he vowed, adding they belong to an email recipe exchange for Jewish vegans. “There’s a vegan challah recipe we’re going to try,” he said.

“[As a] boxer, I wore the Star of David on my shorts. I got cigarettes and beer thrown on me. They’d scream

 ‘Yid!’ ” — Steve Spiro

These days, Spiro is writing screenplays, including one about early 20th-century boxer Sam Langford that has generated some interest from producers. He teaches boxing part time and runs an animal rescue group called START — Shelter Transport Animal Rescue Team — which inspired a TV script he wrote called “Unleashed.” Actress Allison Eastwood is on board to direct it.

“I never grew up with animals but my wife had two dogs when I met her and they were so happy to see me in the morning,” he said. “I saw the joy that animals brought to people, but I also saw how animals were being abused and killed at shelters. We’ve saved over 10,000 dogs and cats now, and fund spaying and neutering for people who can’t afford it.”

Seventy-five percent of every “UK Underdog” ticket sold will benefit START and other pet and wildlife charities.

“UK Underdog” runs Sept. 20-Oct. 28 at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (661) 670-8328.

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