BWW Interview: Terry Ray And Mel England Share Their ELECTRICITY And More Prior To Palm Springs Engagement

With ELECTRICITY, the hit LGBT comedy/drama starring stars Terry Ray (“My Sister is So Gay”) & Mel England (“Best Day Ever”), sparks fly again in Palm Springs April 9-11. This immersive theater experience plays inside an actual motel room at INNdulge Resort, 601 S. Grenfall Rd., Palm Springs, CA. I had the opportunity to catch up with the actors as they prepare for this upcoming engagement to talk about their own careers and coming together for this very unique production. Here are a few experts from that conversation:

DG: Before we talk about ELECTRICITY, tell me a bit about your backgrounds. Where are you from and how did your life lead you into a career in professional theatre?

TR: I come from Ohio and a continuously unbroken line of non-theatrical people. But if you asked me at 3 years old what I wanted to be I would have said “actor”. I can’t remember not wanting to be an actor. I don’t know where it came from, perhaps some latent Neanderthal artsy cave painting ancestral gene rearing its head, but I think it was always in me. I’m pretty sure the first theatrical show I ever went to I was actually in. I don’t want to brag but I played the lead in “The Ugly Duckling” at 6. I put on puppet shows in elementary school. I wanted to do all the voices so I had to get other kids to just work the puppets because I didn’t have enough hands, but I wouldn’t let them talk. I remember doing the “Three Little Pigs (Chinese Style)”. I played all three pigs, the wolf and the narrator-all with different Chinese accents. ME: I’m originally from Dallas, Texas and my parents were hippies – yes, there were hippies in Texas! Dallas was actually a rock’n’roll town in the 70s – surrounded by country music. So I grew up in a kind of counter-culture existence in a way – my first job was delivering the local Gay newspaper, and then I worked in a Health Food store juicing wheat grass – in Texas! Anyway, when I was about 5, my mother had worked a summer job in the costume shop at the Dallas Theatre Center, and she enrolled me in children’s theatre classes. So I grew up inside the walls of professional theatre, and was in my first professional play at 10. Then I went to the Dallas Performing Arts High School. So I was kind of brainwashed into this!

DG: Where did you train to be an actor?

TR: I graduated from the theatre department at the University of Cincinnati & Conservatory. I did a year’s internship at Playhouse on the Square. But mostly I trained by doing. I’ve been in nearly 100 productions and got to work with some great actors. For example I did PAL JOEY with Dixie Carter and Elaine Stritch. I never missed a performance watching Elaine do “Zip” from the wings. She was glorious. In Los Angeles I studied with the amazing Charles Nelson Reilly who was a brilliant teacher and had a huge impact on me. I loved him. He actually played my uncle in his last on screen film role in my short film GAYDAR. ME: I went to NYU, and studied with Stella Adler. I spent a summer with members of the RSC in Santa Fe. And then in my early 30s, I went back to study with Terry Schreiber in New York.

DG: Who were your mentors or role models as a young actor?

TR: My most accessible means to role models as a young actor was television. As a young comic actor I especially sponged off Carol Burnett, Tim Conaway and Harvey Korman. I loved Dick Van Dyke‘s physical comedy. Then I fell in love with every character on the Mary Tyler Moore SHOW. To me watching them was a master class. Of course, Lucille Ball was the top of the ladder. ME: Mentors? I had so many. It literally did take a village to make it possible for a crazy working-class kid with ADD to believe it was even possible to be an artist. One of my first teachers at the Dallas Theatre Center, Synthia Rogers, put me there on scholarship, and then all my theatre teachers at the Dallas Performing Arts High School, who taught me Shakespeare, Aristotlean plot structure and Mime when I was 14! All my teachers at Stella Ader and NYU. They taught me this “old school” kind of reverence for THE THEATRE. You could hear a pin drop in class, just waiting to hear what they had to say! Stella Adler would make people rise when she came into the room – it was kind of “old world gran dame” stuff, but also she was sending a really big signal: THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT. In my late 20s, when I was ready to do the work – Terry Schreiber was a true artistic and spiritual gift – in learning to be brave enough to just be me. I met the great Jill Andre at his Studio, who ended up directing several of my solo shows. She’s had a huge influence on my work and my life as an artist. My whole life changed because of the work I did with Terry and Jill. The great film actress, Sally Kirkland has also been a huge mentor and influence. We met in LA about 10 years ago at the premiere of my BFF Craig Chester’s “Adam And Steve” – and she agreed to play my Mom in a film I wrote. Working on the script with her, I ended up also studying with her, and she’s become a great mentor too.

DG: What is your proudest professional accomplishment so far?

TR: I hope this doesn’t sound sappy but I’m more proud of ELECTRICITY than anything I’ve done in my career so far. I’ve written several TV and film projects but this was my first play. So I’m proud of this story, and then as an actor the roles are very rich and challenging-aging 4 decades, combining comedy, romance with some really powerful moments. Getting to act in, as well as write this story-I’m doubly proud. ME: Besides ELECTRICITY? No joke, it’s up there. Probably the most amazing personally for me was my solo show “SWIMMING WITH THE POLAR BEARS” premiering Off Broadway in 2009. Because the play was deeply personal and autobiographical about my 25+ year survival from AIDS and Cancer – and then suddenly I was opening it Off Broadway! And it was up on the boards at TKTS in Times Square! And, what’s more (because it also had an environmental theme) we did a benefit for The Climate Project and Vice President Al Gore signed the posters! And I was just pinching myself because, in spite of everything, my dreams did come true after all.

DG: On the converse, tell me your worst professional acting experience.

TR: This is hard because I have sooooo many to choose from. Maybe when I was a mutant frog in an insane frog suit and had to desperately go to the bathroom but couldn’t get out of the suit? Or when I was in a play and the crazy director had auditions every single night before rehearsals in case he could find someone better than someone already cast? But I think I’m going to go with my very first film where I played a Viet Nam war prisoner. They tied me half naked on a chilly day to a tree in the woods. I was tied for real, by my neck and with my arms tied around the back of the tree. They kept spraying me with water to look like I was sweating and when I shivered they said-that was great because I looked like I had a fever. Then they all went to lunch and moved on to the next scene, but they forget about me. I was tied to the tree for 12 straight hours. Next day I went back and did it again. ME: That’s a hard one – I’ve always LOVED being in things, it’s always a privilege, no matter how big or small, or whatever. I’d probably have to say one of the worst moments was I was doing this comedy sketch show in the West Village, it was kind of a ridiculous show and I was playing JFK Jr. of all things, and I had been taken hostage, so my hands were tied behind my back. The other actor had to lift me up and throw me down on the couch – and I watched as my face hit the edge of the couch and my lip ended up inside my teeth. Of course I didn’t know that at the time, so I just kept going with the scene, but the actress looked at me and whispered “Are you allgright?” – and I whispered back “yeah” and just kept going! I got offstage and they took me to ER for surgery.

DG: How did you become involved with ELECTRICITY and what drew you to the project?

TR: I had been in a two year spree of writing TV movies. Really it was ghost writing. I wasn’t getting credit. They called them “re-writes” but I never got to read what I was supposed to be “re-writing.” Plus they all had to have the same sappy plot line; girl in love with wrong guy meets right guy but doesn’t know it, they eventually fall in love, then have a fight which gets resolved and then on last page they kiss. I got notes like “it’s a comedy but don’t make it funny.” Or “we don’t like characters with flaws.” I finally got full credit for one film and decided that was my last. I wanted to write something where I didn’t have to take bad notes. The only venue I knew where the writer was king was the theater, so I fed my soul by writing a play. I wanted to write about something personal but not necessarily my own true story. I wanted it to be funny, but honest and relatable. I decided to write about the journey nearly every gay person of a certain age has experienced; starting off thinking there is something wrong with you for being gay to where I am now-someone who demands equality. It’s a story that takes time. It’s a long journey which is why ELECTRICITY covers four decades. ME: I first saw the play in LA when Terry was doing it with the amazing Kevin Scott Alan playing Brad – and I LOVED IT. I literally tackled Terry after and told him how much I loved the play – and the two of them. Kevin was so beautiful and they’d moved me so much. I just related so much from my life to the play. About a year a half later, when it was moving to Palm Springs and Kevin couldn’t do it, of course I was thrilled Terry asked me, but to be honest – I was also afraid… of filling Kevin’s incredible shoes, he’d created such a funny, tough and touching Brad. It’s like adopting someone’s child. But I had understudied and taken over roles before, so I knew the deal. Kevin had given me a great insight, and with Steve Rosenbaum our director they’d found so much out. I knew I could take what they had found – and Terry told me I had to make it mine. I think the major fear, and what was also exciting, was knowing how much I related to Brad being the party boy and struggling with addiction. I’d lived that movie. Gary is one extreme of what many Gay men have lived, and Brad is the other. From day one, he jumps into the deep end of the pool – but never really made peace with himself. That’s the journey he has to take in the play – to find out who he really is. I knew I couldn’t phone this one in – it had to be personal.

DG: Talk about how the experience for the audience is so unique for this project.

TR: The two main characters in ELECTRICITY share a hotel after their 10th high school reunion in 1983 and meet back in that same room for each reunion for the next 3 decades. We initially did the play in a regular theater and it worked great, but I had this strange urge to try it in an actual hotel room as immersive theater which is what we’ve been doing in Palm Springs since August. We decided to start the theatrical experience in the lobby of the hotel where our 10th reunion is taking place (in 1983 Ohio). As the audience comes into the lobby they are treated like a classmate and given a name tag of someone we mention in the show. The two main characters, Gary and Brad, are mingling at the reunion and interacting with their classmates who soon learn how completely opposite the two are. Then the audience are witnesses as Brad and Gary decide to share a hotel room. The audience follows Brad and Gary back to the room, take a seat and the story completely unfolds around them. It’s magical for the audience and it’s magical for us as actors. The story is so intimate and the audience is so close. It’s like acting in a movie without ever stopping. You can be so subtle. You can whisper or just breathe. Also you’re never “off stage”. What used to be an exit when a character went into the bathroom is no longer an exit because a few people can still see you so-you come up with business in the bathroom. It’s really exciting. I love doing it on stage, but in the hotel room-there’s nothing like it. ME: I’ve done a lot of theatre in my life – and I’ve never seen a play affect people with the kind of instant immediacy as this. Often in theatre people are moved, that’s normal. But this strikes a nerve. Maybe because it’s so funny – it’s a comedy, so people are laughing and having a great time, and then suddenly a moment hits them! Gay men of a certain age have lived this journey and relate deeply to so many things we touch on. Afterwords, people are not just wanting to say hello in that “theatre” way we do, but they want to hug us, often with tears, saying thank you, and tell us their personal stories of how they relate. It’s a great privilege to be that conduit for someone for something so deep. And even Straight people love it too! They always say it isn’t even a Gay play – it’s about relationships! Brad and Gary’s love story is really about the struggle to find connection – and who can’t relate to that?

DG: What do you want audiences to take away from the experience?

TR: Talking with the audience after the show has been the most rewarding part of the process for me because they are experiencing exactly what I hoped. They are seeing themselves in the play. They are seeing their story. And straight people too. I’ve had straight guys dragged to the show by girlfriends or wives come up to me crying because they couldn’t believe how much they saw themselves in both Gary and Brad. The right love story is universal. I had hoped ELECTRICITY would be that kind of love story. I’m so grateful that audiences are telling me that it just might be. ME: Absolutely, to have a good time, and relate – to laugh and cry, of course. Maybe laugh a little more than cry. And maybe identify. Maybe, go home or to work the next day, and realize that life is short, and it might be worth it to just tell someone they love them. And if there isn’t someone, go find someone. We deserve that.

DG: What advice do you offer aspiring actors seeking a career in professional theatre.

TR: Act. Don’t sit around waiting and hoping for the chance to act. Act. If you have to produce your own stuff do it. If you have to write your own stuff do it. If you’re an actor the only way to feed your soul is to act. It makes you a better actor. It makes you a better person. It keeps you sane. ME: Train. And then train some more. Never stop learning. See everything you can. And make a ton of mistakes. And love somebody.

The show is performed with an exclusive engagement at INNdulge. Each show only has 20 audience members. The experience begins in with a High School Reunion Reception in the hotel. The audience members check in to the reunion and are giving a character name. Then the audience is let into Gary and Brad’s hotel room where they become a fly on the wall the play unfolds in the room.It’s a unique and unforgettable entertainment experience that will stick with you long after the evening is over. This is a limited engagement with a very limited number of tickets.

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