Play chronicles the “gay journey” over three decades through the lives to two former classmates
Terry Ray is sitting at the offices of Evolution Theatre Company inside the Columbus Performing Arts Center, talking about his play “Electricity,” which he wrote and in which he will star opposite Columbus actor Ralph Scott starting this weekend. At one point in the interview, which also included Scott and Evolution artistic director Mark Phillips Schwamberger, the Los Angeles-based actor/screenwriter/playwright crossed his legs, placed his hands just so over his top knee, tipped his chin up and to the side just slightly and said, “I don't know if you can tell now, but I wasn't very butch when I was growing up.”
The Grove City native didn't know, while growing up, that he was gay, either.
“I didn't even know what gay was, that gay existed. I grew up in the church. I didn't know anybody that was gay and I didn't know it was a thing. I just knew I wasn't like anyone else. I got made fun of and didn't know why,” Ray said. “I didn't know how to be different than I was.”
As Ray got older, he learned “there were other gay people in the world.” His role models were actors like Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly, because he saw some of himself in them. After spending a year in Bible college “trying not to be gay,” Ray enrolled in the University of Cincinnati where he studied acting. He did a couple years of regional theater before moving to Los Angeles, where he became “abjectly poor,” until an appearance on the “Scrabble” game show during which he won a decent sum of money and also made one of the top 10 “Great Gay Moments in TV Game Show History,” according to newnownext.com.
At the time, Ray was also working in a support position at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, for which he conceived and wrote a production in which Hollywood legends appeared onstage to introduce pieces of classic film music. He later wrote two Christmas shows for families, the first featuring a young Amanda Bynes, on whose “The Amanda Show” Ray had recently appeared.
“I never had any kind of training for writing, but I think because I did so much stuff — I've acted in more than 100 plays — I just know how stories work,” Ray said.
In 2002, Ray wrote and starred in the film “Gaydar,” which would develop a cult following and be featured in a host of film festivals. Ray joked that writing for himself meant he didn't have to wait around for a call from a casting agency.
Eventually, Ray would pen a stage play that drew on his repressed-in-Ohio roots. “Electricity” ran for 11 weeks in LA, moving then to Palm Springs, where the play, which is set in a motel room, was staged, literally, in a motel room. Evolution's production, which marks the play's Midwest premiere, comes on the heels of a promising staging for producers in New York City. But doing “Electricity” in Columbus is Ray's dream, an opportunity to bring his work back to where he got his start in community productions and, in particular, for Evolution, a dedicated LGTBQIA theatre company.
“It's not autobiographical, but there are tidbits of reality, both mine and more broadly in things that are part of the gay journey,” Ray said.
“Electricity” concerns Gary and Brad, who have returned to Chillicothe, Ohio (where Ray's grandparents lived) for a high school reunion.
“Gary is so repressed and was so beat up in high school that when he comes to the reunion, his only defense is to make up an imaginary wife and pretend he's married. But the truth is he's been obsessed with Brad since high school,” Ray said. “Brad also got out of town, but he goes in the opposite direction. He was so repressed he moves to New York where he goes wild, having anonymous sex, drinking, popping pills. He lives like there's no future because he doesn't think he has one.”
The pair ends up sharing a motel room, and “their electricity keeps them coming back every 10 years,” Ray said. Throughout the 30-year timeline of the play, the characters navigate the changes in their own lives, the lives of many of their classmates (who are regularly referenced but do not appear onstage) and the changing cultural landscape.
“There are definitely parts of the gay journey that I address in ways they're not normally dealt with,” Ray said, citing “don't ask, don't tell,” gay marriage, AIDS, equal rights and individual coming out as topics found in the play. “I try not to be preachy, and there's always silliness. I wanted to write something important, but with that spirit of comedy thrown in. I wanted it to feel natural, believable. That's my style of writing, my style of life.”