Thankfully for the rest of us, most theatre artists do not give up when times are tough. Their resilience is often fueled by the fellowship of others who courageously join forces as an ensemble and dedicate their energy to a common purpose. Fortunately for our local theatre community, Ray Winters is one local performing artist who was willing to lead the way.
Ray Winters started making theatre in 2009 at Bishop Gorman High School where his performance journey met with early success including a production of Godspell at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, NE. The first-ever "Best Actor" winner of the Nevada High School Musical Theatre Awards at The Smith Center, Winters attended the 5th Annual Jimmy Awards in 2013 along with their professional Broadway training intensive. After studying at Montclair State University in New Jersey for a few years with the intent of studying with their Musical Theatre program, he took a four-year pause from performing.
In 2018 the call to create propelled him to audition for Signature Productions' Newsies, earning "Best Actor" for his performance of "Jack Kelly" at the 2019 Las Vegas Valley Theatre Awards. Since then, Winters has taken advantage of every performance opportunity that comes along including as "Chip Tolentino" in Las Vegas Little Theatre's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and "Lumiere" in Huntsman Entertianment's Beauty and the Beast that was forced to cancel its run just two weeks before opening due to COVID. As the world waits for theatres to reopen, Winters is focusing his effort on graduating with a degree in film from UNLV in Fall 2020.
Last April as the COVID closures began to take their toll, Ray Winters made the call to local performers to come together for a virtual chorus to sing "One Day More" from Les Miserables and they did not disappoint. We asked Ray to tell us about his journey with the project:
EMAV: Why did you decide to make the video?
RW: It was sort of an idea that I said out loud as a hypothetical to my boyfriend, and then the more that I thought about it the more I wanted it to become a reality. I was sitting in my room, very bored, and I kept seeing these videos of performers on Broadway and the West End doing virtual chorus performances from various shows. So I thought to myself "wouldn't it be really cool to get a bunch of thespians from Vegas together to create something like this?" I for one had/have been very much so longing to get back on stage and create some art, and I knew for a fact that most performers in Vegas had to feel the same way!
EMAV: Who helped you produce it?
RW: I had some fantastic helpers along the way. Dr. James Whiting graciously helped me MD and conduct this ordeal! Without him, it would have probably been a bit of a mess. Every step of the way I reached out to one of my best friends Keaton Johns (who is a brilliant Enjorlas in the video), seeing if he could hear anything I was missing, and essentially assistant directing the project! And finally, another one of my best friends Steffan Scrogan (the Davey to my Jack in "Newsies") offered to create the video- he does it for a living, so I definitely was excited to see what he'd do with it. And also, YOU and Troy Heard helped me get the word to people I didn't know, helping me get the 58 performers that participated!
EMAV: What was the process? How long did it take and was the hardest part? RW: So I had the initial idea late March/early April, I started asking around early April, and from about April 22nd-May 22nd I was taking in submissions from whoever wanted to join in the fun! I would try to work on putting together the audio (splicing it together in GarageBand to make it as precise as possible) a few times a week! Truthfully the hardest part for me was getting myself to stop working on it and take breaks. Aside from some schoolwork, I really only had this project and some TikToks to work on, so I really devoted a lot of time to it! There was one day I genuinely spent 8 hours almost non-stop working on it. Another hard part was trying to make sure that the vocals were as balanced as possible. That's where James and Keaton's help came in handy.
EMAV: What has the impact of COVID been on your life? On local theatre? When do you think shows by local theatres will resume? RW: COVID has genuinely forced me to work on my self-discipline, and has made me reevaluate what is truly important to me. It's really easy to be unmotivated during this time, especially for people like myself who struggle with anxiety and depression, so the first few months were definitely rough for me. I was TWO WEEKS from opening "Beauty And The Beast" with Huntsman Entertainment as Lumiere, and all at once, we were cancelled- then public spaces began closing left and right.
Theatre is like therapy for me, it's cathartic, it's a really personal process, and so losing that outlet was definitely difficult. It's especially easy right now to get stuck in a rut; days tend to consist of "wake up, go sit on couch, play video games, go downstairs and make food, return to couch, maybe shower, go to sleep, repeat" so it wasn't insanely easy for me to just continue with business as usual. But, throughout the past few months I've really been pushing myself to continue working on things that inspire me. I continued taking vocal lessons again (via Skype), I started seeing a therapist who ROCKS, I pushed myself to pursue virtual performances (like Bill Fayne's weekly cabarets), I finally signed up for Backstage.com which led me to some really cool performance opportunities, and I've been trying to create art as much as I can.
Art is kind of what gets me through, so I refused to just sit back and accept "well, I can't do that anymore."
– Ray Winters
Art is kind of what gets me through, so I refused to just sit back and accept "well, I can't do that anymore." Local theatre, obviously, had to be put on hold. I know several shows have been postponed 'till Fall, and I also know several shows (like mine) that were put in this sort of Twilight Zone place of "we want to still put it on, we are confident that we will, we just don't know when or where." Especially with the removal/changing of the Henderson Pavilion, "Beauty and The Beast" would've been my last opportunity to perform there, now it's closed so I'll (most likely) never get that chance.
I would like to think that theatres will open back up for the Fall season, however it just depends on what happens with the COVID situation. If it lessens in severity, then I'm sure we'll be able to come back. Unfortunately, however, I do think that it won't be the same for a bit. Obviously, for the audience there will be less seating available to accommodate for social distancing, but it'll also be much different for the actors too. Rehearsals tend to be in closed off rooms, with sometimes as many as 20+ people depending on the cast. All very close together, and breathing heavy from singing and dancing. We've all seen our fair share of show plagues, how one person's cold can turn into 5, to 10, and so on. So, it really just depends on when we all feel comfortable enough to start working again. It's sad, but sometimes just because we really want to doesn't mean we should. But, don't get me wrong, I'm optimistic about the future! We just have to be smart and considerate.
EMAV: Why is it important to protect our local theatre companies and arts community? RW: I think that if anything, COVID should have proven to the world that the Arts ARE necessary for human survival. One thing that gave me something to look forward to every single week during the pandemic was the new season of Rupaul's Drag Race, it was a much needed escape from the situation we'd found ourselves in. I believe that the same could be said for every person about some form of art. What did people start doing when they couldn't go outside? Watching TV, watching movies, playing video games, reading books, learning to sew, learning to paint, learning how to do makeup, teaching themself to dance, etc. etc. Self expression is good for the soul, it helps us get things out that we sometimes didn't even know we had inside of us. Art can be an escape, and it can be how people cope. Theatre is that for me, among other things.
Theatre has been a form of entertainment for ages, and Las Vegas is a city that prides itself as the "entertainment capital of the world", rightfully so, so it only makes sense to me that our performers, on and off the strip, should be protected. Local theatre is an outlet for so many different types of performers: people just starting out, people who always wanted to try it but never could, people who have been doing it for years but don't want to pursue it as a full time career, people who do want to pursue it as a career, it's always been there for people. And our local scene is so strong, and so passionate, it's really inspiring to see. I consider myself insanely lucky to be a part of this community.
EMAV: What projects or shows do you hope to see produced when theatres reopen? RW: This is one of my favorite questions to ever answer, because I have many shows I'd love to see. The one that's been on my mind for a while now is "The Last Five Years" by Jason Robert Brown- the music is SO much fun to sing, the story is gorgeous and inventive, and the characters are simply incredible. I would also love to see "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Heathers", "The Drowsy Chaperone", "Next To Normal", "Aida", "The Color Purple", among many others, and you know what, let's do "Newsies" again while we're at it.
EMAV: Where can we watch the video?
RW: The video will be premiering on June 16th at 5:00pm local Vegas time on my YouTube (just my name "Ray Winters" with my headshot, not "Chray" which is my other YouTube) but you can find the link right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9IYIAKk6go
I really can't wait for everyone to see it, I'd be lying if I said I didn't get emotional watching it through the first time. A big thank you to everyone who helped me, and everyone who has participated, we made something really special and I'm so incredibly thrilled that we could all come together to make something beautiful even though we have to be apart right now. I look forward to the honor of sharing the stage with you again.