While he had performed around the Upstate area, he was new to us. And we couldn’t be more thrilled to have Kevin Ray Jones bringing his magnificent voice to our Main Stage in Spring Awakening. Always quick with a smile and an energy that is palpable from the back row, Ray has made his presence known in his first Warehouse production.
WHT: Given that you are new to our audiences, could you share with them where you went to school and where you sharpened your skills?
Ray: I graduated from Liberty University in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Performance, where I studied under some wonderful professors. While at school, not only was I able to sit in class and learn from my professors, but they also directed us in the shows that we performed, which was great application from the classroom to the stage. Outside of school, I have had the opportunity to perform with many various directors and actors, which is where I feel I have learned the most. I’ve always been a visual learner and through watching various artists do what they do best, I’ve learned so much about this craft.
WHT: You have a wonderful vocal instrument. Have you done a lot of training just for voice or does most of it come naturally?
Ray: I come from a family that is filled with amazing singers, from my mother to my great aunt who sang with many of the greats of Motown. So, in a way, I have to say that it’s honestly a mixture of the two. When I was younger, my mother always knew that I had a special gift and pushed me to fall in love with singing. All throughout my early childhood years, I was fortunate to sing with some very talented and wonderful voice teachers, coaches and choir directors, and each one helped me to cultivate my ability. In college, we were required to have voice lessons and I was fortunate to study with 3 vocal coaches: Yooran Anna Lee, Carol Hill and Patricia Campbell. Each one of these women helped my technique to expand and helped me learn to enjoy singing classical, musical theatre and worship music. Since then, my repertoire has increased and with it my passion for singing.
WHT: You seem to have traveled a good bit with your performances including your stint with Carnival Cruise Lines. What’s it like to work as a cruise line performer? Any significant differences between working there and working say…on the mainland?
Ray: Being a cruise line performer is the dream job for any person who desires to see the world. It truly is an amazing platform to get to know people from all walks of life. The best part is that the other workers on the cruise ship become like family since you’re working with each other doing 6, 7, 8 and 9-month contracts. As a performer on the ship, you become somewhat of a celebrity and it seems like everyone wants to spend time getting to know you. The major difference in performing on a cruise ship and performing on land is, you don’t have immediate access to your friends and family, unless they are on the ship with you for vacation or holiday. That being said, it almost feels like while on the ship, your life stops and everyone else’s on land continues. Babies are born, siblings graduate, friends get married and family members pass on, and unfortunately sometimes you’re in the middle of the ocean, singing with all your heart. Although, these things happen even as a mainland performer performing in another city, it seems even more difficult when out as sea, with very limited access to the next port that has an airport. Cruises don’t just stop for any reason. Fortunately for me, while I was with Carnival, when major life moments happened, my HR team worked very hard to help me seamlessly be a part of so many great life moments.
WHT: What’s been your favorite part about the Spring Awakening journey thus far?
Ray: Well for one thing the fact that I even get to answer this question is awesome because originally I was not in the initial cast of Spring Awakening. Our director, Jenna Tamisiea Elser, called one day and asked if I knew anything about the show and then explained how they were in need of an immediate replacement and I jumped at the opportunity. Without her faith in my ability, I would’ve never been able to play this role, much less tell this story that has meant so much to me. Second, working with this cast has been so motivating, inspiring, crippling and healing. Anyone who knows this show, knows that there is a great deal of sadness, but also a great deal of hope and through this story and these amazing storytellers, I’ve been able to look deep within myself and ask myself the hard questions that we rarely ever ask. Matt, Kerrie, Arik, Laura, Ben, Cat, Parker, Eliana, Clare, Drew, Chris, and Kenzie are all so special to me and have taught me so much through this process about being a professional and well-rounded actor. They motivate me to bring a hollow shell to the stage for them to fill with love, laughter and friendship, only to be poured out every night on an awaiting audience who longs to see this story. This cast is an amazing blessing to me. Thirdly, working with our musical director, Janice Issa Wright, has been so wonderful. She has continued to push us vocally and it’s been so great being able to work with her. Also, the band that she has assembled provides such a great foundation of musicality for us to be able to sing with confidence and fill the space. It’s always hard to pick one favorite thing about a show and as you can see, this show has made it even more difficult.
WHT: From the beginning of rehearsal until now, what’s been the biggest shift in playing your main character, Ernst?
Ray: Ernst is a great representation of every person who lives life as a wallflower. Most people delineate Ernst to only be the “quiet, misguided gay kid” but Jenna helped me see that there is so much more to him. There didn’t seem to be many scenes where he is able to make bold choices or command the stage, but there is a lighthearted hope that he carries all throughout the show. I think that the most outstanding shift that I’ve realized and enjoyed performing has been the journey Ernst takes in Touch Me. Originally, I was only supposed to sing the solo at the beginning of the song but one day during a music rehearsal, Jenna asked if anyone felt comfortable riffing and taking the end solo and I said I would. This moment has become so special to me because after I climb the wall and I’m staring down at the beautiful picturesque movements of my fellow cast mates, I remind myself that although this dreamlike moment is brief, it is supposed to be a moment of clarity and connection for Moritz and Melchior. Since the song takes place early on in the show, Ernst is able to radiate hope over the stage and strength for the journey ahead.
WHT: And it is indeed a killer moment. What’s been the greatest challenge overall of working on Spring Awakening?
Ray: Reminding myself of how to be a 14 year old and how different life was then. It’s very easy to minimize the qualms of a 14-year old, as trivial and dumb, but to them life is very confusing and new. Things about their bodies are changing, responsibilities are growing and in the midst of all of that, they are expected to perform at a greater level. As a now 32-year old man, I struggled with finding that boyish playfulness and innocence that I once knew so well. I also realized that although Ernst and I have so much in common, it was very hard to remind myself of the angst that comes with being young, gay and living in a religious environment where you’re reminded every day that a homosexual life of happiness will only bring hellfire and brimstone. The scene that Ernst shares with Hanschen, played by Drew Whitley, makes me so happy because I know that there are so many who come to the show who are still struggling with their own journey of sexuality. Somehow, he and I are able to bring a sense of fun, hope and connection, which definitely lightens the mood and reminds people that though this tragic story holds sadness, there is happiness spread all throughout. I never expected this scene to be so moving for people, but I’m so thankful that I am able to be that brief sense of relief for so many.
WHT: Your last show before this one was Sister Act at Centre Stage. What’s the journey like going from a comedic show like Sister Act to a show with more serious overtones like Spring?
Ray: It was very jarring for me to enter this process having just finished the run of Sister Act. Sister Act is more of a lighthearted good feeling show and Spring Awakening is not. I think that as a performer you have to live in the world of the show and Spring Awakening requires actors to come more honest and open. The beautiful thing about being a storyteller is giving each story its proper worth and it was fun to give such differing characters life. Ultimately, I learned that though the genres presented themselves as very different, the same values were in each story because in comedy, there is a level of sadness and desire and in drama, there is a level of hope and happiness.
WHT: Was there anything in the scenic, lighting, sound, or costume design that informed your choices on stage?
Ray: Artistically, there is so much to work with when it comes to the scenic, lighting, sound and costume design of this show. From the wall to climb on, to the lights in the grates to play with facially, to the brilliant sound of the band, there are so many elements that we are given to enhance our choices. When it comes to scenic design, I love how versatile the wall has become. Almost performing as another member of the cast, it holds props, set pieces, actors and lights and adds so much aesthetic to the show. Speaking of lights, there are so many and they each create a different opportunity to play another aspect to the story, my favorite being the lights shining up from the grates. Being able to premier Greenville’s “first onstage male romper” has been such a pleasure and highlight for me and has been cool to see the response, due to the recent buzz about male rompers. Last, but not least, the sound from the band is the lifeblood for the show, pulsing us in and out of scenes and pivotal moments of plot and story. Janice has given us such a gift in this band and every night they bring their A-game, which makes us raise the bar with them. Overall, pairing all of these strong and powerful aspects has totally propelled this show into the next level, which makes me thankful and reminds me to do my very best work every time I step foot in the space.
WHT: What was one thing director Jenna Tamisiea said to you or the cast that really had an impact on your work?
Ray: Heal. I’ve never been told by a director to use the work and the process to bring about personal healing in my own life, but that’s exactly what Jenna said to do. After a couple conversations, she realized that this show hit home with me on a number of things and she told me to bring honest choices to my performance, specifically when it came to Moritz’s death. Having had my best friend of 12 years pass away suddenly in a car accident 2 years ago, I knew that there would be moments of despair watching as Arik Vega, who plays Melchior, sings Left Behind but I never knew that I would be able to use that moment to help my heart grieve the loss of my friend also. But that’s just one area from the show. I find myself sitting backstage watching my fellow actors in so many versions of my life and sometimes I weep, sometimes I laugh, but every time I heal. Heal my heart. Reminding myself that the beauty of pain is the overwhelming sense of joy that comes when you carry on the legacy of the loved ones that have come and gone and you share in the lives of those around you.
WHT: If tomorrow you were told that you were never going to be allowed to perform again, what do you think you would miss the most about the art?
Ray: The community. The sanctuary. The people. Eliana Marianes, who plays Ilsa, said it best, “Though we might not keep in touch after this show, you will forever be in my heart.” When performing in a show, you spend so much time with the cast and crew that you become a little family. You begin to share in so many things. You tell each other stories of life, you compare horrible days, you bring good smelling spray concoctions to help diffuse bad smells of costumes that might not be able to be washed. Thanks, Kerrie Brown Seymour! But most of all, you grow to love and care deeply for the people who share the stage with you. I’m not saying that every cast experiences such an overwhelming sense of connection, but I will say that on some level, every artist appreciates the willingness of others to bring about a great story. I would truly miss being able to share my life with so many, but be thankful for the ones that I have already met along the way.
WHT: Next project is?
Ray: Thankfully, I will be working with Jenna and Glow Lyric Theatre from July 13-30 in HAIR as Hud. I look forward to continuing to grow and learn from her and can’t wait to put together a wonderful, but very different story to share with Greenville.
Catch Ray in Spring Awakening…now through Saturday and then with GLOW this summer!