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Famed Los Angeles-based Actor's Lab branches out to Palm Springs

The Desert Sun (Palm Springs) logo The Desert Sun (Palm Springs) 8/1/2022 Niki Kottmann, Palm Springs Desert Sun

Terry Ray learned most of what he knows about acting from the Tony award-winning performer Charles Nelson Reilly — and not just by watching him on stage

Reilly was best known for his Broadway roles and numerous game show appearances, but outside the public eye, he shared his talent with a small circle of students. 

"As an acting teacher, he was super sought after and private," said Ray, a Palm Springs-based actor. "So one day, I said to myself 'I want to study with Charles Nelson Reilly, and I don't know how to do it because he doesn't advertise.' And the next day, I met a person who said 'Well, I book students for Charles Nelson Reilly.'"

To Ray, it was fate. Reilly taught him that class should be fun — it was a place to learn and create, but also to laugh. Ray hopes to bring the same energy to his new gig as sole instructor for The Actor's Lab: Palm Springs.

'The perfect fit' 

Ray has been an actor for most of his life. He first refined his chops as a theater student at the University of Cincinnati & Conservatory, and after graduating, he became an intern at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis, Tennessee. He then performed in several regional theaters before landing in Los Angeles.

He's best known locally as the creator of "Electricity," the record-breaking play about the multi-decade relationship of two gay men, which ran for four years in Palm Springs. The latest run of the play — which Ray also co-stars in — ended in March, and the production team is now preparing for an Off-Broadway run. 

J.D. Lewis, the founder of famed acting school The Actor's Lab, has closely followed Ray's career. He was impressed with Ray's accomplishments as both a writer and an actor, so he knew who to call to open a Palm Springs branch of his acting studio. 

"I have known Terry Ray’s work for years," Lewis told The Desert Sun. "He was a perfect fit for Palm Springs. He is a working actor, has trained with me, and his energy is amazing — nurturing, kind, knowledgeable, professional and incredibly talented and funny."

Lewis said he's "absolutely thrilled" to have Ray at the helm of the new studio, which he chose to open in Palm Springs because he's seen many actors move to the area. 

"Over all the years of spending time in Palm Springs, I’ve seen it blossom into an amazing hub for artists," Lewis said. "So much of auditioning now in the industry is taped submissions over the internet. Actors don’t necessarily have to be living in L.A. to pursue a professional career anymore." 

His goal is to grow the Palm Springs studio into a pillar of the desert arts community, and he plans to do so by offering professional training on not only performance, but the business side of the entertainment industry. 

Local actor Terry Ray, seen on July 28, has been chosen to lead a series of acting courses known as The Actor's Lab: Palm Springs. © Taya Gray/The Desert Sun Local actor Terry Ray, seen on July 28, has been chosen to lead a series of acting courses known as The Actor's Lab: Palm Springs.

The Actor's Lab method

Lewis founded The Actor's Lab in 1990. His first class took place in Los Angeles, but since then, he's opened studios in Santa Barbara, Portland, Oregon and Charlotte, North Carolina — and, as of Aug. 1, Palm Springs. 

Lewis' method includes four key components: scene study, cold reading, improvisation and commercial study. Students learn everything from how to analyze a script to how to read cue cards, all in hopes they'll be prepared for any project they might pursue. 

"Each actor, in addition to coming to class each week ... is put on a business plan which includes organizing a headshot and resume, getting a reel of their work, targeting agents and casting directors, networking, creating original projects and more," Lewis said. 

As the course's website states, the goal is for students to develop their instincts, think quickly on their feet and master the most dynamic approach to any audition. Ray noted that this applies to everyone, both seasoned actors and those interested in trying community theater. 

"It's really geared toward people of all levels," Ray said. "But if you are a professional, it's also for you."

Although this is Ray's first time teaching in an official capacity, he's acted in around 170 film, television and theater productions, and is confident that he can steer his students in the right direction. 

"The most important thing is to be true, to be honest," he said. "And to make every scene feel like it's happening for real ... so you have to do your homework, you have to know all the things in the scene. You have to be able to relate to it."

Filling a hole in the Coachella Valley

The new Palm Springs course takes place every Monday night, and Ray said he's hoping to make it his students' favorite day of the week. 

Local actor Terry Ray, seen July 28, has been chosen to lead a series of acting courses known as The Actor's Lab: Palm Springs. © Taya Gray/The Desert Sun Local actor Terry Ray, seen July 28, has been chosen to lead a series of acting courses known as The Actor's Lab: Palm Springs.

Classes, which begin Aug. 1, are held at the Neuro-Vitality Center near Palm Springs International Airport. A medical clinic might sound like an odd location for an acting class, but Ray said the building is large, has ample parking and closes at 3 p.m. every day, so other groups have begun to use it for open mic nights. 

Ray's friend manages the building, so when he said the space was easily accessible and includes a small stage, piano and microphones, Ray was sold. 

"We needed a space where you can feel creative," he said. "I wouldn't want big windows where people can watch you and you feel self-concious. And so (we just wanted) something that's conducive to feeling like you're performing."

Enrollment for the class is ongoing, and Ray was delighted that less than two weeks before it began, he only knew a few of the people who had signed up. He's looking forward to using the course as not only an opportunity to nurture his students' love of acting, but to get to know the local performing arts community that he's only been a part of for a few years.

The class, Ray added, is not for students who have a casual interest in acting. Even if they don't want to pursue it as a career, his students must be ready for an intensive three-hour session every week, as well as rehearsals scattered in between classes. 

That's why anyone who's interested in taking the class — which they cap at 20 people — must email Lewis at theactorslab@me.com prior to officially signing up. Lewis then schedules a Zoom call with all potential students, Ray said, to make sure they understand the commitment they're about to make.

Ray added that he's excited to foster a devoted learning environment that's hard to find in the otherwise robust arts community of Palm Springs.

"We really don't have anything like this," he said. "It's like, if you want to take acting classes in Palm Springs, where do you go?"

Asked what advice he'd give to students who are ready to make the commitment, Ray kept it simple.

"Don't be afraid," he said. "It's gonna be a good time. And there's no such thing as failure in this class. There's only learning."

If you go

Niki Kottmann covers a variety of topics as features editor for the Desert Sun. She can be reached at niki.kottmann@desertsun.com or on Twitter at @niki_mariee.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Famed Los Angeles-based Actor's Lab branches out to Palm Springs

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