Theater Interview: TERRY RAY (Writer Appearing in “The Lincoln Debate” by The Bent at Palm Springs Cultural Center)

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by Jason Mannino on April 21, 2024

in Interviews,Theater-Palm Springs (Coachella Valley)


The Lincoln Debate, the hit show by Terry Ray that launched The Bent theatre company in 2022, is having an encore run at Palm Springs Cultural Center from April 26 through May 12, 2024. The world premiere was the first production of Bent’s inaugural season. It garnered rave reviews, word of mouth, seven 2023 Desert Theatre League Awards nominations (three wins), and immediately put The Bent on the theater map in Coachella Valley and beyond.

The Lincoln Debate is based on historical letters that reveal the true nature of Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed, the man that history records as his best friend and someone with whom he shared a bed for four years. The letters are surprisingly intimate.

In his play, Ray (who also wrote and starred in Palm Springs’ longest-running play, Electricity) asks, “Was their love sexual?” It explores their relationship, which happened at the same time as Lincoln’s on again, off again courtship with Mary Todd. It also asks if their “friendship” could have been the reason he suddenly broke off his engagement to Mary a few days before the wedding and didn’t see her for 15 months. It uses humor, as Lincoln would have done, along with heart and 100% historical accuracy. The play lets the audience decide for itself if Lincoln and Speed’s love was physical as well as emotional. Ray asks, “If Lincoln does fit an initial under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, wow! Could there be a more impressive role model?”

For this run, Ray also stars in The Lincoln Debate as “The Guide” Terry chatted about the production with Stage and Cinema‘s Jason Mannino.

Terry Ray

Stage and Cinema: I know this was a COVID project. What was the initial inspiration or impetus that got you started on writing this?

Terry Ray: I had written several scripts for film and TV, but I’d only written Electricity, which by certain standards has been a very nice success. I knew I wanted to do something completely different, but didn’t have anything percolating—and here I was stuck at home during the COVID lockdown. I love history and have always been attracted to Lincoln, we share the same birthday, so as a kid I thought that was a big deal. I had recently heard about Lincoln sharing a bed for four years with Joshua Speed and that letters existed from Lincoln to Speed, but I hadn’t read the letters. I decided to give them a look to see if there was anything there. Wow, was there ever! I just didn’t know how much at first. When I started to research I found modern biographies useless. They put Lincoln and Speed in a neat little box as “best friends.” But when I dug deeper, to first person accounts, diaries and biographies that people who knew Lincoln contributed to, I was shocked. When you overlay the story of Lincoln’s courtship to Mary, which was happening at the exact same time he was sharing a bed with Speed, there is a definite cause and effect of events that I couldn’t find anyone else had written about. That’s when I knew I’d found my play.

S&C: Tell us the essence of what this play is about.

TR: It’s about love between two men—one of whom just happens to be a historical megastar. The play shines a light on a lot of astonishing facts that most people have never heard before. As to whether Lincoln and Speed’s love was physical or not, the audience can decide for themselves. But regardless, The Lincoln Debate proves that Abraham Lincoln unabashedly loved another man and I think that’s a story that deserves to be told.

S&C: What is important/urgent about this story that makes you want to tell it now?

TR: My character [The Guide] addresses exactly why this story is important in the play. Growing up, the only gay role models my generation had were Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly (and not even they were openly gay). Having a role model that is such a hero to our nation turn out to be gay or bi, would be HUGE for the LGBTQIA+ community, a community that is currently under attack and being stripped of rights.

S&C: This time you are taking on the role of The Guide, which seems a no-brainer considering you wrote it. It’s not the first time, as you also wrote and starred in your hit, Electricity. Tell us what it is like for you to write and act in the work you created.

TR: Getting the opportunity as a playwright to see your story acted out on the stage is a rare and extremely delicious opportunity. To get to tell a story on stage as an actor absolutely feeds my soul. To experience both at the same time is sheer bliss for me. There’s nothing I’d rather do.

S&C: This is the third iteration of this play after a second brief run last spring. How has it evolved? Have you made any changes?

TR: Three of the five cast members are new and that always brings a fresh air to any piece. This time we get to have a permanent set which we are very excited about. And… it was designed by Jason Reale, who plays Lincoln, who is truly a multi-talented guy. In the first runs our set had to be minimal because it had to be put up and then struck after each performance. And there is something else that I first noticed when I’d come back to Electricity over and over again through the years. When you step back into a role after you’ve been away for a while, words just come out differently. They are somehow richer. Also, I don’t think I’m blowing any secrets by mentioning that our actors who play Lincoln and Speed have fallen in love in real life since they originally appeared in the play and won awards for their roles. This time I can sense a whole new underlayer of intimacy between the characters which I think works extremely well for a story about two men who have shared a bed for four years. I just feel like everything is coming out slightly better and that excites me. I’m looking forward to hearing what audiences who have seen it before think.

S&C: What do you hope audiences will take with them when they leave the play?

TR: I hope they will have a new appreciation of Abraham Lincoln and see him in a more human light. He’s not just the guy on our penny or $5 bill. He wasn’t always an icon or a stone monument, a long time ago he was a real person. He had struggles and fears. He was funny and awkward and smart and yes, sometimes even sexy and passionate. And maybe, just maybe Abraham Lincoln actually was gay or bisexual, wouldn’t that be amazing. Nearly 200 years ago when Lincoln was likely a teenager (the date isn’t certain) he wrote a poem that mentions gay marriage. Gay marriage in 1830?! Raise your hand if you knew that. I hope that audiences will hear the facts and form their own opinions as to whether or not Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed had a physical relationship. But no matter that decision, I hope that audiences will remember that Lincoln was not ashamed to admit that he truly loved another man. As Joshua Speed later described their relationship, “no two men were ever more intimate.”

S&C: You also worked with the same director, Steven Rosenbaum, on both plays, who is also your partner (as Artistic Director) at The Bent. Tell us about your partnership in both the plays and creation of the theater company.

TR: I adore Steve Rosenbaum. We’ve been best friends for 30 years. We met when I was playing a baby seagull in a lesbian play and Steve was playing a hunter who, well … because the director was really only paying attention to my two mommies in the scene, the hunter sort of gradually ended up molesting me on stage. And since he was getting away with it, it got wilder each show. Steve took great delight in the fact that my baby bird couldn’t speak, only squawk. That was our beginning. Steve is a very gifted director and I love to have him direct me in anything, but especially things I have written, because he’s not precious about me being the writer. He is not afraid to challenge every word that comes out of my mouth and every word written on the page, and both the actor and the writer benefit from it. We each ended up in Palm Springs because of Electricity. When we learned that The Desert Rose was closing its doors we knew Palm Springs couldn’t be without an LGBTQ+ theater. We became intrigued with the idea of starting our own non-profit theater from scratch and miraculously we seem to have pulled that off. Steve and I are full of gratitude for the support The Bent has received on all fronts. We are getting to live our dream and I’m getting to do it alongside one of my best friends in the world, how lucky am I?

S&C: I believe this is the only queer company between here and LA/OC/SD. What outreach is being done in areas between here and those locations (e.g. Riverside, San Bernardino, Inland Empire, High Desert, etc.) to ensure those people know the company is here?

TR: This is an excellent question but the answer is regretfully none. Steve and I are just two people, and running a theater, as we have absolutely learned, is a massive amount of work. We’ve had to focus our energies on our number one priority, which is presenting quality plays. There are many areas that we need to grow in. But I’m thrilled to report that we are growing. We have just hired our first employee. Kudra Wagner has joined The Bent team and we are thrilled to have her. Hopefully as we continue to grow we can reach out to other more distant communities.

S&C: You also run the Palm Springs division of The Actor’s Lab – tell us about that and how people can enroll.

TR: Yes, thanks for asking! I’m honored to have been invited by the famed Actor’s Lab to start a Palm Springs branch. I’ve been in the business for a long while, with over 180 film, television and theater credits. At the Actor’s Lab I have actors of all levels from absolute beginners to working professionals and get to work with everyone at their level. I’m so proud of my students—and they are so dang nice—they love and support each other. It’s really special to witness their growth each week. My students are constantly getting cast in plays in theaters across the Valley as well as TV shows, commercials and films. For example, we haven’t had a play at The Bent yet that hasn’t had at least one of my students in it. They aren’t being shown favoritism because they’re my students, it’s because they are earning the roles. Reale, Alex Price and Amber Lux Archer are current members of The Lincoln Debate and are all former students. We have class every Monday night from 7-10 and you can start any Monday. To find out more write [email protected] and tell them you’d like info about the Palm Springs class.

S&C: The future? Electricity? The Lincoln Debate? The Bent?

TR: I’m very happy to report that we are working very hard with a team of producers to get Electricity to an Off-Broadway run. I’ve been told by many professionals whose opinions I respect that The Lincoln Debate has legs, and after this run I’m hoping I can focus on getting it in other cities and perhaps an Off-Broadway run as well. In other news, I’ve just written the book to a new musical that I’m very, very excited about. It’s my first time doing something like this and it might just get its first try out at The Bent in the not too distant future—stay tuned. But before that, the Bent will be announcing its third season this summer. I get a thrill thinking about a third season, especially since we are not quite even 16 months old yet. What an amazing ride—and keep your seat belts fastened and your seats in the upright and locked position because The Bent is still climbing to its cruising altitude!

photos courtesy of The Bent

The Lincoln Debate
The Bent Theatre
in association with The Palm Springs Cultural Center
Camelot Theatres, 2300 East Baristo Road in Palm Springs
Thurs-Sat at 7; Sun at 2
April 26 through May 12, 2024
for tickets, visit The Bent or Eventbrite

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