Ray DeForest talks Doris Dear, Feinstein’s 54/Below, Theater, Family & More

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During the holidays, I had the pleasure of meeting Ray DeForest at my dear friend Nick’s holiday party. Ray and I talked for most of the evening about his acting career, personal life, living downtown and family. Before the evening was over, he had invited me to his then-upcoming holiday show, The Doris Dear Christmas Special.

Nick and I trekked up to Feinstein’s 54/Below, excited to settle in for dinner and Ray’s show. For a few hours, I felt like I had time-traveled back to my childhood in New Jersey; watching my own mother bake holiday cookies from scratch, as my brother and I would wait patiently to lick the beaters and mixing bowl. Spending some alone time with mother as my brother was in kindergarten class. We had our daily routine, walk my brother the few blocks to school, then off to the shops. Once a week we would stop at the fabric shop to see what new patterns would tempt my mother. I had a blast hiding in the large rolls of fabric, and excited to return home so that I could hold the material as my mother cut from the McCalls sewing pattern to make our clothes.

I left the play with a smile from ear to ear and that warm and fuzzy feeling of a life far less complicated than the fast paced one of today. Thank you, Dear Doris!

How did Doris Dear Holiday come about?

Ray DeForest: After my debut show Doris Dear’s Girl Talk was so successful, Feinstein’s/54 Below agreed to bring me back under contract for several shows. I’ve always wanted to do a Christmas special like the ones I grew up watching on TV with my family. Good, wholesome fun with great singing, some comedy and lots of guests hanging out with me. I wrote an outline and presented it to my director and musical director. They were reluctant at first, thinking that having people on stage “hanging out” was not the normal way to present cabaret, but after I walked them through the how’s and why’s, they were onboard. My main goal was to bring something back that was fun and at the same time emotional so the audience could go on a journey with us. All shows have to tell a story. They must have a beginning and end.

It’s based on your mother, how accurate is the show?

RF: I would say about 99% of the stories I tell are based on truth. I occasionally tie in something from the pop culture world, or a book from the time to strengthen the storytelling. Taffy truly was the “perfect housewife.” Most of it writes itself! The character of Doris Dear is based on my mother. My stories are a combination of my life with Taffy, Duke and my sister. In the “Doris Dear World,” my sister Nancy doesn’t exist, but if you knew my sister, you would see her story and self all over Doris Dear’s stories!

Your costume is fab, did you have your hands in the design of it?

RF: My designer Ryan Moller and I have a great creative relationship. We spend a lot of time working on the look, feel and design of the costumes. I go to him with ideas of designs, colors, textures and such, and he draws up some designs which we then work on until we both agree. He often is out shopping for fabrics for one of the many other shows he designed and sees something and takes a picture and messages me immediately to say, “Hey, I think this is a Doris Dear print!” Especially important is the scale of things. I am a 6’4″, 210-pound, broad-shouldered man. At 7’2″ in heels and hair, everything from the length of the skirt to how high the collar on my blouse stands up counts. From a distance, it should be hard to tell exactly how big I truly am. The hair is also important. I have my wigs handmade and styled by my hair designer Gerard Kelly. He does an amazing job. Again, it is about scale and form so it fits the character. We base most of my hair on my mothers pictures from the time.

How is the Doris Dear Holiday Special different from what other broadway holiday show? Why was it one-night only? It was packed…

RF: Well, this is “cabaret.” Cabaret shows are not “Broadway shows.” They are smaller, more intimate and it is a different form of singing and storytelling. In The Doris Dear Holiday Special, I wanted to bring back an old-fashioned, feel-good show that left people with a smile on their face and a few tears in between. Especially since lately the world seems a bit “darker,” I wanted to keep things light. When you book a show, it is up to the performer to propose how many shows. Since I only started performing at Feinstein’s/54 Below in April, I thought a one-show performance would be a good starting place. I hope next year we can do more. The audience really seemed to love it. As a performer you hope for the best, that the audience will “get” what you are trying to say and for me get the humor and believe I am “America’s Perfect Housewife.”

Do you prefer playing a female and do you find it less or more challenging?

RF: Performing as “Doris Dear” is very different than performing as “Ray.” Doris gets away with much more on-stage than Ray can. I always say that “she” is a much nicer, gentler being than “Ray.” (laughs) Playing a female character has its difficulties. People come to cabaret first and foremost for the singing. Singing in a tight steel-boned corset, which doesn’t allow deep breathing as most singers are used to, takes different technique than if I was singing as “Ray.” Playing “Doris Dear” gives me a broader latitude for storytelling than Ray could ever do. I still perform and act as Ray in many shows and concerts, but Doris has brought something very special to my life. It keeps my parents alive and I get to share some of the amazing stories of my powerful “housewife” mother who changed the world one woman at a time!

The play took me back to a time when life was effortless and safe. Do you get that feedback often?

RF: Yes, the goal of this show in particular, was to take people back to a time that “seems” gentler. Although it was a period of time that women and others were fighting for rights, it does seem to provide us all with a piece and quiet and warmth in life we need right now.

Who else performed with you?

RF: I was lucky to have so many agree to perform with me and share their memories, talents and anecdotes with the audience. My musical director and piano player was Rick Jensen. My director and part of my “three girls” was Lina Koutrakos. The other two girls were the talented Maree-Johnson Baruch and Meg Flather. Both award-winning vocalists. My “drop-ins” were the swinging singer Terese Genecco and guitarist and Windham Hill recording artist Sean Harkness. On bass was Steve Doyle.

How do you usually go about preparing for any show, up until the last hour before?

RF: I start writing the show about six months out. After I have a definite outline and songlist, I go to my musical director and director and walk them through it. We discuss the overall feel of the show and talk pacing etc. Then the rehearsals begin on the music with Rick, my musical director. I pick guests for the show — if the show is having any — and secure the dates with them. I music rehearse every week and continually rewrite the script. The show is finally “set” the week before. In fact, I cut two numbers from the show the week before because I felt they didn’t really forward the story or the show in a positive way; they will be used on another show!

The week of the show, we have a full-band rehearsal and do the entire show start to finish. My director Lina — who also sang in this show — writes a lighting chart and decides transitions and directs the cast as to where to enter an exit and stand during numbers. She also suggests any last-minute edits that she thinks strengthens the overall storytelling. The day of the show, we do a tech run through for two hours in the afternoon at the club. Then we all break and meet back at the club an hour and a half before the show. We talk through any rough points, and luckily at Feinstein’s/54 Below there is a piano in the dressing rooms, so we are able to run through any numbers. I tend to get very nervous beforehand. But then when the lights go down and I set myself in place, I take a deep breath and know we all did our best and now it’s time to “perform” for everyone who spent their hard earned money to see us.

Where did you study acting and singing?

RF: I studied at the University of Maryland and then left college to work for Disney productions as a “Kid of the Kingdom.” I spent five years at Disney learning my craft. Talking dance classes, singing lessons and acting. Disney gave me the work ethic and strength to have a working career my entire life. I have worked solely in the entertainment business for over 35 years now!

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What is it that specifically draws you to theater? What age did you know you know that you wanted to be an actor?

RF: I love being onstage. It seems natural for me to stand in front of a crowd and perform for them, make them cry with a song or laugh with a story. It’s really the only work I know so I just know it’s where I should be. I really didn’t think about being in theater until college. The minute I stood on stage in my first main stage production as a freshman in college, I knew it would be my life.

What was your first break? Or are you still waiting?

RF: I continually have “breaks.” It takes never-ending fortitude and work to have a career. You can never stop learning, practicing and moving forward. It isn’t easy. There is a lot of rejection. I have been very lucky in my career. There has been the occasional dry spell, but overall it keeps giving back to me an amazing life. It started with Disney, then I moved to Denmark to write and produce and perform, Paris to model, London to sing, Vegas to perform, then I moved onto hosting my own TV shows on The Food Network, HGTV, Lifetime and a syndicated TV design show when there were very few. It has been a full career and when I look back — which I rarely do — I smile a lot.

Do you your remember your first costar and are you still in touch?

RF: Hmmm, my first co-star…Well, the first person I ever worked with professionally was Valerie Harper! We were “theater family” during the production over the summer. She was kind, spoke a lot about equal rights, and in her own way propelled me to fight for LGBT rights ever since!

Are there any forthcoming theater projects which you are particularly interested in?

RF: I am involved in commercial theater producing and working on several new projects to come to Broadway in 2017/2018! It’s exciting working with some of the most prominent and knowledgeable theatrical professionals in the business. I am also working with Pipeline Theatre Company, which is bringing an exciting new show Beardo by Jason Craig and Dave Malloy. It’s an exciting time for this theater company, and I believe they are posed to become a theatrical force in New York City!

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How does TV differ from theater for you?

RF: TV and film are a completely different animal than live stage-performing. Different acting technique is used and it is a very different vibe. I love both. I started in live theater so it will always be my first love. I do love doing TV and film, though. I do as both “Doris” and “Ray.” We are working on having Doris do a regular weekly TV show…More to come soon, we hope!

When not busy with work, how do you like to spend your free time?

RF: I read constantly. I have a collection of period magazines and how-to books from the 50’s and 60’s that I use for material for my shows. I am a foodie, for sure! I love the “art of eating.” Food is social for me. I love cooking at home and having people over and sitting at the table chatting through the evening. I also love restaurants and discovering places I never knew. I grew up in New York City and I love finding places that have that “old school New York” feel. My fav place in the entire city is [The] 21 [Club]. Eating in the Grill Room is a pure New York City experience that takes me to a time I adore. Homey, but elegant, with waiters that care and remember you and your needs. It’s perfection. I recently found The House in Gramercy Park. It’s lovely and New York feeling. The bartender there makes the most amazing hand crafted drinks. Downtown, I love Fraunces Tavern. That place has to be experienced. It is a colonial tavern operating since 1762! Have a scotch egg, some creamy red bliss mash with apple butter and fish fry and I promise you will be happy.

What do you think about the new Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center coming to lower Manhattan? Do you feel that theater will make its way downtown like the many other industries?

RF: I think it’s exciting having this new center coming our way! Any new spaces for the arts to happen is a welcome addition. This particularly is exciting since it will be technologically-advanced and a place for art to be created and produced. I think Broadway will always be the “center” for commercial theater in New York City, but theater happens everywhere in New York City. Thank god for people like Ronald Perelman who believe that the arts must exist for all. Giving 75 million dollars to help create this cultural center is a gift that will bring so much to the city, especially downtown!

If you could have one holiday wish come true, what would it be?

RF: For the world to be kinder, gentler place.