When David L. Ray’s Caught opened late last November at the Zephyr Theatre, few could have predicted the runaway smash hit it would become. Written by a relative unknown and making its guest production debut in the pre-Christmas theatrical doldrums, Caught could just as easily have vanished as quickly and quietly as it arrived. In the hands of a less gifted playwright, it might have been just another “gay play” about “gay marriage” with little appeal outside its niche audience. That’s not what happened, however. Theatergoers laughed and cried—and stood up and cheered. They told friends and family about Caught, paid return visits, often with those friends and family members in tow. The show got extended, then extended again … and again … and again, becoming Los Angeles’ longest running play.
Now, as Caught heads into its final weeks of a nearly nine-month run, we caught up with playwright Ray for a fascinating look at how Caught came about, how folks have reacted to its characters and storyline, and what’s coming next, both for Caught The Play and for David L. Ray The Playwright.
So, David, when did the idea for Caught first occur to you?
Caught has been percolating in my head for years. I think the story started developing in 2000 when Prop 22, the Knight Initiative, was being voted on in California. I wasn’t involved in the campaign, but had a friend who was working for No On 22. Coming from South Georgia, I saw California as the most liberal, welcoming, open place for me to be. In my sheltered WeHo life, I’d only seen the No On 22 signs. However, on a trip home from Palm Springs, I saw my first Yes On 22 sign. I thought it would be funny to put the sign on my friend’s lawn, as a joke. He was always so passionate about it, and I enjoyed seeing him get riled up by his opponents. The sign was in an empty field next to the freeway. It had dozens of signs from all factions—candidates and initiatives—for the election. I pulled over, jumped out, grabbed the sign and put it in my car. A few minutes later, I was surrounded by police cars. They were yelling through the loud speakers. I pulled over, they hand-cuffed me and forced me to sit on the hot pavement. A man, who looked to be in his early 50s, ran over and pointed at me and yelled, “I saw him take the sign.” Then, with such hate in his voice, he screamed, “I put you under citizens arrest! Citizens arrest!” Then he got in his car.
That’s unbelievable! It must have been terribly upsetting for you.
Like all traumatic moments in life, everything was in slow-motion. I remember looking at his wife in the car … or a woman who I believed was his wife. She looked so sad. So distraught, disappointed at what her husband had just done. It was as if she were looking at me as a mother wanting to help me, but unable to assist because her husband called the shots. I watched as he huffed and puffed and drove away. She just looked at me as he was yelling words I couldn’t hear, but from the look on her face, they were clearly full of hate.
So what happened with the police?
After about thirty minutes of talk, they let me go. I had a court date assigned to me. Needless to say, my life shifted in that moment. I went from unconcerned citizen making light over all this Prop 22 stuff to reluctant activist in the blink of an eye.
What happened next?
I spoke with a lawyer at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. I spent weeks researching, building my case. I found out that the lot from where I took the sign belonged to the city. So, the person who put the sign there had as much right to put it there as I did to take it. The story of my “citizens arrest,” which I thought only took place on The Andy Griffith Show, was featured in Frontiers Magazine.
Did the case go to trial?
Within a week, I received a note from the court saying that charges had been dropped. My fear, anger, frustration, and desire wasn’t given its day in court. This was like putting my imagination on steroids. I felt I had to do something to make the best of this bad situation. I’d come from South Georgia where I lived, for the most part, in the closet. Then, here in Los Angeles, I’d created a false sense of acceptance. It was a dark time for me. So in my imagination, the story for Caught began to form.
Which came first, the message you wanted to convey or the story of Darlene, Kenny, and Troy?
I believe the brief, unspoken exchange I had with the woman in the car planted the seed for Darlene, in the mysterious way stories come to be. I began to create her history. Her strength and inner struggle. That is when Darlene, the protagonist, began to form. And then the other characters began to give voice to the story. As these played out, the theme began to develop.
Have events in your own life paralleled those of your characters?
There are a few moments in the play that have personal relevance to me. Kenneth’s airport monolog is inspired by a time that I was meeting a guy I was dating at the airport. I’d bought a flower for him and was excited to see him after his trip. I remember hugging him and holding the flower out for him. He smiled and said, “I’ll take that when we’re in the car.” It wasn’t as life-changing as it was for Kenneth, and not nearly as dramatic, but it did plant a seed for all the things that straight people take for granted. And if we want to be equal, then we’re going to have to do a lot of self-reflection to overcome some of the shame civilization has taught us to accept.
Another inspirational moment from my real life happened after I came out to my mother in Fall of 1994. My late grandmother Mary always gave us grandkids the same gifts, or at least the same-priced gifts, for Christmas. That Christmas, all the grandkids received the same gift—socks. So, I assumed I was getting socks too. However, I got a small plaque of the Serenity Prayer. I will never forget that. Much like the woman in the car, my grandmother was trying, without words, to let me know I was going to be okay. I used that moment to inspire the letter that is read at the end of Act One. The strength of women is a constant theme in my writing.
How did you go about making sure that Caught didn’t turn out to “messagey?”
I wish I had a brilliant answer for this. At the end of the day, I’m a pretty simple guy. Lofty ideas and political rhetoric don’t inspire me. I think what works for me is to create characters as “real life” as possible. I must love my characters. All of them. I want to know what makes them human. The good and the bad. And for my audience, I strive to tap into the universal truth that we’re all human, so we can, if challenged, understand all humanity. Maybe not accept all their beliefs, but there’s a part of us that must understand. Even if we don’t agree with what someone is doing or saying, we can understand what’s led them up to this moment.
Are there any writers who’ve particularly influenced your writing style?
I am a huge fan of Tennessee Williams.
I’m really curious about how this particular production came about. How did you find Nick DeGruccio, your director, and your phenomenal cast of actors?
It’s an interesting story. (Caught producer) Jason (Loh) and I were producing another one of my plays last summer in New York. We got a call from the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. They were producing a week of staged readings for playwrights that had new works to share. I believe they called the week “a play a day,” or something like that. The reading went very well, and what we learned was that the script was further along than we thought. Jason set up a crazy market research/focus group thing-y, which allowed us to collect some great feedback after the reading.
We retooled the script, and did another reading six weeks later. Before I knew it, the production team greenlit a full production, and got us the Zephyr.
And Nick DeGruccio?
As for Nick’s association to the play, he’s obviously a highly regarded director in L.A., and should be on everyone’s short-list for directors … and he obviously was on our short-list too. We interviewed a number of folks. I met Nick in a coffee shop in Hollywood. We sat down and within a minute, I knew he was the director we wanted. He understood the play from a heart-centered place. His own life, though different, had a lot of similarities to those in the play. He spoke simply and with love for each of the characters. After he was chosen to direct, there were countless moments in his discovery of the story that were mysteriously connected to my writing of the story. One in particular was the music we use. Our sound designer was pressing us for some ideas for the sound of the show. I had my own ideas, but wanted Nick to propose his thoughts. One night, I was watching a play downtown and I got a text from him: “Call me ASAP… I have the song for our show.”
So how “ASAP” did you contact him?
At intermission I called him. He said hold on, and began playing the song. What he played me was the exact song that I had listened to, every morning as I fixed my coffee before writing Caught.
As for the actors, truthfully they all came from an open call. Neither Nick, Jason nor I knew any of the actors before they were cast in the production. We held two days of open calls led by our casting director Raul Clayton Staggs, and we were blown away by all the talent that came in to audition. We had an amazing turnout for the show, and are incredibly blessed to have the actors we have in this production.
How much did you need to “educate” your cast about their characters and backgrounds?
I know these people. They’re my friends, my family, people I grew up with. I spent time with each actor telling them about their characters, working on accents with them, and helping them fill in some of the back-story. I assigned the “Southern characters” dialect coaches, people I know from back home that not only could help with the accents, but also help them better understand where these characters come from. I also recommended some materials—articles, sermons, documentaries, etc.—for the entire cast, just to help give them context to the South and specifically the Southern Baptist Church. But my help could not even scratch the surface as to how much these actors helped me in return to understand these characters. I can’t even begin to tell you how amazed I am with this ensemble. I have moments every time I see Caught, where I’m like, “Did I write that?” It’s a gift to see them working on these characters. Live theater is a gift for all of us, I’m so lucky to have had this experience with such talented, lovely actors.
The success of Caught has very little precedent in L.A. theater. You weren’t part of a season, nor were you known at the time for your previous work. How surprised are you at the phenomenon that Caught has become?
I am very surprised, and hugely humbled. Not unlike other shows in small theater around town, I’ve had my fair share of productions where we’ve had to beg friends and family to help fill the houses just so that we could get through the initial run with a small audience. But Jason had a really smart game plan as to how to produce Caught, and I have to attribute a lot of the success of the play’s long run to his ability to execute against that game plan. So it’s a combination of some really smart planning plus a lot of luck and an amazing cast and crew. And thankfully, with Caught, instead of asking friends to come, I don’t even know the people who are coming multiple times to see it. It is a true blessing.
When did you first realize that this was a show that was going to have “legs”?
We began preview performances over Thanksgiving 2010, ahead of a planned seven-week run. As we all know, producing theater in L.A. is tricky, and uber-competitive. We planned for some really small houses over the holidays, but we were hoping to quietly sneak into the L.A. theater scene and find an audience from those folks that weren’t necessarily interested in seeing the standard holiday-themed shows. However, as I’m sure you remember, we saw unprecedented rains this past winter. The theater flooded, the roofinside the theater above the stage began leaking, and patrons arrived soaking wet… butwe had full houses, even over the holiday weekends. I remember thinking, “I wouldn’t go out in this weather for anything,” yet L.A. audiences were packing the house. We felt incredibly lucky. When we had a line out the door in the middle of torrential rain … that’s when we felt the show might have “legs.” On a side note, that’s also when we started serving free coffee and tea in the lobby. We’re still doing that today, nine months later.
What do you think are the reason that Caught has caught on the way it has?
It goes back to the universal truth that we’re all human. We all have the same desires, and like it or not, we all need to have some kind of resolution with our families. For many of us, that may never happen, but to see the hate and love played out in front of us … It’s like scratching that itch that’s always just out of reach.
What’s the audience make-up for Caught?
When we first began performances back in November 2010, I’d estimate that our early audiences came predominantly from the LGBT community, since as you know the show is set against the backdrop of same-sex marriage. However, over the following months, we started to see a distinctive shift in our audience base as word-of-mouth took over and people realized that, although same-sex marriage is the catalyst that drives the initial conflict, the play is really about family and learning how to co-exist with each other during difficult times. As you’re well aware, one of the central arcs of the play centers on Darlene and her dissolving relationship with her husband. The play talks to the parallels between heterosexual and homosexual relationships, and how we all just want to be happy—and audiences have responded to that.
How much repeat business do you have?
I truly have no idea how much repeat business we get, but I will say it’s significant. I’m often helping at the box office when people pick up their tickets before the show, and the box office manager always asks, “How did you hear about us?”, and at least a couple times each night, people respond “This is my third-fourth-fifth time seeing it.” It’s been amazing. Jason recently noted that we get the kind of repeat business that only musicals get.
He’s so right! I rarely see a straight play more than once, though I’ll go back and see a musical again and again. I’ve now seen Caught seven times, and would gladly see it seven more if it weren’t about to close. So, how have you gotten the word out about Caught?
People stumble across us initially via a number of different ways: Facebook, Goldstar, Plays411, friends’ recommendations, press reviews, etc. But when they leave the show, they say things like “I need to bring my mom-brother-daughter-co-worker-etc.”, and they do!
Any idea why people come back with family members, friends, or work colleagues in tow?
Audiences say that it allows them to have conversations after the show with people that they wouldn’t normally be able to have, and they tell me that the story is presented in a way that “no one wears the black hat,” and as the playwright, that’s exactly what I hoped audiences would feel.
Do you have any stories that stand out for you about how Caught has affected audience members, families, guests who may have been dragged along?
I remember a lesbian couple that came to Caught early in our run, over the holidays I believe, and one of the partners brought her religiously conservative parents. The relationship between the parents and the daughter’s girlfriend was strained, at best, because they couldn’t accept their daughter’s “lifestyle,” or this is what the daughter’s partner told me as she enjoyed a drink before the show. Now, while the show is laugh-out-loud funny, there are some significant dramatic moments, and by the end of Act One, the parents were crying with their daughter … which apparently sparked a heart-felt conversation during intermission. By the end of the play, when they were exiting the theater, they came up to me and my producer and thanked us, as this play had given them the opportunity to move their relationship forward.
What a wonderful story! Any others?
Just last weekend, we had a mother come to the show with her son and son’s “friend,” and when they left the show, she came up to me, hugged me, and said this play has helped to heal their relationship. We get these types of reactions from audience members almost every night, and for that I am hugely grateful.
Has Caught changed over the months of its run?
That’s the beauty of live theater. Every performance is slightly different, as the actors make small changes based on the responses they receive from the audience every night. If I looked at the show in its totality since when we started the run back in November, I’d say there’s been significant growth in the play as night after night, these characters have grown more and more on the actors. In the beginning of any run, actors are still semi-strangers to their characters, and over the course of the last ten plus months since we all started rehearsing and working together, the characters have become much more realized, thanks in no small part to the talent and dedication of our amazing company. As for the script itself, we have made a few tweaks along the way. This is a World Premiere, and we’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work over the months. In between the first and second extensions, we went dark for a week and made some small script changes. We’ve made a few other changes during third and fourth extensions too. Nothing too dramatic, just a few tweaks here and there to help balance out some areas. I have some ideas for future tweaks when we remount the play in the future, but I really didn’t want to change it too much during a single run.
What changes have new cast members, understudies, and various cast permutations had on the production?
It’s amazing to have principal cast replacements and understudies join the show. Every new actor brings their own gifts when they join the company, but I think they’ve also all realized that it’s a balance of blending their own decisions as actors with the track originally set by the director and their predecessor. I’ve heard joining the cast is like playing double-dutch jump rope. There’s a rhythm already in place when you get there, and it’s your job as a player to seamlessly jump in and jump out without losing the rhythm. And as the playwright, it has been a gift for me to see new people join the show. Seeing the various actors take on these roles and having the audience moved really makes me proud of the script. It’s not perfect, but every playwright wants to know that whoever takes the script and puts on a production has the material to tell the story fully.
You’re also one of the rare productions that has opted to extend past the 99-seat plan, requiring higher salaries for actors, higher ticket prices, and other changes. Can you talk a bit about the decision to “go Equity” and how it’s worked out for you?
I think like almost all shows in 99-seat theaters in L.A., we wished we could have worked under full AEA contracts from day one. However, as you know, competition is incredibly steep in small theater in L.A., and without the name of an established theater company behind us, and without the deep pockets of donors or investors, we were thankful that AEA had a plan that could allow us to produce our show relatively cheaply to see if it resonated with audiences. We only signed up for a seven-week run, and our initial run ran through Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas and New Years—not a time of year that would have set us up for much success. However, despite the odds, Jason had this game plan, and wanted to plan for the possibility that it would be successful, and in the off-chance that the show was a success, he didn’t want to be unprepared for it. He kept saying “go big or go home” when we were gearing up to open. That possibility of Caught finding success is one of the reasons why Jason and Nick decided before we even opened to cast a complete understudy cast, and gave them dedicated understudy-only performances early in our run during times when the regular show was dark. It was an investment in the future of the show, in the off-chance that the show did succeed, and because of limited arts budgets, this was something only possible for us under the 99-seat plan. However, somewhere between the first and second extension, when we felt we actually had an audience that was interested in the show, the production team started working quickly to flip the entire company—union and non-union, principal and understudy actors and stage managers—to the AEA HAT contract. This wasn’t something we had to do, but we saw the commitment and dedication of our L.A. actors, and we wanted to invest in them as much as they had invested themselves in the show. In addition to the higher salaries, we felt they deserved the additional elements of the contract, like pension contribution, union dues, paid rehearsal time, etc. Financially this was a tough decision for Jason, but it was something we wanted to do from day one, and we’re very proud that we were given the opportunity to make the flip. As for “how it’s worked out,” so far so good.
Finally, what’s next for Caught?
The future seems bright. We’ve had interest from a number of theaters, including some extremely well-known houses around the country. Oddly enough, we’ve also had a few theaters internationally write us for rights. But we’re taking things one step at a time. Our ultimate goal would be to bring Caught off-Broadway, but the production team wants to attack that goal intelligently, which means we’ll most likely plan a stopover before going to New York. But the future is still to be written, and I’m enjoying every moment we have left during our run at the Zephyr. While this next chapter for Caught is still being written, I’m also working on my next play which I’m really excited about. I’m hoping to be able to share it with L.A. audiences by this time next year.
How do you and Jason plan to take Caught to the next level?
Similar to his production plan before we opened Caught at the Zephyr, Jason has a strategy to get the play to the next level. We’ve assembled an amazing team of enthusiastic people who are working with us to help find other theaters interested in getting Caught.
Thanks so much David, for taking time to answer all these questions!
Thank you, Steven! You’re amazing!
Photo of Original Cast: Michael Lamont