A network audience of more than 2 million viewers on CBS primetime this month watched a Red Dragon alumni duo compete on one of TV’s hottest new game shows and walk away with almost $40,000.
For Kevin Rayo’ 17 and Billy Swenson ’15 it was a far bigger audience than the 386 seats in SUNY Cortland’s Dowd Fine Arts Theatre.
The team, SUNY Cortland musical theatre majors now living in New York City, were dubbed the “City Slickers” for an episode of “Raid the Cage” — the latest version of a popular international game show brand that began in Israel. The new American iteration debuted this October on CBS with hosts Damon Wayans Jr. and Jeannie Mai.
Both Rayo and Swenson said they had let people know they were interested in the idea of competing on a game show like “Amazing Race.” When someone Swenson knew became involved in casting “Raid the Cage,” the two friends were contacted.
A full two-month audition process followed for a show so new that the details given Rayo and Swenson amounted to little more than, “It’s trivia, and then you’re going to take things,” Swenson recalled.
The actual rules turned out to be a little more involved. Two teams of two contestants compete by answering questions and hauling as many prizes as they can from a giant “cage” before the door closes on them. Only the team with the highest money total from their prizes gets to keep what they won.
But first, Rayo and Swenson had to make it on the show.
“We had to figure out what we were going to wear and what our quote unquote ‘brand’ was going to be when we were out there,” Swenson said.
Their focus was on being theater friends from college. On the show they described how they met while “trauma bonding from a forced ballet class.”
Both Rayo and Swenson laughingly admitted to not being the best dancers. So, an early morning ballet class at the Dowd Fine Arts Center became a trial that they survived thanks to a shared sense of humor.
“It was almost like a comedy show because we both had no idea what’s going on, and so that bonding happened in the back of class,” Swenson said.
Their university performing experience also served them well during the exhausting shooting schedule for “Raid the Cage.” Swenson and Rayo said that about 300 people were in the audience watching them. For a pair used to performing in shows, it was more delightful than daunting.
“We were filming for about 12 hours by the time of the last round,” Swenson said. “We would film and then, when the other team would go on, we were in another holding room in a different building, so we never knew what was happening. As those hours go on you get tired. But every time we would walk back on set, you could feel the energy from the audience and it would feel like, ‘OK. We got it. We’ve got to do this now.’ So, I feel like what we learned from school was just go on and be ourselves and just do it.”
Even before they made it to the show’s set, they enjoyed the perks of being among CBS’ game show chosen. The show is filmed in Mexico City, where a Mexican version of “Raid the Cage” is also shot, so they were given an all-expenses paid flight for the trip.
Once there, they were taught more about the rules of the game, including that that second-place team goes home with nothing.
“That put a pit in my stomach,” Rayo said. “I think, ‘We have to win this because, 1: I’m not going on TV to lose; and, 2: I’m not going to go home without some sort of prize.’”
With little prep time before filming began, they successfully jumped out to an early lead and didn’t look back. After coming up short in a final bonus round, they still left “Raid the Cage” with $39,507 in eclectic prizes that ranged from an iPhone to an electric, rideable suitcase.
After the show ended, they had the option to convert their winnings to cash, a choice they were happy to make. They split the money.
“I, personally, know I am just happy all the credit cards that 18- to 20-year-old me decided that I needed are finally being paid off,” Rayo joked. “If it can help us both after the split, we’ll be very happy. Getting out of the debt cloud is where all that money is going toward.”
After a whirlwind 48 hours from New York City to Mexico City and back again, Swenson and Rayo had to keep the results secret until broadcast — a feat that the two found almost as tough as “Raid the Cage” itself. When their show debuted last month, they enjoyed watching it in a bar with friends and thinking back on the fun, surreal experience.
“Honestly, it was one of those moments in your life where you think, ‘God, this is amazing and I don’t want this to end,” Swenson said. “When we walked on stage we were treated like royalty. The hair, the makeup. Every time was ‘Do you need a snack? You need a snack. You need, you need.’ It was just like the coolest thing and to now see it happen in a national forum was awesome.”