When playwright and acclaimed television writer Stan Zimmerman (Golden Girls, Roseanne, Gilmore Girls) heard the news his dear friend Kevin Gill had died by suicide, he was shocked. Zimmerman was one of five people mentioned in Gill’s suicide note—his final goodbye. “We just wanted to piece together to see if we could figure out the ‘whys’ because you’re just left with a lot of questions and no answers,” says Zimmerman. “There’s so much shame around suicide, and he had kept most of us in the dark. I thought, ‘I just gotta do something about this and use my craft, but I’m a comedy writer. What can I do? This is not a funny subject.’”
Following the old adage, Zimmerman “wrote what he knew” and created Right Before I Go, a play framed around the last letters from well-knowns like Kurt Cobain and Virginia Woolf to military veterans to a 19-Century female pioneer. “I came up with this idea of doing The Vagina Monologues, except with suicide notes, and having actors sit on stools and read them, and that way it could be done very easily, very inexpensively, and anywhere all over the world,” says Zimmerman.
On December 4, the play receives its first New York reading in a one-night-only event to benefit American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and JED Foundation with a cast that includes two-time Tony winner Judith Light, Tony winner Elizabeth Ashley, Tony winner Ellen Burstyn, Tony nominee Lois Smith, Drama Desk winner Maggie Lacey, and stage and screen stars Wilson Bethel, Jennifer Lim, Chris Gethard, Rashad Jennings, Hari Nef, Maulik Pancholy, Amber Tamblyn, and Raviv Ullman, hosted by Tony nominee Vanessa Williams. But the show’s first iterations featured only four actors: two men and two women, two older, two younger.
Click here to purchase tickets.
“He manages to do that and to take us through history of people—some of whom we knew had taken their own lives, some of whom we didn’t—and then lead us to a place of light and hope,” says director Michael Wilson. “It’s almost like a collection of portraits. Each portrait has this intense, short, dramatic play behind it.”
Over the years, Zimmerman gathered notes to create these portraits, scrounging through books, online videos, goodbye posts left on Facebook pages, letters people sent him when they learned of his work.
“I love that the piece can be a living, breathing piece, which is kind of odd to say about something about suicide,” says Zimmerman, “but I think as we do the play, people can bring me their notes, we can incorporate them. That’s how the play grew.”
Because of its simplicity, Zimmerman has big dreams for the work and the impact it can make. “Using The Vagina Monologues template to have a rotating cast, I would love it to be Off-Broadway, Broadway, wherever we can do it,” he says. But he sees a New York run as a means to inspire audiences to create local offshoot productions around the U.S. and the world.
His inspiration, Eve Ensler, founded the V-Day movement in 1998 with the intent of using royalty-free performances of her Monologues during the month of February to raise money for organizations that prevent violence against women and benefit female victims of violence. Zimmerman hopes to follow suit for his cause.
“So many suicide foundations have to always do benefits and this is a way they could have income,” he says. And just groups stage Ensler’s Monologues all over the world each February, Zimmerman sees a world where Right Before I Go plays just as prominently during September, national Suicide Prevention Month. “This could go on to many countries; think of all the lives it could touch.
“It could be a one-person show. It could be a high school show with 40 kids doing it. It could be all women, all men. You could add music, dance,” says Zimmerman. “Another goal of ours is to do a tour of colleges. My dream would be we bring two adult actors and we pick two theatre students from each school to be involved and that way they not only get to experience the show, but are a part of it.”
And he doesn’t stop there. “I dream of it being an HBO special and [we] give each note to a different film director and say ‘Do what you want. Do it as a music video. Do it literally, or it could be in someone’s head.’ I think that would be an extraordinary documentary to see.”
But for now, Zimmerman and Wilson focus on crafting the emotional experience for Monday’s Town Hall audience. Wilson has been working with individual actors on their character arcs in person, by phone, and over Skype before putting the full piece together in a day-of blitzkrieg.
Some actors play the note’s author, others the person who found it, and still others people described in them.
Getting so many actors to lean in to the darkness in these characters can be a tough ask, but they are up for the challenge and the catharsis. “The darkness is a place that, when asked, must be tapped into as a performer,” says Williams. “And doing it effectively is a release for the actor and gift for the audience.”
““I think part of an actor is being willing to be uncomfortable because, as you said, we’re doing it in service of something,” says Pancholy. ““As a culture we still have difficulty talking about suicide, and too often we don’t know how to prevent it.”
Ultimately, the evening is about prevention and turning these fates around for the future. As Zimmerman says, “If we can save one life, then I know we’ve done something.”
Right Before I Go plays Town Hall (123 W 43rd Street New York, NY) December 4 at 8PM.