When Hollywood comedy writer Stan Zimmerman found out a very close friend of his had died by suicide, he was understandably overcome with shock and grief, leaving him not only at a loss for words — but with a boatload of questions.
Having gotten paid to write one-liners for iconic comedy television shows such as The Golden Girls and Roseanne (he and his writing partner James Berg wrote the famous “lesbian kiss episode” on the show), Zimmerman’s natural instinct for humor was seemingly overshadowed by the loss.
“As a comedy writer, I didn’t think I could do anything with my art to combat the shame around the subject,” reflected Zimmerman recently in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, on what coincidentally was the 10th year anniversary to the day of his close friend’s passing.
Initially being denied the opportunity to read his friend’s suicide note set Zimmerman on a rabid Google search: “Suicide Notes.”
“I started to collect all of these suicide notes and reading them, thinking I’d find the answer to the why he did it through other people’s notes,” says Zimmerman. “And because his ex-lover didn’t want to give me the note,” Zimmerman adds. “I had nowhere else to turn — and I also figured that as a comedy writer I can still see that side of it.”
It was a challenging turn. After about six months of collecting the suicide notes — some from the famous, including Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, others from the not-so-famous (“the heartsick, bullied, veterans, mentally ill” as described in a press release about his play) Zimmerman attempted to read them.
“Every time I would read them I would just burst out crying, I couldn’t do it,” recalls Zimmerman, who grew up in what he describes as “a Jewish neighborhood in Detroit.” He went on to study acting at NYU, where he and Berg met and began writing together “in between classes and after school jobs.” A spec script they wrote got them hired for the first season of The Golden Girls. That early success lead to more success: writing for Roseanne and Gilmore Girls.
But the suicide notes, once he collected them, presented a unique challenge to Zimmerman, who had never written anything on his own, nor tackled such a serious, taboo subject. After a producer convinced him to try putting the notes and characters together onstage at the Fringe Festival in LA (2015), Zimmerman found his way with the material, first with four actors, “like The Vagina Monologues on stools,” where Zimmerman says he “wanted to hit everyone in the place, like ‘this is reality.’”
“It wasn’t until (director) Michael Wilson said, ‘You need some levity here,” explains Zimmerman, “that the story of the play changed to it really being about what happens to a funny person when something tragic happens in their life and how they deal with it.” Along the way, Zimmerman added a narrator character who he often plays when the play is read or produced.
Right Before I Go
“I just forced myself to put it together and figure out in what order and how to kind of group the notes, and at the same time kind of tell the history of suicide notes — ending on more current situations like a trans woman in West Hollywood putting it on Facebook — and all of her friends in real time were going on Facebook wanting to get her attention to stop — so the ensemble plays all those roles,” he says.
Right Before I Go developed into the play that has been read and presented in cities across the country with various cast members — including a virtual reading with Vanessa Williams, Judith Light and Blair Underwood.
It will make its East End premiere on May 14 at LTV Studios in Wainscott with a local cast of 11, directed by Valerie diLorenzo, who is known on the East End for producing a yearly play for the local community at a not-for-profit venue that uses professional actors of the East End.
“In looking for a new piece, I saw Right Before I Go had been presented at Town Hall for a one-night celebrity studded reading (Ellen Burstyn, Lois Smith, Judith Light, Vanessa Williams) says diLorenzo. “I contacted Stan, had an email exchange, et cetera, the play was scheduled to be produced in 2020, then, Hello COVID!”
DiLorenzo decided to produce the play this month with LTV in conjunction with May’s Mental Health Awareness Month. She describes the casting and directing of this production as “surprising, enlightening, heartwarming, intense and humbling — a totally authentic experience.”
“No one is hiding behind a character,” says diLorenzo. “The cast shares the feeling of experiencing the power this work can do around a very tender topic. And yet with so many in the community refusing to acknowledge this reality, there is nothing to fear here.”
For Zimmerman, a gay man who says he and his writing partner are “one of the first gay comedy writing teams,” the experience of seeing Right Before I Go performed throughout the country is more than rewarding.
“The high percentage of trans teens who have committed suicide, or thought of it, is very high in the LGBTQ community, which is all the more reason this play needs to done in as many communities as possible,” Zimmerman says, making his case by describing an experience in January where a performance at a university where he was supposed to perform “was unfortunately canceled … because the head of the mental health department felt talking about it would make students do it.”
What did Zimmerman learn in the process of collecting the suicide notes?
“I was not expecting the poetry of the writing and the clarity of thought that everyone has, and the urgency,” recalls Zimmerman. “They were urgent — they had to tell their loved ones that it’s not their fault, that it’s something I’ve been suffering through and I love you so much, but this is my own pain that I just couldn’t see a way out of it.”
But, Zimmerman emphasizes, “There are ways out of it — that’s the point of the play. Hopefully, if people talk about this they won’t have to write notes, and that’s why I added the suicide survivor note — it gives the play hope.”
The proof is in the reaction to the productions and the people who reach out to him after experiencing it.
“I’ve gotten emails from people, one woman said, ‘I brought my son to the play and I think he saved his life.’ And that’s very intense, but that makes me want to do this play somewhere every weekend that I can — as difficult as it is for me to act in it, I feel like I have to do it.”
Right Before I Go by Stan Zimmerman will be presented by LTV, directed by Valerie diLorenzo on Saturday, May 14 and 21 (2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.).
Out East End Picks
Through May 15
Run a 5K or 10K fun run/leisure walk to support Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. In person in Battery Park or virtually wherever you are.
To register: callen-lorde.org/events/rainbowrun
Saturday, May 14, 8 p.m.–1 a.m., The Clubhouse, East Hampton
Wear your coolest mask and dance the night away to support Hamptons Pride.
EDIE’S BACKYARD BBQ
Saturday, May 28, 1–4 p.m., Southampton
The annual tradition is back to kick off summer! In honor of Edie Windsor, proceeds from this fun, festive BBQ benefit the Edie Windsor Healthcare Center. With Holly B as the DJ.
For tickets: southampton.stonybrookmedicine.edu/news/special-events
HAMPTON PRIDE PARADE
Saturday, June 4, lineup at 11 a.m., parade starts at noon, East Hampton Village
Celebrate Pride Month Out East.
Register your group, vehicle, band, or float at: hamptonspride.org