'Right Before I Go' Tackles The Tough Subject Of Suicide - 27 East

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‘Right Before I Go’ Tackles The Tough Subject Of Suicide

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Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of "Right Before I Go" at LTV on April 27. ANNETTE HINKLE

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of "Right Before I Go" at LTV on April 27. ANNETTE HINKLE

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of "Right Before I Go" at LTV on April 27. ANNETTE HINKLE

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of "Right Before I Go" at LTV on April 27. ANNETTE HINKLE

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of "Right Before I Go" at LTV on April 27. ANNETTE HINKLE

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of "Right Before I Go" at LTV on April 27. ANNETTE HINKLE

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of "Right Before I Go" at LTV on April 27. ANNETTE HINKLE

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of "Right Before I Go" at LTV on April 27. ANNETTE HINKLE

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of

Valerie diLorenzo directing her cast in a rehearsal of "Right Before I Go" at LTV on April 27. ANNETTE HINKLE

Elena Sweeney in a rehearsal of

Elena Sweeney in a rehearsal of "Right Before I Go" at LTV on April 27. VALERIE DILORENZO

King Johnson during a rehearsal of

King Johnson during a rehearsal of "Right Before I Go" at LTV on April 27. VALERIE DILORENZO

The full cast of

The full cast of "Right Before I Go" in rehearsal at LTV on April 27. VALERIE DILORENZO

The full cast of

The full cast of "Right Before I Go" in rehearsal at LTV on April 27. VALERIE DILORENZO

King Johnson during a rehearsal of

King Johnson during a rehearsal of "Right Before I Go" at LTV on April 27. VALERIE DILORENZO

Playwright Stan Zimmerman wrote

Playwright Stan Zimmerman wrote "Right Before I Go" in the wake of his friend's suicide. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Playwright Stan Zimmerman in the lobby of Town Hall in New York City on the night of a benefit performance of

Playwright Stan Zimmerman in the lobby of Town Hall in New York City on the night of a benefit performance of "Right Before I Go." COURTESY THE ARTIST

authorAnnette Hinkle on May 11, 2022

Last week when singer Naomi Judd died, her family released a statement saying she had been “lost to the disease of mental illness.” It was soon confirmed that Judd, as many suspected, had taken her own life.

Though Judd may have been the most recent high-profile individual to take her life, the issue of suicide is not one limited to any specific gender, age or socioeconomic group. It affects all levels of society — from the famous to the forgotten.

It’s also long been considered a subject that is too taboo to tackle in any sort of public or meaningful way. But one group of local actors will be doing just that over the course of the next two weekends when they present a staged reading of Stan Zimmerman’s play “Right Before I Go” at LTV Studios in Wainscott.

Directed by Valerie diLorenzo, a performer and singer in her own right, “Right Before I Go” brings to life the last words of many who have been lost to suicide, from well-known individuals like musician Kurt Cobain, novelist David Foster Wallace, cartoonist Ralph Barton and writer Virginia Woolf, to the unknown, including Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old Canadian teen. Todd’s heartbreaking suicide note was widely shared on YouTube in a video in which she held up flash cards detailing the unrelenting bullying she had endured before her death.

“Right Before I Go,” which had its world premiere as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2015, will be performed at LTV on two consecutive Saturdays — May 14 and 21 — with two shows both days in support of Mental Health Awareness Month. The staged reading features a diverse local cast of 10 representing a range of ages and walks of life, with some actors still in high school. A portion of the proceeds from the production will benefit the Long Island chapter of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and The Tyler Project, an organization established following the suicide of 20-year-old Montauk resident Tyler Valcich who died by suicide in May 2014.

When asked how the idea to present this play at LTV came about, diLorenzo explained that in recent years, she has been presenting staged play readings on the East End to draw attention to specific social issues and raise funds for related nonprofit groups. In 2018, she directed Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” at Southampton Arts Center (SAC) as a benefit for The Retreat. The following year, diLorenzo and her cast presented a reading of Nora and Delia Ephron’s play “Love, Loss and What I Wore” at SAC to benefit the Coalition for Women’s Cancers at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.

“It was a way to work, give my very talented friends work and a win-win for everybody,” diLorenzo said.

While the previous productions diLorenzo offered were very much female-centric entities, “Right Before I Go” is a somewhat different piece. The play offers statistics and facts about suicide and features the actors reading the final notes of those who have taken their lives, both men and women, straight and gay, young and old.

“What I was looking for was another monologue-style play that would talk about mental health and erase the stigma of people who say, ‘I need help, I’m feeling blue,’” diLorenzo explained. “A lot of people are hesitant to say they’re having a bad day. It’s that toxic positivity.

“I found this play in 2018 and wanted to do it in 2020 — and we all know what happened.”

Since beginning work on this staged reading earlier this year, diLorenzo notes that several of her actors have confided that the issues raised in it are familiar ones in their lives.

“Without giving names out, I’ve had many cast members come and say ‘People have talked to me this way, people are being bullied, shamed and harassed,’” diLorenzo said. “It’s very interesting how this evolved because of timing, but also we’re excited about the play. It’s a serious topic, but you don’t walk out feeling morbid, but instead hopeful.

“Some people are allergic to even discussing it and others say that they can’t wait to be here to see it,” added diLorenzo, who said that the play will conclude with a song — “You will be found” from the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen.”

“We end with that song and it’s an uplifting, inclusive piece. We are reading suicide notes, but we hope it sparks a conversation and has a message,” said diLorenzo, who, since beginning work on the project, has developed an email friendship with playwright Stan Zimmerman. “Everyone in the cast as well as those who saw the reading can relate to what was said in there. What stops you and I from committing the act when we have felt blue in our lives? That’s what Stan wanted to do — we all feel that way, so let’s talk about it.”

In a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, Zimmerman, a producer and writer for television series like “The Golden Girls,” “The Gilmore Girls” and “Roseanne,” explained that he wrote “Right Before I Go” as a way to channel his grief after his close friend Kevin Gill, a television director and producer, took his life in May 2012 at age 54.

“I’m standing in the same spot in my living room where a friend of his called me after his death,” said Zimmerman, nearly 10 years to the day after Gill’s suicide.

Zimmerman explained that he was one of four friends mentioned in Gill’s suicide note, and though all of his friends were heartbroken by the death, there were strong differences of opinion when it came to what should be shared with others in terms of the details of Gill’s passing.

“His friend Kristin and I split up duties after his death, and for some reason, I took on answering questions of friends who wanted to talk about it, not realizing I’d have to relive it every time they called and asked,” Zimmerman said. “Some wanted specifics, some wondered if it was cancer or AIDS. Nobody knew.”

Whatever details people wanted to know about Gill’s death — from the vague to the specific — Zimmerman willingly shared when asked.

“One of his friends got mad that I was talking about it because Kevin was a private person,” Zimmerman said. “It made me feel horrible. But then I thought, ‘Why is there so much shame around this topic?’”

Zimmerman wondered if there might be a way to use his skill as a writer to start a dialogue on the issue of suicide. So he began to research the history of suicide notes and came up with the idea of sharing the last words of others with the hope that he would find answers — or at least a sense of solace — when it came to addressing the “why” of his own friend’s death.

“I envisioned it in the mode of ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ something that could be read, rehearsed quickly, done cheaply and raise money for suicide awareness,” said Zimmerman.

The first version of “Right Before I Go” premiered in 2015 at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. The script was still in its early stages and it consisted primarily of the suicide notes told without the story of Gill’s death included. But when theater director Michael Wilson suggested personalizing the piece by adding in Gill’s story, Zimmerman decided to build the play around those details.

“So I added a narrator. Everyone said, ‘We know it’s you, why not just say the narrator is you?’” Zimmerman said. “I decided I had to do it for all those who are going through it or who have loved ones going through it.”

Since “Right Before I Go,” first premiered in 2015, the play has been presented around the country, including at Town Hall, where it had its New York City premiere in a benefit performance in December 2017, with Michael Wilson directing and starring actors Judith Light, Vanessa Williams and Ellen Burstyn. In October 2020, Fairfield University hosted a virtual production of the play with Williams featured alongside Blair Underwood and Wilson Cruz.

But Zimmerman’s goal is not to just have his play presented by all-star casts. He is just as pleased when smaller venues like LTV present “Right Before I Go” at the hyper local level as a way to get the conversation started in the community. And even now, 10 years after Gill’s death, Zimmerman admits he still struggles when he takes part in productions himself.

“It’s difficult. I want to do this play everywhere I can, but still, when I get to the part where I have to say his name, it gets stuck and there are tears,” Zimmerman admitted. “It shows how much Kevin meant to me and how important the subject is, so we have to keep doing it.

“Now we have the Naomi Judd tragedy,” he added. “Every time we go to do the play, there’s a well-known person that it happens to. Though we’re talking about someone famous, there are so many going through similar things.”

Though Zimmerman’s goal with the play is to break the silence and smash the stigma surrounding suicide, not everyone has been receptive to it. He explained that in January, he was scheduled to present “Right Before I Go” at a university, which he isn’t naming, but the production was canceled after the university’s director of counseling and prevention objected to the subject matter.

“They stopped it because they felt it would make kids want to do it,” Zimmerman said, “which is a very backwards way of thinking and which is the opposite of where mental health professionals stand now.”

When asked how he thinks Gill would feel about his play, Zimmerman, whose dream is to see the show play on Broadway with a rotating cast, said, “I think he’s watching over me and sees how since the Fringe Festival it’s been growing and growing. We have productions coming up in Wisconsin and Alabama. Kevin loved entertainment. He came to every one of my plays and I think he is saying, keep doing this so someone doesn’t have to suffer what he did.”

“Right Before I Go” will be performed on Saturdays, May 14 and 21, with shows at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at LTV Studios, 75 Industrial Road, Wainscott. The cast includes: Amaia Astorr, Matthew Conlon, Nina Dobiszewska, Rachel Feldman, Josh Gladstone, King Johnson, John Leonard, Joe Pallister, Nicole Seitz, Susan Stout and Elena Sweeney. Audience talk back will be offered after the show. For Spanish speaking audiences, translation headsets will be provided at the May 21, 2 p.m. performance. Tickets are $20 to $25 are available at ltveh.org or at the door. VIP tickets are also available.

Resources For Those In Need:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

The Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:.afsp.org

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