Stan Zimmerman’s one helluva funny guy.
The prolific, highly creative and award-winning writer has penned many beloved comedies, including Golden Girls, Roseanne and Gilmore Girls and continued the story of the lovely lady and her three very lovely girls on to the big screen in the Brady Bunch movies.
So the last subject his fans would expect from him is a play about suicide.
“Right Before I Go is the first really serious play that I’ve written,” Zimmerman, a Southfield native, says of his upcoming one-night-only benefit for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the JED Foundation in New York City. “After my friend took his life five years ago, I was in such shock. I wanted to somehow use my craft to work with the pain and help others.”
So he started collecting suicide notes from war veterans, singer Kurt Cobain, author Virginia Woolf, members of the LGBTQ community, kids who were terribly bullied and others who had suffered heartbreak and loneliness. He initially titled it Suicide Notes: In Their Own Words.
“I did a staged reading in my living room [in the Hollywood Hills] and my friends encouraged me to write and write so that it would end with a feeling of hope and that people would feel uplifted to reach out to those who were suffering,” says Zimmerman, who returned to Michigan in August for his 40th Southfield High reunion.
“There is a huge suicide rate among war veterans. So I wanted to represent them and get people talking about what they can do to help. It makes me want to get this play up and running even more,” Zimmerman says.
“It’s a lot to shoulder. As Diane Orley so eloquently said to me, ‘We didn’t choose to be involved in this subject so we have to make a difference.’”
— STAN ZIMMERMAN
Developed to be presented as a one-hour scripted narrative, a la The Vagina Monologues or Love Letters, Zimmerman polished the final piece, directed it with four actors and premiered it at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2015, taking home the Encore Producer’s Award.
“It’s a lot to shoulder,” Zimmerman says. “As Diane Orley so eloquently said to me, ‘We didn’t choose to be involved in this subject so we have to make a difference.’”
Orley, who lives in Birmingham with her husband, Randy, is a co-producer in Zimmerman’s play, now renamed Right Before I Go, that will be presented Dec. 4 at Town Hall in New York City. Directed by Michael Wilson, Right Before I Go will feature celebrity actors Ellen Burstyn, Judith Light, Elizabeth Ashley, Maulik Pancholy, Raviv Ullman and Maggie Lacey.
After Diane and Randy lost their son to suicide on Aug. 26, 2013, at the age of 20, they started the George A. Orley Memorial Fund at the Jewish Federation. Wanting to be advocates in mental health, Diane and her friend, Linda Aikens, started a non-profit called the George Orley Mental Wellness Initiative. Money raised through fundraisers support the Wolverine Support Network (WSN) at the University of Michigan, where George was a rising junior at the time of his death. Diane and Randy’s son Sam, a senior at U-M, is the executive director of WSN.
“The WSN empowers U-M students to create a safe community and support each other’s identity, mental well-being and day-to-day lives through peer-facilitated groups and bi-weekly social events,” says Diane, who will attend the Dec. 4 NYC benefit with her husband and their daughter, Amanda. “In the past year, Linda and I have also started a peer support program at Cranbrook, and we hope to expand it to other high schools.”
Julie Sachse, Orley’s and Zimmerman’s mutual friend, formerly of Southfield and Farmington Hills and now living in L.A., introduced Orley to Zimmerman. Amy Blavin, also a former Michigander now living in L.A., is a co-producer as well. Blavin confirmed that Right Before I Go will be performed in L.A. in September next year.
And while Zimmerman was infamous for his TV column musings in the Thompson Jr. High School newsletter, his real love was acting. When his second-grade teacher called his mom to say that Zimmerman had a gift — “it totally changed my life,” he recalls.
He attended Cranbrook Schools’ theater camp for five summers, then the Hampton Playhouse for two before earning his bachelor of fine arts at New York University’s Circle-in-the-Square Drama Program.
“I started in New York at NYU being an actor, so I’m extremely fortunate to come back to New York to put the play on,” says Zimmerman, who has also directed plays, music videos and television; he also teaches a Sitcom Auditioning Workshop. “With all the craziness in the world right now, it’s exciting to find myself again in theater; I just want to get back to my roots.”
Julie Smith Yolles Special to the Jewish News
Tickets for Right Before I Go start at $52; purchase them at rightbeforeigo.com or ticketmaster.com by calling (800) 745-3000 or in person at the Town Hall Box Office in New York. Tickets purchased at the $252 level and above come with admission to an exclusive VIP pre-show cocktail reception.
Proceeds from the evening will benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org) and the JED Foundation (jedfoundation.org). The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week, across the United States. If you, or someone you love, is in crisis, call (800) 273-8255.
The Crisis Text Line serves anyone, in any type of crisis, providing access to free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week support and information via text. Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the U.S., anytime, about any type of crisis.
For more information, visit rightbeforeigo.com.