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‘Right Before I Go’ sends emotional message

Claremont High theatre department is collaborating with a celebrity writer and adult actors from throughout the school district for a staged reading of Right Before I Go, a collection of actual suicide notes from persons ranging from the famous to the unknown.

The final missives of Virginia Woolf and Kurt Cobain are represented, interspersed with the personal experiences of Right Before I Go playwright Stan Zimmerman, who will join the cast in the role of narrator for two 7:00 p.m. performances Friday, November 2 and Saturday, November 3 at CHS’s Don F. Fruechte Theatre for the Performing Arts, 1601 N. Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont. Tickets are $20 and are available at the door or online at the CHS theatre webstore at chstheatre.cusd.claremont.edu.

Mr. Zimmerman, best known for his work on television’s The Golden Girls, Gilmore Girls and Rosanne, said the genesis of Right Before I Go was the suicide of his close friend, Kevin Gill. “When I realized the shame around this topic and how Kevin had kept the depth of his situation from me, I knew I had to do something,” he said. “So I figured out a way to use my artistic sensibilities to create a theatre piece that could be easily produced in communities around the world, kind of in the vein of The Vagina Monologues.”

Along with a celebrity narrator, the cast includes student actors, school district officials and board members, teachers and administrators from CHS—including principal Brett O’Connor—and Sycamore and Vista elementary schools.

“I love working with high school actors and adult non-actors, not only as an acting teacher myself, but also as an ex-high school theatre geek,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “In fact, I was president of my local thespian troupe at my high school in Michigan. As my classmates would attest, I took my oath of office extremely seriously. So it is not surprising that I have gone back to roots in theatre after a long career in writing for television and film.”

The script’s subject matter has left an impact on the multi-generational actors, said Ms. Elhai. “There’s one particular piece toward the end of the show that I think is harder for the adults. It’s by far the most emotional piece, and it’s by far the one with the most raw language. It’s the one that required us to have a content warning, but it’s so powerful. It’s about a teenage boy. I think the kids really enjoy hearing that, and I know the adults feel like they’re making a real powerful statement through those last few lines.”

Ms. Elhai began mounting staged readings with combined casts of student actors and non-actor adults two years ago with Our Town. “Our Town was our first one, and it wasn’t as social justice theater as I wanted it to be,” she said. “I was looking for a staged reading, because that first year a lot of the adults had trouble memorizing lines. They’re not professional actors, and [with a traditional play] the amount of rehearsal—it was like a heavy six to eight weeks—they just don’t have that kind of time.”

This year’s offering certainly rises to the level of socially relevant theater, as teen suicide has affected ever-widening communities across the country, including Claremont. Yet despite the heartbreaking subject matter, the play ultimately offers a hopeful message. “A lot of the lines at the end talk about all the people that attempt suicide and don’t succeed, and how glad they are because their life got better, things got better, and that it was a dark moment that did not define the rest of what their life has been,” Ms. Elhai said.

That assessment pleases Mr. Zimmerman, who wrote the play with the desire to instill hope and a sense of community. “If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, there are many organizations that can help. You are not alone,” he said. “If we start the dialogue with a play like this, we can save lives. I’ve already been sent emails that have said just that. Live theatre can be very powerful.”

Ms. Elhai says she and CHS Principal Brett O’Connor are already thinking about a staged reading for next year that will address another cogent social topic. “I think it’s a really good project, and it’s great bringing the generations together. I had no idea it’d be as timely when we began talking about it last year, unfortunately.”

All proceeds from the show will be donated to the Yellow Ribbon Program, the Jed Foundation and the American Association of Suicide Prevention. Some content may not suitable for young audiences. Tickets are $20 and are available at the door or online at the CHS theatre webstore at  chstheatre.cusd.claremont.edu. Presale is strongly recommended. For more information go to chstheatre.cusd.claremont.edu or call (909) 624-9053, extension 30463.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

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