some of the things I was going through, having lost my friend, were shared experiences. One of the parents I spoke with had become intensely involved in suicide prevention efforts and she said something to the effect of, “Well, you have to; that’s the only thing you can do to keep going.” That mentality is definitely apparent in the play.
TS: It sounds like you were fortunate to have people who were open to talking with you in a deep, personal way. AH: They were extremely gracious. I talked to a young man who had attempted suicide and his story was incredible. I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing it because he’s a writer and he’s working on a book where he’s talking about it, but the end is that a complete stranger ultimately saved his life. I once said, a little flippantly, that I thought you could distill everything I’ve written down to the very simple idea that we’re capable of saving each other’s lives. And I think that there is that element in this piece. Not that it’s easy, not that it can work for everyone, and not in a way that negates the fact that people who commit suicide are almost always dealing with very severe mental illness.
TS: What was the most challenging part of writing this play and what was the most fun? AH: The immediate answer in terms of what was the most fun was the opportunity to work with all of the people I’ve gotten to work with. I’ve been so lucky. The very first reading of the play was at Victory Gardens. And then I had the extraordinary opportunity to develop the play at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference. They give you two weeks to develop a play in the mountains of Idaho and you work with these amazing actors. Immediately after that reading, we did a reading of the play at Steppenwolf, which Jonathan Berry, who’s directing the play here, directed and Michael Thornton, who produced the play in Chicago, was in. One of the great joys of playwriting is being in the rehearsal room and being a part of the development process. A few things are challenging. There’s a scene in the play where a police officer comes in and it ultimately leads to a memory for the main character. I feel pretty good about how it’s finally been orchestrated, but it took about forty drafts to structure that right. The other challenge is that it’s a bit of a counterintuitive structure because the scenes get longer as we go through.
TS: Can you describe what you look for in a director and in casting actors for this piece? AH: You look for someone who understands your writing, who can hear the cadences of it. It is a play where the rhythms are so important and you need somebody who gets that and gets where it’s coming from. The humor at the top of the play is important to draw people in; to let people know that just because it’s a serious topic, we’re not going to treat it so seriously that we forget what is on the other side of the sadness. One of the wonderful things about Jonathan Berry is he’s a Midwestern dude about my age and we’re from that same Midwestern, slightly awkward, earnest stock that understands that humor comes from a place of self- deprecation. I generally know within ten minutes of having a conversation with a director if they are right for the play. They get right to the heart of it. In conversations with Jonathan, he cut right to the chase and talked about loss in a very personal and profound way.
TS: Who are your favorite playwrights and do you find reading or seeing other plays helpful? AH: I was reading an interview recently with Annie Baker and she was talking about a piece of advice she got from Mac Wellman saying, “There really is no great secret, the best playwrights are the best read playwrights.” When I was in Chicago, I burned a hole through my Chicago Public Library card. Routinely, every month I’d take my little canvas tote bag and they would say, “I’m sorry the limit is thirty.” That conversation happened a number of times. I was fortunate to be in a community where you could go and see interesting work. That is definitely the way I feed myself. I go back and read some of my favorite plays and am reminded of what theatre can do for me.
TS: What are those plays? AH: Shining City by Conor McPherson is one. I really love Sam Hunter’s work. I was just knocked on the floor when I read his play, I am Montana. The Brothers Size is a stunning piece of writing. In my bag right now I have M. Butterfly and Amadeus because I’m working on a piece that has a lot of direct address and I think they do that in such a brilliant way. Topdog/ Underdog is a play I constantly go back to, I love that play. Burn This. Red Light Winter. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. There are just so many writers right now that excite me. I dig Naomi Iizuka’s and Julia Cho’s work. I mentioned Annie Baker; her play, The Aliens, blew me away. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, by Kris Diaz, reminded me how much fun theater can be. And I stumbled into one of the very first previews of August: Osage County, and got to watch an ensemble leave everything on stage, and fight for a piece of theater before it became a phenomenon. I’m going to walk out of here and there’s going to be forty writers that I’m going to think of. I always go back to Chekhov and Shakespeare. Chekhov and Ibsen and the Chicago Bears and Dumb and Dumber shape how I write and probably in a combination that you don’t necessarily find that often.
TS: You’ve started answering this next question. We have many students who will be very curious about your advice to someone who aspires to write. You’ve already said, “read”. AH: Yeah, there’s no getting around it. And it’s advice that I was given. To the extent that you can, see as many plays as you can. Ideally, see them and read them. I think that’s the best thing you can do. I certainly appreciate that it can be tricky with the economics of it but there are often student discounts. If you’re a little bit older, you can usher and go to shows for free. That’s how I got into a lot of shows. Find out the companies and the places that are doing the kind of work you love, and get to know those people. If you are a huge sports fan or a fan of music or movies, you can filter that into your work. I’m a big believer in writing every day. Have fun and lean into the things that are joyful for you.
TS: I sense the joy you bring to your work, Andrew. AH: I’ve been surrounded by such wonderful collaborators. That’s once again proven to be the case here at Roundabout. It’s such a great opportunity and I feel so excited about this show and this space. Putting this play in an ideal, intimate space with an ideal group of artists is pretty rare in my experience. It provides yet another opportunity to work with these extraordinary collaborators. Try to work with the most talented, fun people whose hearts are entirely in it. •
UPSTAGE SUICIDE, INCORPORATED 5
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