“Every writing project is driven by something personal,” says Andrew Hinderaker. “You have an impulse to tell a story. Then you get into it, and you realize… Oh, man. This is a completely different play than I’ve ever tried to write.”
He’s talking about Suicide, Incorporated, now playing at No Rules Theatre Company. Hinderaker’s drama is a tragicomic look at the fictional staff of Legacy Letters, a company that helps its clients workshop their suicide notes.
For No Rules Co-Artistic Director Joshua Morgan, it’s a thrill to introduce Hinderaker’s work to DC audiences. “I have not been this excited about a play for a while,” said Morgan, who also directed the play. “The writing is so economical, but so packed with character. The actors have had to explore all of the emotions underneath the words, and then suppress almost all of it. In a very smart way, Andrew has written about how men are often unable to express themselves or ask for help.”
“It’s a beautiful script,” said Joe Isenberg, who plays Scott, the CEO of Legacy Letters. “It really pops with energy and fun. This is one that I really think is going to surprise people. It’s going to very exciting.”
Hinderaker spoke with DC Theatre Scene by phone from Chicago last week to discuss the unusual origins of the play, the discoveries made during writing, and how these characters might look familiar to us.
You’re currently in a grad program for writing at UT Austin, right? What are you doing in Chicago?
Andrew: I’m opening a play at Chicago Dramatists Theatre called I Am Going To Change The World. It’s about a Northwestern graduate who plans to be a billionaire by the time he’s 35, but who gets a rude awakening. Then in September I’m here because the Gift Theatre is doing a play of mine called Dirty. It’s being directed by Jonathan Berry, who directed Suicide at the Roundabout in New York.
Everything comes in waves, and this has been a busy wave. I’ve been in conversation with Josh [Morgan] while I’ve been working on this play over here. It’s only recently that I’ve had multiple projects going on at the same time. It’s been a really exciting year.
No Rules is doing the third production of Suicide, Incorporated, after the Gift Theatre in Chicago debuted it in 2010 and Roundabout Theatre Company in New York produced it last fall. What’s exciting to you about this third production?
When the Gift Theatre produced it, that was really the first professional production of a full-length play of mine. So I was involved intensely in Chicago. Then when we brought it to Roundabout I was involved pretty intensely there too. But it’s been great to take a step back, get a sense of what worked, then do some final rewrites and talk with Josh. With this third production we can say: This is where the play wants to be. It shows something like final involvement from me.
I really think No Rules deserves all the credit in the world. They’re doing the heavy lifting in this relationship, but it’s been wonderful. Josh and I have had some really valuable conversations. I was also with everyone by Skype for a read-through of the play early on, where I was able to offer my thoughts.
When did the idea for Suicide, Incorporated come about?
The genesis of this play had to do with a personal loss. I lost a friend to suicide, and from there I came to understand the more systemic nature of suicide among young men. Ultimately I wrote this play because I felt there was a conversation about masculinity and suicide that wasn’t being had. Eighty percent of suicides are male. And the age group I focus on in this play — men in their late teens and their twenties — is one of the most prevalent for suicide. Also men in their sixties. So we see this phenomenon happening mainly during the journey into and out of manhood.
I started by trying to write something more straightforward, something without such a dark comic bent. But I wasn’t able to tell the story I wanted to tell. Then I started thinking about a job I once had, where I was working for a company that edited client’s admissions essays for colleges and grad schools. Thinking about that experience, and having not gotten total closure with this friend’s suicide… I was just in my kitchen one day, and this idea came to me: a company that edits suicide notes.
It unfolded from there. The main character comes to work for the company because of a personal loss to suicide, and he tries to get this job in order to talk clients out of suicide. I was just writing from my heart. It was a way of exploring the kind of irrational grief you feel a responsibility toward having lost somebody. You think: ‘If I can just save this person, then I can atone.’ Or, more irrationally: ‘I can bring that person back.’ So even though the premise of the play is a bit absurd, it was how I had to tell the story in order to be honest.
So writing this play was an act of grieving.
Absolutely. I feel like that process carried all the way through the Chicago production.
To me, this play is about opening up our ideas of masculinity, and what it takes to be a man. It can be difficult for people to tell each other that they’re in pain — that they can’t get through it alone. Hopefully we can see that the act of making yourself vulnerable is actually an act of strength. I hope that I can have some impact this way.
What’s the most interesting thing about this play to you right now, as you’ve continued to work on it?
Part of making edits is about never losing sight of what the play is about. And the heart of this play lives in a few specific relationships between characters. So in making the play tighter and stronger, I’ve had to make sure I’m not cutting out any of that muscle.
Often you have to aim for simplicity but avoid sounding simplistic. Clear and strong and simple is usually the best way to go.
One scene in Suicide took me at least fifty drafts to write. Once it landed it was quite simple, but in writing it I found it surprisingly complex in its simplicity. It includes a flashback within a flashback, and to pull that off in a seamless way was tricky to navigate. I had to figure out how to let the characters’ emotional journeys push that part of the play forward.
It’s been a process of acknowledging where my weaknesses are and then leaning into them.
Josh Morgan and Joe Isenberg both talked about the unusual tonal shifts in this play. Josh said to me: “For the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the play, you think it’s going to be an office comedy, border-line farce. It just flies by. These relationships are so fast and physical. Then later on in the show, it’s like the rug is pulled out from under you.”
Yeah, I’ve had to learn to not be afraid of the tonal shifts. That’s been another aspect of the editing process. This is a play that starts very differently than it ends. So in going back and getting some distance, I’ve learned to not be afraid of that. The structure really rests on those moments of shift, those hairpin turns, and there are some wonderful challenges there for Josh and the cast to figure out. Actually, part of my work with this production has been to bring some of the dark humor and absurdism back in. I’m trusting that as we navigate through that we’re not going to lose our audience. If we really live in those moments where the play shifts and the temperature in the room changes, we can trust it.
Does each play you write impact the next one?
The back-to-back projects do seem to be in conversation with each other in some way. The play I wrote after Suicide Incorporated is called Kingsville, which is also about masculinity. It focuses on school shootings, and on the fact that every school shooter has been male. And the two pieces going up this year — I Am Going To Change The World and Dirty — also have some similarities, in that they both deal with the investment banking world and with pornography. They’re very different plays, but they have some thematic similarities. One is a more heartfelt drama, the other is more overtly a satire.
Do you have plays in mind that you feel you just can’t write yet? Or do you jump into everything?
I’m still in the process of rewriting Kingsville. It’s close, but I hit a point recently where I wonder: Do I have the tools in the toolbox to really pull this off? But I have that thought every time I write a play, because the challenge is different each time. Dirty is hard because it’s a three-act play with two intermissions. Suicide is hard because of how economical and tight it has to be.
Did you write before you did theatre… Did you do theatre before you wrote?
I started writing during college. I was a pre-med / creative writing major. And I was writing short fiction, short stories. During my junior year in college, somebody dared me to enter a one-act playwriting competition. I did, and there was something extraordinary to me about being in a rehearsal room. Half of me is a huge introvert — I love being in a room by myself early in the morning, writing. But the other half of me thinks that there’s no greater thrill than working in a room with theatre people, working off of artists.
Do you have any personal connections to DC yet, or is this a brand-new door being thrown open?
It’s pretty brand-new. I’ve heard so many phenomenal things about the DC theatre scene. I’m definitely going to come see the show while it’s running. And I’ll be here for a week, seeing shows around town.