April 1, 2020

No lights, no cameras, just action at the Hollywood Fringe Fest

“I can’t handle the pain of my history,” singer-songwriter-actress Harmony Jupiter says in her solo musical, “Afraid of Karma,” which she’ll perform at the Let Live Theater at The Actors Company as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival on June 25 and 27. 

Through monologues and her indie rock/electro pop songs, Jupiter, 36, describes how, after her parents divorced when she was 5, three people who rented rooms in her mother’s home in San Francisco molested her. By the time she was in fifth grade, she was taking diet pills to fuel her anorexia, which became so severe that a doctor eventually warned she could die of heart failure. At 15, she learned that her father had AIDS, just two months before he died of the disease.  

And on Jan. 22, 2006, Jupiter was walking in New York’s East Village with her beloved sister, Hannah Engle, then 25 and a master’s degree candidate working toward a career in Jewish communal work, when Engle was struck and killed by a car in a hit-and-run accident. Desperate not to be alone in her ensuing grief, Jupiter flung herself into a series of dysfunctional affairs, dating a married man and a heroin addict, among others, she said in a recent telephone interview.

“When you’re really young, if bad things happen to you, you believe you are bad; for as long as I can remember, I thought that was just my karma,” Jupiter said. “So part of me believed that Hannah’s death was yet another punishment.”

The change came when Jupiter saw how much Engle’s other loved ones were suffering as a result of her death; she went on to create “Afraid of Karma” to explore her own mourning process as well as to honor her late sister.

Jupiter’s self-revealing play is one of almost 300 shows — 20 percent of them solo works — that have been staged at some 35 venues this month as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Founded by Ben Hill in 2010, the festival is one of the largest of its kind in the world, spotlighting small, short productions — a number of them only one hour long, by unknown playwrights or still works in progress — all competing for viewers and reviews in an atmosphere of intense artistic camaraderie.

Anyone able to pay for a venue can sign up: “The only Fringe Festival rule is don’t be a jerk,” Hill said.  

Another mandate is, “You have 15 minutes to set up your show and 15 minutes to take it down,” said Stan Zimmerman, whose four-person play, “Suicide Notes:  In Their Own Words,” will be performed at Theatre Asylum June 25, 27 and 28. “The actors almost come dressed in their costumes; you jump in and do the show and you leave.”

From left: Brendan Robinson, Allie Gonino, Olivia D’Abo and Peter Onorati in the four-person play “Suicide Notes: In Their Own Words.” Below: Stan Zimmerman, the play’s writer-director.

This year’s festival began with previews on June 4, opened June 11 and continues through June 28. Its diverse fare includes “Charivari in Voyeurville,” a vaudeville rock-musical “masquerade”; the Hamlet-Mobile, a traveling van in which actors perform scenes inspired by that Shakespearean play; and Brian Schiller’s “How I Lost My Virginity at 29 & Other Embarrassing Tales,” in which the Jewish performer merges stand-up comedy and personal narrative to tell how his childhood molestation at the hands of an older boy sabotaged his future relationships.

On a recent morning at his home in the Hollywood Hills, Zimmerman, who grew up in a Jewish home near Detroit and is best known for penning episodes of the sitcoms “Roseanne” and “The Golden Girls,” explained how he came to write and direct “Suicide Notes,” his first foray beyond comedy.

It began with a telephone call one terrible day three years ago, when Zimmerman learned that his close friend and show-business colleague, Kevin Gill, then in his 50s, had committed suicide by inhaling toxic chemicals in his garage in Los Angeles. Gill’s ex-lover received his suicide note in the mail.  “Kevin said he just wanted us to know that he loved us all … but he didn’t see any other way out of his pain,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman had known that Gill suffered from depression and a drinking problem; Gill’s mother had left him to fend for himself when he was 15, and, “How do you ever get over that?” Zimmerman said. But Gill put on a good face for his friends, who were shocked by his death. In the aftermath, Zimmerman served as the point person for mourners with questions about his suicide.

Then one Sunday morning, the phone rang again. “It was one of Kevin’s friends, who was very angry at me for telling people who asked about the details of how Kevin had died,” Zimmerman said. “That was the turning point when I realized, ‘This is the problem: We don’t talk about suicide; we shove it under the rug.’ I felt,

‘I have to do something about this.’ And suddenly it just hit me; I could create a piece using real suicide notes to help create a dialogue about this issue.”

Gill’s ex-lover did not grant permission for Zimmerman to use Kevin’s note in the play, but the writer-director found a number of such missives online in order to pen the show.  

In a manner similar to that of “The Vagina Monologues,” “Suicide Notes” features four actors, seated on stools, who read excerpts from real notes written mostly by individuals who tragically succeeded in killing themselves. They include a letter by a man to his wife, in the midst of a nasty divorce; one by the 19th-century women’s rights activist Ida Craddock, who chose death over incarceration in an insane asylum — the penalty for her writings on female sexuality; and another by a 14-year-old girl who had been so severely bullied by her classmates that she hanged herself on a tree where she knew her tormentors would find her. There also are notes written by Iraq war veterans, gay youths and celebrities such as rocker Kurt Cobain.

In between reciting the letters, the actors reveal background information about the dead as well as grim statistics about suicide in the United States, including the fact that 105 Americans kill themselves each day. But the play manages to end on an uplifting note as the actors urge people to check in on their friends and to remember that times can get better in life.

“There’s a great deal of people wanting to say, ‘Don’t feel sorry for me; this is not because of you,’ Zimmerman said of what many of the notes have in common.  

“It’s interesting because when we did our first reading here in my living room, the actors read their notes in a very maudlin style. But I said, ‘You have to remember the urgency that these people felt; they have to get their point across before they take their life. Many of them tell their [survivors], ‘Go and live well.  You can do it, but I can’t.’ ”

The Fringe Festival has proved to be a welcoming venue for Zimmerman to premiere and develop his new passion project. “You don’t get to have all the sets, you can’t do fancy lighting, so you’re just really concentrating on the piece,” he said.

For tickets and information about the Hollywood Fringe Festival, visit hollywoodfringe.org.