New theater work is inspired by Internet chat groups for the suicidal

By Fiona Zublin
Thursday, January 28, 2010

If you Google the phrase "suicide group," naturally you'll come up with page after page of support groups and hotlines. But somewhere in those pages, deep in the recesses of the Internet, are the people whose version of help is a little bit different.

They're the people who advise you on what kind of gun to use, or how high a building to jump from -- people who have accepted suicide as a viable option when despair becomes unbearable. When they offer advice or encouragement with a suicide, it's not meant as cruelty -- though cruelty exists here, as it does everywhere on the Internet -- but as a guiding hand to a person in pain.

And when a new person arrives, they greet them with: "Welcome. Sorry you're here."

"It's a place where if you have these dark thoughts and these dark feelings, you're free to come in and open them up to people," says Marcus Kyd of Taffety Punk Theatre Company, whose work "suicide.chat.room" is based on the uncomfortable-but-true existence of these online groups. He began researching the groups after reading about them in the Atlantic magazine, "and what I've found is there's this strangely very caring community there. They've sort of developed their own language; they have phrases that they use -- 'catch the bus' means 'take your own life,' so some people will post and say, 'I may catch the bus tonight.' And then everybody sends a whole wave of goodbyes." It's certainly dicey material for a theater piece, but Kyd says he was "just fascinated by this idea of communities of people who were seeking obliteration. It just seemed like such a weird, beautifully human paradox. And I couldn't get it out of my mind."

This is not group suicide, or mass death via cult. Instead, these are discussion groups where people in despair come to ask questions about ending it all, where they talk about their intentions. Some stay and become part of the community, waiting for the perfect moment, trying to work up the nerve -- or simply, like everyone else on the Internet, getting drawn into a community of like-minded people. Those who linger become experts in the workings of the group, and a social hierarchy emerges.

"suicide.chat.room," which opens Thursday at Flashpoint's Mead Theatre Lab, is a modern-dance concert with a play superimposed upon it. Though the cast is working with a script and plot, much of the subtext is communicated by abstract movement -- after all, when all your characters are users in a chat room, their literal movement just isn't that interesting.

Web posts assembled

Since its founding in 2004, Taffety Punk Theatre Company -- the name is a Shakespearean phrase that translates into modern parlance as "stylish hooker," so construe that as you will -- has made its name with new plays and ambitious, provocative versions of Shakespearean classics. Its only previous dance endeavor was "The Phoenix and Turtle," set to one of Shakespeare's less famous poems. With no Bard to fall back on, "suicide.chat.room" is a new challenge -- but Kyd, who directed the piece, doesn't seem worried.

"That's really the goal I had when I started the company," he says, "a fusion of dance, theater and music, and it's actually happening. So I think right now we're closer than ever to the ideal Taffety Punk Theatre Company."

In the play, the characters are identified mostly by user names -- a woman who calls herself "lostbooks" is as close as we get to a protagonist -- though some of them reveal their actual names as they get sucked into the paradox of a community whose very existence is based on the fact that their members feel all alone.

In 2007, Kyd began collecting posts and threads from discussion groups and assembling them into some semblance of a play. The monologues and dialogue are all taken directly from posts on actual Web sites, something Kyd has mixed feelings about.

"I feel a little gross about it, to be honest," he says. "But there's such an important story there. . . . What these people are writing is so much more vivid and visceral and poetic than anything I could dream up."

The Internet provides anonymity, but it also offers an incomparable platform for putting private business in the public sphere. Plenty of plays and movies mine headlines for tragic material -- murders, disasters, untimely deaths -- so "exploitation" seems too strong a word. But the ethics are murky. Some of the posts being used are years old, and even asking for consent from the anonymous Internet posters who wrote them would be virtually impossible.

Play or dance concert?

"suicide.chat.room" received its first airing at the Kennedy Center's Annual Page to Stage Festival in 2007. Since then Kyd and Taffety Punk have been letting the project simmer, blending modern dance and punk music (provided by local band Beauty Pill) with the script to create the dance-theater-rock concert hybrid they've been rehearsing. "You're starting with an idea," Kyd says, "and you have to say, 'Okay, is there a show here? Do you know how you want to stage it? Is it going to be a play? Is it going to be a dance? Is it going to be a song? Is anybody going to care?' That's a big one."

The play's the thing. But is the thing a play? "suicide.chat room" might be better described as a punk dance concert. Choreographer Paulina Guerrero guides her cast of actors-with-movement-training through the taxing task of pretending to be dancers. "Almost all the movement came out of collaboration," says Guerrero, "and when you collaborate, I think you inevitably have to improv." And improv they did, in their bare dance studio at Flashpoint, without lights, costumes or even the music they would be dancing to in performance. Even just a few weeks before the play opened, cast members were making things up in rehearsal as they went along, adding to the abstract collage.

The collision of a punk score and modern dance, layered atop such a dark and difficult subject, sounds overwhelming. But cast member Matt Wilson, who plays "Doug44" -- a character who may or may not be a priest; Kyd likes to keep his options open -- thinks the medium fits the message: "Several people in my life have had bouts of severe depression, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts. A common theme is that they just can't find any word to describe what they're feeling or what's happening, and I think part of that is at the heart of what this piece is about, trying to find things other than words to talk about the things that are too big for words."


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