In 1981, Jim Shankman ’74 wrote the first draft of a play set at Princeton in the early 1970s. He was trying to make his way as a Broadway actor and writing in his free time, recreating the unusual mix of personalities he’d encountered on campus. “There were so many strange and wonderful characters,” he says.
Three decades and many revisions later, that exercise in nostalgia has evolved into a new play, Suicide Math, which will debut Aug. 13 at the New York International Fringe Festival. It is Shankman’s first New York City production as a playwright.
Shankman, who majored in philosophy and performed in Theatre Intime as an undergraduate, studied acting in Chicago after graduation and landed roles in two Broadway shows (Once in a Lifetime and Grease). He eventually left the theater world to work in real estate and software development. But in recent years, he has rekindled his interest in the arts, earning an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College and beginning a new career as a writer and playwright. He plans to return to the stage in a new solo piece, Kiss Your Brutal Hands, that will be part of New York’s United Solo Theater Festival in October.
While Suicide Math is set at Princeton, the story is less about the specifics of time and place and more about the coming-of-age experience of dealing with loss and grief, Shankman says. In earlier drafts of the play, he created characters who survived by their own wits, with little help from one another, but in the current incarnation, the interpersonal relationships have changed.
“I realized at some point I was writing about three people who can’t save themselves but are genuinely trying to save each other — kind of like group therapy where your own problems are impossible for you to understand but everybody else in the room is transparent to you,” Shankman says. “I didn’t want to abandon the characters anymore. I really wanted to save them.”
For more information about the five Fringe Festival performances of Suicide Math and a link to the FringeNYC box office, visit suicidemath.com.
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