Acting On Impulse
How does a writer help stop violence? He creates a play, then a film, called Bang Bang You're Dead.
The story of how playwright William Mastrosimone’s life was changed—and how he, in turn, changed the lives of others—begins on May 21, 1998. Early that morning, 15-year-old Kip Kinkel, having murdered his parents the day before, entered Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, carrying weapons under his trench coat. As hundreds of teenagers mingled in the cafeteria, Kinkel pulled out a .22-caliber rifle and opened fire on his fellow students, killing two and injuring more than 20 others. He had discarded the rifle and was pulling out a handgun when several students wrestled him to the ground.
Days later, as shock waves continued to ripple across the Northwest, Mastrosimone and his family—his wife, Sharon, his two adolescent stepsons, and the couple’s two young daughters—gathered in their Washington state home and performed a nightly ritual, each answering the question, “How was your day?” “It sucked,” Jason, then age 11, said succinctly. But 14-year-old Jonathan had some news. After he and a few others had arrived at English class and flicked on the light, they saw the following written on the blackboard: “I’m going to kill everyone in this class. And the teacher, too.”
“My wife and I just about fell over,” recalls Mastrosimone, who was soon on the phone with the Enumclaw Junior High School principal. The administrator told the parents not to worry; he’d identified theculprit and was handling the situation. And, indeed, the boy would later be expelled, even though his message was never labeled a “real threat,” according to Mastrosimone.
But the playwright had his own opinions about what’s real and what’s not. A decade earlier, while doing research for a play of his called Sunshine, in which a peep show customer obsesses over a stripper, Mastrosimone discovered how dangerous fantasies can be. “That experience taught me something about human nature,” he recalls. “The more you do something, and the deeper you get into it, the more it gives you permission to continue doing it.”
So after Jonathan had delivered his news, Mastrosimone stayed up all night, till 7 the next morning, and wrote Bang Bang You’re Dead, which begins with a simple premise. “I thought about this kid writing on a blackboard, taking the first step toward violence,” he explains. Set in a jail cell, the 45-minute play focuses on Josh, a high school freshman who’s “visited” by the five classmates he shot and killed in the school cafeteria. After finishing the draft, Mastrosimone knew he’d created something special, even if he didn’t consider it part of his professional repertoire, which includes Extremities and The Woolgatherer and screenplays for television and film. “This is something I’ve done as a parent, not as a playwright,” he says.
But he really had no idea—and no way of knowing at the time—exactly what he’d created. Bang Bang was a play whose debut, a year later, would be performed by Thurston High School students, some of whom were in the cafeteria when Kip Kinkel opened fire. It would then be made available, free of charge, on the Internet and staged in middle and high schools across the country. It would inspire admirers to flood www.bangbangyouredead.com with e-mails. And, eventually, it would serve loosely as the basis of a cable TV film, starring Ed’s Tom Cavanagh and The West Wing’s Janel Moloney. The play, in other words, would become something of a phenomenon.
Saturday, May 19, 2001, Surrey, British Columbia:
It’s Day 12 of a 20-day shoot for Bang Bang You’re Dead, the movie, and Randy Harrison, the actor who plays Sean, a potential high school shooter, is preparing to be dunked in a toilet. The brand-new porcelain bowl, purchased specifically for this scene (and for the sake of Harrison’s hygiene), has been installed in one of the restrooms at Queen Elizabeth Secondary School, a 1,600- student facility located 15 miles east of Vancouver.
‘Drama is a way to look into people’s hearts.’
Showtime is considering airing the film in fall 2001, but the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the subsequent war will ultimately move the date to fall 2002. Bang Bang, meanwhile, is being shot in Canada because Vancouver is considered a low-rent version of Hollywood. The American dollar is strong, film crews are cheap, and the infrastructure—equipment and studios—is dependable. Greater Vancouver, a region blessed with lakes, beaches, snowcapped mountains, and, most important for this project, American-looking suburban schools, also offers plenty of locations. And this time of year, with temperatures in the 60s and the gardens of local parks in bloom, it’s quite pretty.
But pretty doesn’t help Harrison, who’s hanging upside down, his head just inches from the open toilet.
“OK, ready guys?” the director, Guy Ferland, asks. “And . . . action!”
Down goes Harrison, who’s held tightly by three actors playing jocks who’ve just cornered him in the bathroom. As they cackle and flush the toilet, using his head as a plunger, Harrison emits muffled cries. Finally, after about 30 seconds, the “swirly” session is over. “OK, cut!” Ferland yells from the hallway, where he’s been watching the scene—along with the film’s executive producers, Mastrosimone and Norman Stephens—on a video monitor. “Fantastic, guys!” Harrison exits the bathroom, a towel over his shoulder, an egg-sized lump on his forehead; it seems he banged his noggin on the lip of the bowl. So ice is applied, then makeup, and—voilà!—he’s ready for another close- up.
As easy as it is to hide bumps and bruises on a movie set, the Bang Bang screenplay was designed to reflect reality, not mask it. It was inspired, in fact, by people who contacted Mastrosimone after seeing Bang Bang at local schools—some 15,000 productions thus far, according to the playwright, who follows the Web site’s performance calendar closely. One e-mail in particular sparked an idea for a film, in which the almost surreal play has a role but is only part of a larger, more realistic story. “A drama teacher wrote me a letter,” Mastrosimone explains, “and she said there was a kid who was terrorizing the school, and he was playing Josh in the play, and it was the only thing keeping this kid sane—because it gave a vent to all of his dangerous emotions. Give that idea to a writer, any writer, and he can run with it.”
Mastrosimone, at age 54, is not just any writer. Thurston High School’s drama teacher, Mike Fisher, recalls that after the Kinkel shooting he received several offers to collaborate on what amounted to schmaltz-filled movies of the week. He turned them down. But one day, he was handed a fax signed by Mastrosimone. A former actor, Fisher was a fan of the award-winning playwright’s work—Extremities, in particular. In that play, a rapist attacks a woman, who not only thwarts his attempts but imprisons him in her apartment. After her roommates arrive, the women debate whether to call the cops or kill the guy.
The play, an off-Broadway hit in the early ’80s, was controversial; critics argued that Mastrosimone was simply switching gender roles, turning a female victim into a Charles Bronson-like vigilante. But Fisher, like many others, appreciated the play’s insightful look at both the differences and the similarities between men and women, with attempted rape serving as a catalyst. So when Fisher read Mastrosimone’s request—that the drama teacher consider directing Bang Bang in Springfield—he remembered Extremities. “I thought if this [kind of treatment] could happen with school violence, it would be really good,” he explains.
It did happen. In April of 1999, less than a year after the Kinkel killings, Fisher and his high school cast debuted Bang Bang—following months of negotiations with Thurston High’s administrators, faculty, and parents—in a Springfield theater, where it was deemed a success. The next day, the play was made available, free of charge, on the Internet, and according to Dramatics magazine (published by the Educational Theatre Association), it was the most- produced one-act play in high schools during the 1999-2000 school year. (Coincidentally, Bang Bang premièred two weeks prior to the shootings at Columbine.)
The play focuses on Josh as he pieces together, with help from the deceased, the events that led to his violent rampage. He was once a solid student, a standout football player, a popular guy. But, in flashbacks, audiences see signs of dissipation: failing grades, an uninterested girlfriend, negligent parents, an obsession with guns. The language in Bang Bang, as many of the students who’ve staged it attest, is true to teenage life. But some of the play’s techniques are rooted in classical theater. The dead, for example, serve as a chorus, delivering lines that emphasize important themes. These, for instance:
A mask that hides your face.
A face that hides the pain.
A pain that eats your heart.
A heart nobody knows.
A student of Greek theater, Mastrosimone says many of his plays feature, in one form or another, a chorus that not only comments on but also participates in the action. “This fits nicely with [Bang Bang] the play because you have choruses in schools,” he points out. “And [the movie] is built on choruses, too; we have a parent chorus, a student chorus, the jock chorus. It’s all these factions in school that speak about the reality of the cliques—‘My tribe is better than your tribe’—and how pernicious that can be.”
Now we’re getting into why the Bang Bang projects are valuable. Mastrosimone—a stout, balding, mustachioed guy who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s not far from working-class Trenton, New Jersey—doesn’t mince words. The school-shooting problem, he says, is a “national emergency.” Compared with the fallout from the September 11 attacks, this might sound hyperbolic. In fact, Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2001, published by the U.S. departments of Justice and Education, reports that between 1992 and ’99 violent victimization in schools dropped from 48 to 33 crimes per 1,000 teenage students. And the chance of a teen getting shot in school is slim to none.
But consider this: Every time a school shooting takes place or a planned massacre is narrowly thwarted, the psychological toll is significant. Annie Lewis, one of the student co-directors of Bang Bang at West Windsor- Plainsboro High School South in New Jersey, says of the Columbine tragedy: “It was a very emotional thing—I mean, for everyone in our generation because, yeah, it’s scary. You never know a lot of times what’s going on in different kids’ heads, what’s going on in their homes, what’s going on in their lives. You never know who could do this.”
Mastrosimone makes clear in his notes on the play’s Web site that Bang Bang “is directed at the potential killer—the kid in the audience who harbors homicidal feelings toward others.” He’s hoping the would-be Joshes will see, on stage, just how devastating acts of violence can be. He’s also spotlighting in both play and film the factors that motivate kids like Kip Kinkel to pull the trigger. “What I like about [the play] is, as opposed to looking at the killer just from the outside as a monster, it’s actually exploring how he got to that point,” Randy Harrison says, during a break in filming.
Harrison, as Sean, is leader of the Trogs, a group of delinquent misfits who’ve considered shooting up Rivervale High School. Trevor, the student who’s playing Josh in a Rivervale production of the play, is an honorary Trog—mostly because, last year, he built a bomb and threatened to blow up the school. We don’t find out why exactly until late in the movie, when a flashback illustrates just how serious the bullying problem at Rivervale is.
Trevor is the film’s most complicated character. He’s a loner who parts crowds in the hallways and reluctantly accepts the role of Josh after being arm- twisted by Val Duncan, the only teacher, played by Tom Cavanagh, who gives the troubled teen a chance. With video recorder in hand, Trevor also documents surreptitiously the brutality being perpetrated by a band of the school’s jocks.
Trevor is played by Ben Foster, who’s appeared on TV and starred in a few feature films, including Liberty Heights and Get Over It. Just outside the entrance to Queen Elizabeth Secondary School, he’s taking the role of Misunderstood Young Man to heart. Dressed in gray, his mouth tight-lipped, his eyes seething, the actor makes clear that as a high school dropout himself he knows the meaning of angst. Many of the shooters, he says, are intelligent, creative, sensitive people prone to being bullied. “And when you get kicked on—if you’re a delicate spirit or human being, and you get kicked on—and made fun of every day, how do you protect yourself?” he asks rhetorically. “I mean, how does your body react? It creates a scar or a scab, a toughness, a shell.”
Jane McGregor, who plays one of Trevor’s fellow students in the film, has her own opinions about the negative influences on American kids, especially those living in suburban communities. The 18-year-old actress grew up in Vancouver, where the cultural landscape is as rich as its topographical cousin with art galleries, theater, film, and literary festivals. McGregor has traveled to the United States to shoot other films, and she’s seen strip malls up close. Asked what turns a teenager into a school shooter, she says: “I think it’s the lack of culture and the extreme pressure on kids to make a life for themselves and to be successful and to make money. It must be really scary for a lot of kids.”
Even scarier, according to Mastrosimone, is much of the product pumped out by Hollywood. As both playwright and screenwriter (With Honors, The Beast, and, for TV, The Burning Season, among others), he penned an essay titled “Confessions of a Violent Movie Writer” for Written By, a magazine published by the Writers Guild of America, in June 1999. He takes issue in the piece with two movies, Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction, which feature brutal murders that were cheered by young audiences in movie theaters. But in recalling the evening he decided to write Bang Bang, the play, Mastrosimone questions his own work, too:
I made lots of high-minded excuses for myself that night. A man attempts to rape a woman and is thrown into a fireplace and tortured by her in Extremities. In The Beast, a Soviet tank is used to execute [an Afghan] rebel. In The Burning Season (co-written), a man is set on fire, and his Amazonian village is forced to watch. I would like to think that my brand of violence is justified. But maybe the potential killer makes no fine distinction. Maybe violence is violence is violence. Maybe in looking for answers to alleviate his pain of being a “nobody,” he takes his movie idol as a role model, merging life and art.
The Bang Bang projects do not offer violence as entertainment. During flashbacks, Josh indeed “shoots” his parents and fellow students, but the incidents are staged without guns and played purely as tragic. In the film, the threat of bloodshed is imminent, but—without giving away the ending entirely—the Trogs’ plans are thwarted. It appears, however, that one Hollywood producer who’d read Bang Bang, the play, and wanted to turn it into a movie, didn’t read “Confessions.” Of the producer’s pitch, Mastrosimone says: “He told me, ‘It’ll be the greatest movie. There’ll be blood all over. People will be slipping in it.’ ”
His rationale for that kind of approach?
Mastrosimone pauses for a second, then says: “It’s reality.”
Speaking of reality, there are a few things worth noting about what goes on behind the scenes of a film set— or, at least, this one here, outside Vancouver. Smack-dab in the middle of suburbia, and ringed by tall, sweet-smelling pine trees, is what’s known as “the circus,” a caravan of white trailers rolled in for director, actors, producers, makeup artists, and costumers. Next door, on a gravel lot overlooking Queen Elizabeth’s gym, is where the 150 or so teen and 20-something extras, all of them Canadian, hang out between takes—flirting, talking, and throwing Frisbees.
This is a relatively inexpensive production; it’s costing $3 million, less than one-tenth the price of an average Hollywood film. In fact, the paychecks are so small, the sense of mission so strong, that Norman Stephens, Mastrosimone’s partner in Jersey Guys Productions, notes that it’s being done “for the church.” Cavanagh, whose parents are teachers, says of the project, “This is one of those things where I would feel like I had missed out on doing something worthwhile, something important, if I’d passed it by.”
Altruism aside, many of the claims made about movie sets are true of this one. For instance, food is ubiquitous. At all hours of the day, snack tables are positioned as close to the shooting set as possible, with everything imaginable offered: popcorn, fruits, vegetables, Chex mix, lunch meat, cheese, and—get this—peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches. And, of course, an inordinate amount of time is spent simply waiting as the director, his assistants, and their crew painstakingly put cameras, lights, and sound equipment in place for each shot.
‘The big message in this play is really not about violence. It’s about communication.’
This gives Mastrosimone, so long as he’s not huddling with actors or making slight changes to the script, plenty of time to socialize. Which is a good thing. Stephens, who’s known the playwright for years, says: “Bill Mastrosimone is one of the great human beings of the world. So just hanging out with him makes you a better person.” He is, indeed, exceedingly generous. He opens doors for extras, pours coffee for visitors, tells hilarious jokes, and offers advice to youngsters. Late last night, as the finishing touches were being put on a scene, he told one would-be playwright to make sure he knows his characters as well as he does his mother. “If a rhinoceros ran through her front door, she would have a reaction that only you could write because you know her. You grew up with her,” he explained. “You know how she speaks; you know what she’s going to do before she does it. That’s how you have to be with your characters. You’re not ready to start writing till you get to that point.”
Ironically, Mastrosimone wasn’t convinced he knew his characters well enough while developing Bang Bang, the play. In one of the last scenes, the students who’ve been killed list those things they will miss and those they’ll never get to experience. It’s a part of the play, according to student actors and drama teachers, that literally stuns audiences. The list also forces Josh to realize exactly what he’s taken from his victims and their loved ones.
I miss singing in the shower.
I miss getting into a fight with my brother
and acting like nothing happened five
I miss making Mom laugh so hard she can’t
I miss watching the sky go from light to dark.
Mastrosimone didn’t write these lines. He’d come up with a few of his own in the original draft, but in late ’98, while he was supervising a reading by teenagers in a Florida theater, something didn’t sound right. So, he recalls: “I told the kids, ‘Just rip that page out. Go around the room, I’ll tell you when to stop, just say what you would miss if you died right now.’ And I wrote down pretty much everything they said. Then I got their permission to put it in the play.”
If anything epitomizes Mastrosimone’s experience with Bang Bang, it’s that seemingly small detail. While composing the rough draft, he knew he’d have to take Bang Bang to Thurston High, where the students were familiar with what he calls “the emotional terrain” of the play. He also knew he’d eventually make it available on the Internet, where his notes insist that Bang Bang “is a drama to be performed by kids, for kids.”
“What really makes [the play] succeed is the enthusiasm of the kids,” he says. “It empowers them; they feel like they’re in charge of solving this problem—which, in my opinion, will be the only solution to the problem of violence in schools, kids themselves. Because this is not rocket science. After every shooting, someone came forward and said, ‘He told me [he’d shoot up the school] last week.’ If people reported what they knew, and acted on what they know or heard, of course it could create chaos, but ideally all of these shootings could have been prevented.”
Just who a kid should tell about a possible attack is tricky. In Bang Bang, the play, the adults are unapproachable; they’re authority figures, not confidants. But the film—inspired in part by Mastrosimone’s relationship with Mike Fisher, the Thurston High drama teacher—features one exceptional grown-up. He’s Val Duncan, played by Cavanagh, who, at the moment, is roaming the cafeteria as the cameras roll. Dressed in a pullover shirt and rectangular glasses, he makes faces and cracks jokes with students eating lunch before spotting Trevor, who’s sitting by himself.
“OK, cut,” says director Guy Ferland. The actors roll their eyes, realizing another take is necessary, even though it’s 11:30 p.m. When the day began 14 hours ago, the shoot was way behind schedule. So, as exhausted as everyone is, this scene, in which Val offers Trevor the role of Josh, has to be finished tonight.
The relationship between Trevor and Val is complicated. Most of the Rivervale High faculty, including Ellie Milford, played by Janel Moloney, walk on eggshells around Trevor. “She is more afraid, more skeptical, and mistrusting of him,” Moloney says of her character. “She’s probably what a lot of teachers feel—that somebody who’s expressed a violent propensity is somebody who is not to be taken lightly. Val is the one who really wants to make a difference in the kid’s life.”
He does so by taking risks. He not only casts Trevor in Bang Bang; he allows his students in a video class to “explore” their fantasies and “let the video camera become an extension of your unconscious mind.” Trevor’s 10-minute movie ends up being a bloody revenge fantasy, a response to abuse he suffered at the hands of school bullies. Val, at one point in the film, must decide whether or not to turn the video over to the principal, who has instituted a zero-tolerance policy.
At the moment, however, Mastrosimone, Stephens, and half a dozen others are sitting in director’s chairs, clumped around the video monitor, watching the umpteenth take of the cafeteria scene. “And . . . action!” Ferland cries.
Val slides a copy of Bang Bang toward Trevor, saying: “This is a play off the Internet. You’re the only person in this school who could play this character.” Before Trevor can respond, one of the extras, a girl chosen to deliver a line referencing Val’s summer vacation, interrupts. “Hey, Mr. D,” she says, “I heard you chickened out on the Mayan pyramid.” But the first syllable of “Mayan” comes out sounding like the month that precedes June. Mastrosimone shakes his head as Stephens raises his hands skyward. This is the fifth or sixth time she’s made the mistake after it was pointed out to her. Still, the scene continues (the line can be “looped”—or added to the soundtrack—later) with nobody else blowing lines.
As tense as the set is, Mastrosimone is philosophical. The film, he says between takes, has cost him financially; he had to turn down high-paying gigs just to get the production off the ground. But the effort’s worthwhile, he adds, because Bang Bang, for him, is a last-ditch effort of sorts to address kids and adults alike. The way he sees it, the United States is analogous to ancient Rome. “Our TV and movie screens are the Colosseum, and people generally . . . clamor for more and more of the experiential—the blood, the guts, that kind of stuff,” he explains. “So how do you turn the tide on that? You can’t talk to those people. You have to go to the people who are still savable.”
“Yeah,” he says.
How about teachers? Are they part of the process?
“Yes,” he says, sitting up. “Now we’re getting to it. We all have to go right for the kids.”
Another take of the scene is shot, and again, the girl blows the “Mayan” line. But Mastrosimone isn’t bothered; he’s energized now. He says he wants to be a better father than he’s been, that Bang Bang, the play, has “changed my life” and inspired him to start a new Web site, which will be linked to www.bangbangyouredead.com and focus on plays created for youngsters. In fact, he’s already written another play, Take Down, Break Down, about a battle of the sexes featuring male and female high school wrestlers.
He pauses for a few seconds, then leans in close and says: “I’ve gotta tell you that, probably three or four years ago, I was one of those people who wrote off Generation X, Y—all those terms everybody uses. I don’t see things like that anymore. That seems to me somebody’s looking at a generation through a telescope and is not in the midst of it. Because the kids are great. The kids have taught me so much.”
Thursday, May 31, 2001, West Windsor, New Jersey:
Back in mid-April, two weeks before the shoot in Vancouver began, Mastrosimone and Ferland visited West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South in New Jersey—not far from where the playwright and his family now live—to see Bang Bang, the play. Today, as the school year draws to a close, the kids in the Pirate Players, who’ve been staging Bang Bang at their own school and for middle and high schools throughout their district for 18 months, are still buzzing about Mastrosimone’s visit.
“It was awesome,” says Matt Thompson, who plays one of the deceased. “It was the best thing, ever,” adds Satomi Yamauchi, a student co-director. “I think the man, the author, has not only gotten me 14 new friends, but he’s changed my life completely.” Her friends are the cast and crew of the West Windsor Bang Bang who, like their counterparts across the country, are the primary beneficiaries of the show. “The play does one thing really well,” Mike Fisher, the Thurston High drama teacher, says. “It truly inspires that group of people.”
Don Gilpin, West Windsor’s gregarious 50-year-old drama teacher, came across the play in the spring of 1999. He took it to the school’s principal, Michael Carr, who’d helped found the Pirate Players—a group that specializes in kid-centered dramas, many of them written by students themselves— several years earlier. Carr, like Gilpin, recognized the value of the piece. “I’ve done fall plays and winter musicals and one-acts, and I love doing that stuff,” Gilpin explains. “But there’s something about kids playing roles their own age that raises things to a different level of truth or reality.”
Not every administrator reacts to Bang Bang the way Carr has. Many of the early e-mails sent to the play’s Web site make references to principals, as well as parents and teachers, who are loathe to stage such a provocatively titled piece. And drama teachers across the country report that they’ve run into opposition. In the film, in fact, the Rivervale High principal refuses Val’s request to stage the play in-house, forcing him to take it to another venue.
But in real life, only a few productions have been blocked, according to Mastrosimone. That’s because once the play is read by those who oppose the title, it’s usually given the go-ahead. Even the most skeptical adults, when they see the show, are moved by it. “There hasn’t been a performance that has not gotten a standing ovation and has not knocked them over with tears,” says Myke Wilkinson, drama program director at Coventry High School in Rhode Island. His troupe has won awards for its Bang Bang productions at regional and state festivals.
Bridget Hocutt, drama teacher at Bowdish Junior High in Spokane, Washington, sums up what many believe is a major selling point of the play, saying: “I think it brings home for a lot of people that [a shooting] could happen here.”
No one knows that better than Liz O’Neill’s troupe at Coronado High School in San Diego. Like many Bang Bang casts, it was in the middle of a multi- week run when Charles Andrew Williams, a freshman at Santana High School in Santee, California, allegedly shot and killed two students just outside a boys bathroom on March 5, 2001. Matt Weatherman, who was playing Josh at the time, has a friend at Santana High, which is only a 15-minute drive from Coronado. “It was scary,” he recalls, “because I didn’t know if he was OK.” It turns out the boy escaped unscathed.
The Santee incident affected the Coronado production in many ways. O’Neill reports that before the shooting schools in her district shied away from hosting Bang Bang. Afterward, she was flooded with requests. And Matt Weatherman says news stories about the incident “made me more aware of who I was portraying.” As details were made public, the actor recognized much of Josh in Charles Williams. “And for the first time,” he adds, “I had empathy for the perpetrator.”
Jordan Daniell, who’s been playing Josh for a year and a half at West Windsor, knows how Matt feels. Like many who’ve assumed the starring role, he’s a dependable, popular student, the kind who can hold a production together. Just moments before the curtain goes up on the senior’s last performance, he’s relieved to be saying goodbye to Josh. He acknowledges, however, that playing the character has helped him. “There’s all different types of ways you can vent yourself,” he explains. “But I always channel those specific emotions out through the play, so that it’s not just acting; it’s real stuff.”
Thirty minutes later, Jordan, dressed in a blue shirt and camouflage pants and facing an audience of 75 students and parents, is convincing as a tortured soul. Although Josh’s words are full of bravado—“It was more fun than dropping dudes in a video game,” he says of the shooting—the actor’s voice strains underneath, as if someone’s tied a choke collar around his neck.
The production is, just as Mastrosimone’s directions demand, sparse—an almost bare stage, minimalist background music, and just one major prop (a box that serves as bed, judge’s bench, and coffin). Kids, Mastrosimone has said, should be able to stage Bang Bang anywhere, even in a basement. But the Pirate Players’ show looks professional. And although the “I miss-I’ll never” scenes are touted as the play’s strongest, tonight’s best moment occurs after Josh has killed his parents. As they lie on the floor, two actresses sing a haunting lullaby offstage. Josh, holding back tears, tries to explain to his parents why he’s silenced them:
After the show’s over, the post-play discussion—a version of which is conducted by most schools that stage
—begins. Someone mentions the play’s “reset button” concept, the idea that children of the video age are accustomed to starting over with the flip of a switch after they’ve made a mistake; a murderer, however, can’t undo the damage he’s done. One of the cast members recalls Mastrosimone saying during his visit that “fantasy gives permission to reality,” meaning that once a kid imagines killing someone, he’s opened the door to that possibility.
But the subject everyone keeps coming back to is how, over the course of 18 months, the tone at West Windsor has changed. Many who’ve seen the play, cast members report, have made conscious efforts to be nicer to fellow students, whether or not they’re from the same social group. Kristin Morgan, who plays Katie, Josh’s estranged girlfriend, takes it one step further. “I think everyone needs to open their eyes and ears a little bit bigger—to extend yourselves that much more,” she says.
“Yes,” Satomi adds, “the big message in this play is really not about violence. It’s about communication.”
Jordan, who’s helped conduct many of these post-play discussions, says: “Somebody actually made a comment once that ‘I think our school has improved since this show’—which is the coolest thing, I think, by far that I’ve heard.”
Told this weeks later, Mastrosimone is elated. “That’s a huge accomplishment,” he says. But he’s not surprised. He’s seen more than 100 productions of Bang Bang nationwide, and he’s convinced now, more than ever, that the key to solving the school-violence problem lies not with adults. “It’s what’s in a kid’s heart,” he says. “And that’s why the play has been successful—because kids get on the stage, and they face their peers, and that is a very powerful communication between them. Drama is a way to look into people’s hearts.”
Vol. 13, Issue 6, Pages 18-25
- Visit playwright William Mastrosimone's Bang Bang You're Dead site to learn more about the origins and purpose of the play. See also press clippings of reviews of the play. Interested in staging the play? A downloadable copy of the script is also available.
- A summary of the report "Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2001," from the U.S. Department of Justice, states that between 1992 and 1999 violence and victimization in schools dropped from 48 crimes per 1,000 students ages 12 through 18 to 33 per 1,000 students. The full report has also been posted. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)
- The U.S. Surgeon General's 2000 report on youth violence asserts that "we possess knowledge and have translated that knowledge into programs that are unequivocally effective in preventing much serious youth violence."
- In "The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Procedure," the FBI identifies personality and behavioral traits of potentially violent students. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)
- Read "Preventing School Violence: A Practical Guide to Comprehensive Planning," from the Safe and Responsive Schools Project at the University of Indiana. Other publications and resources have also been posted. (Guide requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader)