Acting on Impulse

By Rich Shea — March 13, 2002 25 min read
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Ben Foster

“Bang Bang You’re Dead” focuses on Josh, a student who goes on a shooting spree. In the movie, actor Ben Foster, above, plays the student cast as Josh in a school production.
—Eike Schroter/Showtime

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, Ore., 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 message written on the blackboard: “I’m going to kill everyone in this class. And the teacher, too.”

‘Bang Bang You're Dead,’ which began as one writer's gut response to school violence, has become much more.

“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 the culprit and was handling the situation. And, indeed, the boy was later 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 conducting research for his play “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 says. “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 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 with e-mails. And, eventually, it would serve loosely as the basis of a cable TV film, starring Tom Cavanagh of “Ed” and Janel Moloney of “The West Wing.” The play, in other words, would become something of a phenomenon.

It’s May 19, 2001—Day 12 of a 20-day shoot for “Bang Bang You’re Dead,” the movie, which is being filmed in Surrey, British Columbia. 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 school 15 miles east of Vancouver.

Ben Walker's Casket.

A casket containing the body of Ben Walker, one of two students at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., who were killed in a school shooting by fellow student Kip Kinkel, is carried to a hearse. Mastrosimone wrote “Bang Bang, You’re Dead” soon after the shooting.
—Ben Margot/AP

The Showtime cable channel is considering airing the film in fall 2001, but the terrorist attacks of Sept. 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 lower-cost 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, snow-capped mountains, and, most important for this project, American-looking suburban schools, also offers plenty of locations. With temperatures in the 60s and the gardens in 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 have 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 performances 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 says, “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,” Fisher explains.

The play focuses on Josh as he pieces together, with help from the deceased, the events that led to his violent rampage.

It did happen. In April 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, which is published by the Educational Theatre Association, it was the most-produced one-act play in high schools during the 1999-2000 school year.

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 have 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:

You make your face a mask.

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 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.”

Mastrosimone—a stout, balding, mustachioed guy who grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s not far from working-class Trenton, N.J.—doesn’t mince words. The school shooting problem, he says, is a “national emergency.” In fact, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2001,” published by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, reports that between 1992 and 1999, violent victimization in schools dropped from 48 to 33 crimes per 1,000 teenage students. And the chance of a teenager’s getting shot in school is slim to virtually none.

William Mastrosimone.

Mastrosimone, who’s seen more than 100 productions of “Bang Bang” nationwide, is convinced that only kids can solve the problem of school violence.
—Emile Wamsteker

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 1999 Columbine tragedy in Colorado: “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 “Bang Bang” Web site that the play “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,” says Randy Harrison, one of the stars of Showtime’s “Queer as Folk,” during a break in filming.

Harrison, as Sean, is the leader of the Trogs, a group of delinquent misfits who have 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 videorecorder 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. 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:

The Trogs, from the film.

The cast of the film, left, includes Randy Harrison, back left. He plays Sean, the leader of the Trogs, a group of disaffected students who are planning a school shooting.
—Paul Michaud/Showtime

“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 are 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 had 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.”

While writing “Bang Bang,” the play, gore was the furthest thing from Mastrosimone’s mind. Early on, he was much more interested in doing a solid job of representing his characters’ thoughts and fears. In one of the last scenes, for example, the students who have 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 my bed.

I miss singing in the shower.

I miss getting into a fight with my brother and acting like nothing happened five minutes later.

I miss making Mom laugh so hard she can’t hardly breathe.

I miss watching the sky go from light to dark.

Mastrosimone didn’t write those 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 Oregon’s Thurston High, where the students were familiar with what he calls “the emotional terrain” of the play. He also knew he’d eventually make “Bang Bang” available on the Internet, where his notes insist that it “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.”

Actor Tom Cavanagh

Actor Tom Cavanagh, above, plays a teacher who tries to help a troubled teen in “Bang Bang You’re Dead,” the movie.
—Paul Michaud/Showtime

Just whom a kid should tell about a possible attack is tricky. In “Bang Bang,” the play, the adults are unapproachable; they’re authority figures, not confidantes. 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 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 film 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 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 referring to 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 says. “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 save-able.”

The kids?

“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 and focus on plays created for youngsters. In fact, he’s 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.”

Two weeks before the shoot in Vancouver began, Mastrosimone and Ferland visited West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South in West Windsor, N.J., not far from where the playwright and his family now live, to see “Bang Bang,” the play. Today—May 31, 2001—as the school year draws to a close, the kids in the Pirate Players, who have 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.”

The Pirate Players

Members of the Pirate Players student acting troupe in New Jersey portray victims who “visit” the student who killed them. The stage production’s set is sparse, with little more than a box that serves as bed, judge’s bench, and coffin.
—Mark Czajkowski

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 had 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 says. “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 loath 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, the 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, who is a drama teacher at Bowdish Junior High in Spokane, Wash., 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 multiweek run when Charles Andrew Williams, a freshman at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., 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, 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 had shied away from hosting “Bang Bang.” Afterward, she was flooded with requests. And 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 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 Weatherman feels. Like many who have 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 says. “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, Daniell, 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 purposely sparse. Kids, Mastrosimone has said, should be able to stage "Bang Bang" anywhere, even in a basement.

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:

At school the teachers are giving this test and that paper and don't do this and don't do that. Then I come home, and you always find something that I didn't do, and I'm never good enough. I guess I'm just sick of you being disappointed in me all the time. Remember when you taught me the outfielder's glove, Dad, and I caught a high fly in the Little League championship game and you carried me off the field? Why can't it be like that? Why's it so easy to talk to you now?

After the show’s over, the postplay discussion—a version of which is conducted by most schools that stage “Bang Bang"—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’s 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 have 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 Yamauchi adds, “the big message in this play is really not about violence. It’s about communication.”

Daniell, who’s helped conduct many of these 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.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Acting on Impulse


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Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Curriculum Download For Earth Day, Try These Green Classroom Activities (Downloadable)
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Curriculum Photos PHOTOS: Inside an AP African American Studies Class
The AP African American studies course has sparked national debate since the pilot kicked off in 2022. Here's a look inside the classroom.
1 min read
Students listen to a lesson on Black fraternities and sororities during Ahenewa El-Amin’s AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024.
Students listen to a lesson on Black fraternities and sororities during Ahenewa El-Amin’s AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week