Proactive Search for Potential Killers

Dennis Murphy and Ribbon of Promise

Jonesboro Shooting

William Mastrosimone

Corrections or additions?

This article by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 23, 1999.

All rights reserved.

Valedictory — or Requiem?

Paducah, Jonesboro, Springfield." These place

names constitute a refrain spoken by characters in Trenton-born


Mastrosimone’s latest play, "Bang Bang You’re Dead." Before

they became notorious as the sites of fatal school shootings, few

people nationally were aware of these towns in Kentucky, Arkansas,

and Oregon. And since the play was completed, there have been fresh

additions to the geography of horror: Littleton, Colorado, where two

teens killed themselves and 13 others. Then Conyers, Georgia.

Mastrosimone has given his copyrighted play, "Bang Bang You’re

Dead," free, to school students everywhere. He intends it


for high school students and has posted it at

so that students may download and perform it, free of charge to


Or they can perform it outside school "in garages, street corners,

parks, houses of worship."

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Proactive Search for Potential Killers

Is Mastrosimone cashing in on school violence, as some detractors

have suggested? On the contrary. "The play is directed at the

potential killer in the audience," Mastrosimone emphasized in

a telephone interview from his home in Enumclaw, Washington. "It’s

a proactive search for kids in the audience entertaining homicidal

feelings." He adds, "This works because the potential killer’s

peers are looking at him. Kids know who the potential killers are.

Give the kids a tool that they can address the potential killer with,

and show that kid what his life is going to be like."

Mastrosimone’s 40-minute play requires 11 actors but little else.

Five actors each play multiple roles. The script was posted on the

Web on April 5, and by early June there were some 6,000 downloads

— or 6,000 potential productions. By June 2, the site had logged

close to 12,000 visitors.

"Bang bang" is the story of Josh, a fictional school shooter,

told in flashback. It is set in Josh’s jail cell the night after he

has killed five fellow students. At the play’s opening they appear

to him as figments of his imagination, each asking "Why me?"

Josh retorts "It was more fun than droppin’ dudes in a video


And "Felt like it, okay?" and "It was fun."

The five dead teens appear repeatedly, first in memory as alive


playing "bang bang you’re dead," then as the returning dead,

to torment and toy with Josh and to remind him of the consequences

of his actions. They get inside his mind. They are individuals in

a chorus, and they become Greek furies; even as Josh becomes a kind

of "Everyteen" shooter.

The play depends less on action, than on the cumulative effect of

its various voices, their refrains and repetitions. Mastrosimone’s

pungent dialogue suits the characters. He captures teenage lingo —

"duh," "cool," "I’m outta here." Josh’s


which move fluidly into one another, are witty — particularly

his session with a psychotherapist — and psychologically


getting behind the adolescent’s mask. For Mastrosimone attempts not

only to convey the sadness of those killed, but to probe the killer’s

motives — his wish to make history, to become a legend, to feel

powerful, to get back at those who taunted him, to avoid being the

butt of a joke.

Josh manipulates his parents into buying him a rifle,

kills a deer to "be a man," and eventually kills his parents.

His victims return to tell him about the many small pleasures of life

of which he has robbed them. "I’ll never be married in a white

dress," "I’ll never play catch with my son," "I’ll

never see Paris," they tell him. At the play’s end, Josh is


and laments: "I didn’t know it would be forever. . . I thought

I could just hit the reset button and start over."

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Dennis Murphy and Ribbon of Promise

The Springfield, Oregon, fire chief, Dennis Murphy, who responded

to the shooting in the Thurston High School cafeteria, was appalled

when he first heard about Mastrosimone’s play. Now Murphy endorses

the show, as does Ribbon of Promise


the group he helped found to end school violence.

What do young people think of the play? When Thurston drama teacher

Mike Fisher brought it to his students, some who were present in the

cafeteria during the shooting, some who were wounded, "they


the play whole-heartedly," says Mastrosimone, "and together

we began an odyssey that has changed me forever."

Says Nick Smith, 16, who played Josh in the play’s world premier in

Eugene, Oregon, "Some people think we’re exploiting the shooting.

But we’re in this to get the message out."

Does the play provoke copycat violence? "The Register-Guard,"

Eugene-Springfield’s newspaper, reports that youth behavior


agree that "the show could be a powerful tool for prevention and

intervention." Columnist, Karen McCowan (while objecting to a

hunting scene), sums up: "There’s nothing in this show that


or glamorizes violence. It focuses largely on the lasting


. . for the shooter as well as the victims. . . and the rippling

consequences for family, friends, schools, and communities. . . The

show properly indicts the violent television, movies, and video games

that desensitize our kids and train them to find amusement in killing.

[And] it reminds teens of the potentially deadly effects of teasing,

taunting, and

ostracizing troubled classmates." But the play is not for


she notes. It is not for those still traumatized by events, nor for

those who lost children in the shootings.

Does the play work in deterring violence? It could be part of the

answer, Mastrosimone says. On two occasions kids have approached

Mastrosimone to tell him they were planning school violence (he

declines to say where), but that after seeing the play, changed their

minds. He also

tells of a girl in Eugene who "came backstage with a tear-streaked

face to say she had made up her mind to kill herself, but seeing the

play made her believe in life once more, and she thanked us all for

saving her life."

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Jonesboro Shooting

Mastrosimone wrote the first draft of the 40-minute "Bang Bang

You’re Dead" one sleepless night in May, 1998, about two months

after the March school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, when two boys,

ages 11 and 13, killed four girls and a teacher and wounded 10, and

a week after the shooting in Springfield, Oregon, when a 15-year-old

boy killed his parents at home, then went to his high school, opened

fire, and killed two teenagers, wounding 20 others.

Since then much of the text has been revised, but the story is


And the play may be different at every performance. When students

portraying dead students recite the things they will miss most from

their teen years, the script suggest they name their own choices.

Mastrosimone says the immediate impetus for the play came when, three

days after the Oregon shooting, his own 15-year-old son casually


at the dinner table that, entering his high school classroom for


he found written on the blackboard, "I’m going to kill everyone

in this class. And the teacher, too." While the culprit was


and expelled (the boy said it was a joke), the message to Mastrosimone

was "no child is safe in any school anymore."

In fact, the germ of the play was planted several years before. In

his essay, "Confessions of a Violent Movie Writer,"


has written that in 1994, seeing the films "Natural Born


and "Pulp Fiction" (neither of which he wrote), when young

kids in the audience cheered killings with the glee of Romans watching

humans thrown the lions, or found spattered brains howlingly funny,

he "felt shame belonging to the same community."

Before, the screenwriter had considered that his brand of violence

was justified. In his film "The Beast," a Soviet tank is used

to execute a rebel. In "The Burning Season," his film about

the life of Brazilian hero Chico Mendez, a man is set on fire while

residents of his Amazonian village are forced to watch.

Mastrosimone says the recent "plague of kids killing kids in


places spread over the country" share some common characteristics.

"These kids were not psychotics," he says. "They were

normal kids living our fantasies." Mastrosimone also realized

that, like Oedipus, "the cause of the plague upon my land. . .

was myself." A week after the play premiered in Eugene, multiple

school killings took place in Littleton. Then Conyers.

Eight school shootings in 19 months. The movie industry was silent.

They may not acknowledge responsibility, but troubled kids and an

accumulation of violent entertainment produce a violent reality, says

Mastrosimone. "The whole country could run around confiscating

guns," and that won’t stop school violence. "This play is

the only game in the country right now."

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William Mastrosimone

Mastrosimone was born in New Jersey in 1947, the fourth of five


His father was in construction and business, his mother stayed at

home. Raised in Trenton and Lawrenceville, he graduated from the


School. He spent 3-1/2 years at Tulane University, dropping out


before graduation because he wanted to be a writer. He later attended

Rider College for one year, earning his BA in 1973; then earned an

MFA at Rutgers in 1977.

Mastrosimone became widely known for his second play

"Extremities," in which a near-rape victim turns tables on

her attacker, imprisons him in a fireplace, and tortures him. The

play, with onstage violence and gripping, brutal dialogue, is among

the seven in his "Collected Plays," published by Smith and

Kraus in 1993. He is currently finishing a romantic comedy, "King

of the Wedding Crashers," for Warner Brothers, and finishing a

play, "Water to Wine," to be produced at Actors Theater of

Louisville next year.

He moved to Seattle from Trenton in 1986, and to Enumclaw, Washington,

in 1987. His home is an hour from Seattle, where Mastrosimone had

gone to work with the Seattle Repertory Theater, and a couple of hours

flight from Los Angeles, where Mastrosimone works as a screenwriter.

He loves Enumclaw, situated in the foothills of Mount Rainier, on

the edge of a wilderness. Elk, mountain lion, and bear appear in his

backyard. But he will move back to Pennington on August 1 with his

wife, his stepsons ages 12 and 15, and two daughters 2 and 3. He has

bought a house there and wants his children to enjoy the benefit of

their extended New Jersey family. (He says he’s probably related to

all the Mastrosimones here.) He also wants his children to attend

his alma mater, the Pennington School.

Mastrosimone says his message to Hollywood traffickers of gratuitous

violence is a simple one: "Stop seeing kids as income. Kids today

are the most exploited generation in history — not in body, but

in mind and spirit." Mastrosimone’s play seeks to change that,

change values. And for his own kids? He’s coming home.

— Joan Crespi

William Mastrosimone, Bang Bang You’re Dead, on

the Web at Free.

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