It's every parent's nightmare: an ordinary day at school disrupted when a student suddenly produces a gun and commits a terrifying, seemingly meaningless act of violence. A rash of such tragedies occurred in 1998, the most notorious happening in Eugene, Oregon and Littleton, Colorado.
From Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" to Bob Geldof's "I Don't Like Mondays," pop music has occasionally tried to delve into what turns apparently run-of the-mill kids into killers. In 1999, playwright William Mastrosimone went a step further. He penned a drama, specifically for young adult audiences, about the social pressures that can lead to such an explosion of violence, and how other students can both recognize warning signs and cope with the tragedy's aftermath.
The piece, Bang, Bang, You're Dead, was first performed in April 1999 at the very spot that inspired it: Thurston High School in Eugene, OR. The drama went on to receive an all-student staging at Florida's Caldwell Theatre Company, as part of its 13-year-old Theatre For Schools program. In the three years since, the show's become the most-produced play in American high school theatre, logging more than 2,000 performances, according to a Karpel Group spokesperson. (Early on, Mastrosimone had said he hoped his play about the Oregon shooting would be done in high schools all across America. As such, he asked to receive no royalties for the piece and requested that no admission be charged at stagings.)
Now an even wider (and older) audience will get to see the material, as Mastrosimone has adapted Bang Bang You're Dead into a teleplay for Showtime cable network. Tom Cavanagh, star of TV's "Ed"; Janel Moloney, Ben Foster, Jane McGregor and Randy Harrison will star in the film, which will air in March 2002. Guy Ferland ("The Babysitter") directs, with Norman Stephens, a co-producer of the play, serving as executive producer.
Set in the jail cell of a 14-year-old killer, Bang Bang the play finds the protagonist haunted by his victims, swaying him from his embittered cockiness to a sense of fear and regret. In 1999, Mastrosimone told "CBS This Morning" his son pointed out the shooting in the newspaper, leading his father to sit down and start writing the play that very night. Spokespersons from the Caldwell Theatre also note that Mastrosimone's son once came home from school and reported that another student had written — seemingly as a joke — "I'm going to kill everyone in this class and the teacher, too."
Playwright Mastrosimone is best known for Extremities, about a sexual assault victim turning the tables on her attacker. Other plays include Benedict Arnold, Sunshine and Like, Totally Weird, which tells of disturbed teens who take hostages and then act out the violence they've seen in American movies.
- By David Lefkowitz