Masterclasses: Playwright William Mastrosimone

By Lauren Lavelle

William Mastrosimone, critically acclaimed playwright and screenwriter, graced theater history classes with his presence on April 15 to discuss his controversial play, Bang Bang You’re Dead.

The one-act play by the ’74 Rider graduate, which originally premiered on April 7, 1999, at Thurston High School in Eugene, Oregon, handles the devastating aftermath of a school shooting, specifically honing in on Josh,

a troubled teen who must deal with the consequences of his actions.

Inspired by a series of real-life mass shootings, Bang Bang You’re Dead was met with mixed reviews from critics and parents alike, yet never failed to enlighten people on an issue that is rapidly growing within society.

“It’s a great example of ‘social realism’ that aims to address important social issues, because this is a problem that never seems to go away,” said Patrick Chmel, professor of theater. “We must always attempt to stay on top of it, and I’m proud that theater art can be such a viable instrument in continuing the dialogue.”

The play was made into a movie and was first publicly screened at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2002. The following year, it was awarded an Emmy.

As Mastrosimone explained the motivation behind his work, he revealed how close to home the events portrayed in the play hit him and his family.

“My wife and I lived in a little town with four kids, only a couple thousand people, very quiet,” said Mastrosimone. “One night, our son came home and said, at school, kids walked into the room and on the blackboard was written, ‘I’m going to kill everyone in this class and the teacher too.’ It turned the town upside down. People lived there because it was quiet and nothing ever happened.”

Mastrosimone described the elusive character of a school shooter.

“There is no profile,” said Mastrosimone. “Administrators wanted to be able to say, ‘We have a kid like that, let’s watch him.’ It could be anybody, though. It won’t necessarily be kids who are products of divorce, abuse or anything of that nature. It could be someone that comes from a perfectly well-adjusted family.”

In order to write the first draft of Bang Bang You’re Dead, Mastrosimone had to put himself in the shoes of the shooter’s parents to truly feel the emotional weight of the situation.

“I wondered, ‘If that kid were my son, what would I do?’” said Mastrosimone. “I was completely over my head, so that’s why I went to my desk and wrote Bang Bang You’re Dead. I like to write as much of the play [at the time] as I can because, when you do that as a writer, you remain true to the impulses. The longer you take, the more you water it down, the harder it gets to go back and find that thread that you first had.”

Bang Bang You’re Dead has become successful after it first premiered and is cur- rently being performed in several countries worldwide.

Overall, Chmel feels this play will be beneficial for years to come because it addresses such an important issue.

“It’s brilliant. It fulfills an important humanitarian role,” said Chmel. “Who knows how many tragedies may have been averted because students ‘at risk’ were either in this play or saw this play performed in their high schools?”

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