Theater Talk: From struggling writer to Emmy winner, Mastrosimone returns to his roots
William Mastrosimone, a Rider graduate and famous playwright, looked around Dr. Patrick Chmel’s Theater Appreciation class, expecting to see some raised hands. Chmel turned to his students.
“Questions? Don’t be shy,” Chmel said to his Wednesday afternoon class.
“I guess we have to pull out the big guns,” Mastrosimone said.
With that, he reached into his bag and pulled out a large, golden statue — an Emmy award.
The hands flew up.
Mastrosimone won not one, but two Emmys for his work on Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, a play that addresses school shootings. In its first two years, the play was performed more than 25,000 times. Eventually, Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! became a Showtime feature film.
The inspiration for the play came from a personal experience; in 1998, Mastrosimone’s teenage son came home from school one day and told his parents that a fellow student had threatened to shoot his classmates.
“There was total panic in this town,” Mastrosimone said. “This is a tiny town in the mountains; there’s no crime. That night, I wrote the play. I had the whole shape, the characters and within the next few weeks I fleshed it out.”
That’s where Mastrosimone takes most of his inspiration: from experiences, conversations and people he meets, he said.
“I might get an idea, I might meet a character, I might overhear a conversation at a grocery store and I know who this person is,” he said. “You grow it from there.”
But before the Emmys, before the success, Mastrosimone was a pre-med student at Tulane University who dreamt of becoming a writer. He took two writing courses at Tulane and failed them both.
“In both courses, I got a D,” he said. “I probably wrote more than the entire class did, but I was not focused. I look back and I just say, ‘If only I could have calmed down.’ I think I was trying too hard. When I came here, I was looking for a sign.”
He took a year’s worth of classes at Rider, completed his English degree and went on to earn his Master’s at Rutgers University. There, he wrote his first major work, The Woolgatherer. A Broadway producer saw the play at Rutgers and brought it to New York City.
“That was the beginning of my career,” Mastrosimone said. “For me, it’s all connected: Rider, Rutgers, New York.”
Not all of his works have yielded good experiences. Mastrosimone wrote the screenplay for With Honor, a film starring Joe Pesci, but the end result was nothing that he had wanted. He eventually quit the production.
“There was only one good scene in that movie,” he said. “Warner Brothers dropped the ball so many times.”
Ever since, Mastrosimone prefers theater as his medium, even though film would reach a larger audience.
“In film, you don’t have much power,” he said. “They can turn your powerful movie about rape into a nice little movie. They can diffuse it. In theater, you can do as you please. You don’t reach a lot of people, but smart people go to theater and you’re reaching the smart people.”
Mastrosimone’s newest work, Sleepwalk, carries the same heavy teen-centered angst as Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!; the play focuses on teenagers and suicide.
“I wanted to produce a play about suicide that was about life, an affirmation of life,” he said. “I still wanted to do all of the tough stuff, but I wanted to root it in the joy of life. It took me two years how to figure out how to do that.”
Sleepwalk wound up having a profound effect on its viewers — especially on troubled teenagers, Mastrosimone said.
“Right after one performance, a kid slipped out, went to the school psychologist’s office and said, ‘I just saw myself up on stage. I need some help,’” he said.
Mastrosimone hasn’t forgotten his roots, or rather; his roots have not forgotten him. He has spoken to many of Chmel’s theater classes and two of his plays — Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! and Extremities — have been performed on the Lawrenceville campus. Still, every visit to Rider is “a jolt” for him, he said.
“It’s a profound experience,” he said. “I remember walking here as a student, carrying the doubts on my back. And now you’re sitting here and the gap between then and now is enormous.”