Sunday, October 13, 2002

'You're Dead' could save lives

Showtime targets teen violence

By Frazier Moore
The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Just last week a Colorado newspaper reported that one of the teens who carried out the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 told his probation officer a year earlier he had homicidal urges.

With a tip-off like that from Eric Harris, should authorities have been on the alert before the day he and Dylan Klebold slaughtered 12 students and one teacher, then killed themselves? What pushes a kid to the edge and beyond? And how can anybody predict it?

Bang Bang You're Dead, a new film on Showtime that premieres Sunday at 8 p.m., doesn't promise any answers on the issue of school violence. But this drama-within-a-drama should ring painfully true for students on the front lines, while it gives their parents a sobering crash course.

The movie focuses on Trevor Adams, a high school student who lives under a cloud of suspicion: The previous year he made a bomb threat against his school's football players, an “in crowd” that torments outsiders like him. Now his torment is worse.

Trevor (played by Ben Foster) finds a positive outlet for his anger when the school's drama teacher (Ed star Tom Cavanagh) enlists him for the lead of a play, Bang Bang You're Dead, which portrays an adolescent shooter facing the consequences of his deed.

Preparations for the play are incorporated into the film's larger narrative, which follows Trevor, still violence-prone, to his moment of truth: Will he finally make good on his deadly threat?

Also starring in the film are Randy Harrison (Queer as Folk) as another troubled student; Jane McGregor as a classmate who befriends Trevor; and Janel Moloney (The West Wing) as a sympathetic teacher. It was written by playwright-screenwriter William Mastrosimone, whose credits include Extremities and The Burning Season.

Though fiction, the film never strays far from reality — i ncluding the real play the students put on.

That 40-minute one-act play is glimpsed only in brief scenes during the movie with which it shares its title. But it has been downloaded, at no cost, from its Web site tens of thousands of times. It has been staged, by kids for kids, around the world.

The play was written by Mr. Mastrosimone a year before the carnage in Littleton, Colo. — but not before school shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., West Paducah, Ky., or Bethel, Alaska.

And not before the day in May 1998 when 15-year-old Kip Kinkel shot dead his parents at their Springfield, Ore., home then opened fire in the Thurston High School cafeteria, killing two classmates and wounding 22.

A few days later in Enumclaw, Wash., “our oldest son, who was 15 then, comes hom e from school,” Mr. Mastrosimone recalls. “"Well,' he tells us, "we walked into English class today, waiting for the teacher, and we saw on the blackboard: I'M GOING TO KILL EVERYBODY IN THIS CLASS.”'

In short order, the kid who did it was apprehended.

“The whole town was turned upside down by this little incident,” says Mr. Mastrosimone, who, recounting it, still looks shaken.

“The next day, I couldn't get any work done. What made this kid do this? Was it really a joke? Or was it a real desire to do something and he's just waiting for his moment?”

Some sort of response was needed, the playwright decided.

“That night, I wrote Bang Bang You're Dead. I wrote it all at once. I wanted to address the kid in the audience who is contemplating violence, so I c reated a character who, at the start of the play, brags about his killings. I thought that would suck in the kid contemplating it.”

What to do next? Mr. Mastrosimone donated his play to Thurston High and volunteered his services in getting it staged.

Early in 1999, a cast of 13 Thurston students who had lived through the actual shooting premiered Bang Bang You're Dead at a drama festi val in Bend, Ore.

“I've had plays done in New York, L.A., London,” says Mr. Mastrosimone, “but as far as connecting with people is concerned, that was the best experience I ever had in the theater.”

Since then, Mr. Mastrosimone has been overwhelmed with e-mail provoked by his play's far-flung productions — everything from questions about how to remove ketchup “bloodstains” from an actor's shirt to chilling exchanges with several students mulling their own acts of violence.

Now he hopes the Showtime film will further the play's cause, which he sums up with an e-mail from a student in Missouri. “Now that I have the play,” he quotes her as saying, “I'm not a passive victim anymore. I can really talk to the people who are thinking about committing violence.”

Mr. Mastrosimone smiles. “She got it,” he says. “I want kids to be empowered!”

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