New York play to depict Columbine tragedy from shooters’ perspectives

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NEW YORK -- Just months after the FBI launched its "Don't Name Them" campaign, a New York playwright is seeking to do much more than that, getting set to open a play on the Columbine High School tragedy told from the perspective of the two shooters.

On a website for the play, titled "The Erlkings" and slated to premiere on Nov. 9 at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre in New York City, 25-year-old writer Nathaniel Sam-Shapiro suggests "insight can be found into the violent American psyche that continues to rear its ugly head in our schools, through the dramatic exploration of the emotions and encounters experienced by the two boys."

The play will put Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 12 of their Littleton classmates and a teacher at Columbine before killing themselves in 1999, on center stage -- quite literally. The teen killers will be portrayed by actors Em Grosland (Harris) and James N. Scully (Klebold).

In fact, Sam-Shapiro said the play will feature the killers' own words -- compiled from chat room logs, homework assignments, teacher's notes, diaries and home videos -- in an effort to better understand Harris and Klebold.

The title for the play -- "The Erlkings," or "Die Erlkonige" in its original language -- even comes from a German poem that was found in one of the killers' journals.

"This does not mean we have to forgive them. This does not mean we have to empathize with them," Sam-Shapiro wrote on the play's website. "But with these kinds of mass killings becoming somewhat of an epidemic, refusing to understand their causes is akin to refusing to research a cure for a deadly disease.

"The cure lies somewhere in the minds of boys like Eric and Dylan. We have to open our ears to them: to hear them, when before we ignored them; to make them speak, when in life they were silent."

Dozens who have donated more than $30,000 to help get Sam-Shapiro's play off the ground on Kickstarter seem to agree with the approach the New York native is taking to this story.

However, it seems forensic researchers and psychiatrists would disagree with Sam-Shapiro's notions about a possible "cure" for mass shootings, so to speak.

News on "The Erlkings" November premiere comes weeks after the conclusion of a study from the FBI and Texas State University, which analyzed all 160 active shooter incidents from 2000 to 2013, including the Aurora Theater shooting in July of 2012.

According to the report, an average of 6.4 shooting incidents occurred in the first seven years that were studied. That average rose to more than 16 per year in the last seven years of the study.

In total, active shooters in the 160 studied incidents have killed 486 people and left an additional 557 wounded.

Though the study offered no concrete reasoning as to why the number of shootings has more than doubled over the referenced time period, lead author Dr. J. Pete Blair told KSAT he believes many of the shooters involved in the studied incidents were inspired by past killings and the resulting notoriety those shooter received.

"We understand that the events have to be covered, but it shouldn't be a glamour piece making this person the center point of the story," said Blair, who is also the director of research for the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center (ALERRT) on the campus of Texas State University. "We'd much rather see stories about the heroes and the victims and those sorts of things."

RELATED: Read the FBI/Texas State study in its entirety

Based on years of behavioral research at ALERRT, Blair and the FBI also launched their "Don't Name Them" campaign this year, during which they've encourage members of the media to name the shooter in their reports once, and after that, use ambiguous terms like "the shooter."

It seems noted forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz might agree with the campaign. In fact, following a fatal shooting at Seattle Pacific University in June, Dietz insisted his similar campaign had been falling on deaf ears for far too long.

"If you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story; not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero," Dietz said in an interview with KUOW. "Localize the story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week."

Interestingly enough, like Sam-Shapiro, Dietz has shown a similarly high interest in the psyche of the depraved. The 66-year-old medical doctor, PhD and Master of Public Health even reportedly has a miniature statue of French serial killer Henri Landru holding a handsaw beside a washtub filled with blood and severed limbs on a table in his home office.

But unlike Sam-Shapiro, a Brown University graduate who said his interest in Harris and Klebold has swelled since the 1999 tragedy (Sam-Shapiro was 9 at the time), Dietz has been studying these sorts of massacres for decades.

Dietz has even been called as an expert witness in the trials of John Hinckley Jr., Jeffrey Dahmer, Betty Broderick, Arthur Shawcross and Joel Rifkin, some of which took place before Sam-Shapiro was born.

Dietz is also a frequent contributor to CNN, a network whose approach to mass shooting coverage consistently disappoints him.

"I have been on CNN three times saying, 'If you keep this up, we’re going to have another (shooting) within two weeks.'" Dietz said. "And I've been right all three times."

Still, the mass interest in mass shootings is hard to ignore. And if "The Erlklings" opens to rave reviews, it won't be the first time a dramatic depiction of a school shooting has done so.

Oscar-nominated director Gus Van Sant received the highest honor at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003 for the film "Elephant," which was based in part on the Columbine tragedy. William Mastrosimone's "Bang Bang You're Dead," a play based on school shootings at Thurston High School (Springfield, Ore.), Heath High School (Paducah, Ken.) and Westside Middle School (Jonesboro, Ark.), won two Daytime Emmys after it was adapted into a film in 2002.

Mastrosimone's original play premiered on April 7, 1999, less than three weeks before the Columbine tragedy.

The biggest difference between those two works and Sam-Shapiro's upcoming play is that this latest work will feature the actual words of a pair of killers -- words that Sam-Shapiro says have often sickened him.

"I hate Eric and Dylan sometimes -- especially Eric, whose searing anger towards all people other than himself and a couple friends disgusts me," Sam-Shapiro wrote on the play's website. "Other times I want to run away from them. I want to forget all the pain I read in these boys’ messy handwriting."

But ultimately, Sam-Shapiro said he could not pull himself away from their stories, in large part due to his feelings on mass tragedies and why they continue to occur.

"If I am angry or disengaged, I could never help them (Harris and Klebold) change," Sam-Shapiro wrote. "If I act that way, I am falling into the same trap of wanting to distance myself, of wanting to deny them, of wanting to turn my head and avoid seeing the familiar gleam in the eye staring back at me from their yearbook photos. What they needed was to be reached. They were too afraid to do it themselves; others were likely too afraid or self-interested to take a step towards them.

"But I hope that 'The Erlkings' comes close."

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6 comments

  • Danielle

    Anyone who makes a conscious choice to murder other human beings doesn’t deserve to have their voices heard.

  • Mel427

    Folks. Off Broadway Kick-starter shows don’t make any money for anyone. No one will become rich, and some may be impoverished by this production. Small theater, very small cast. No stars. No score: this is a bare bones production that attempts to sort out how Harris and Klebold became radicalized. Our government is spending a whole bunch of money trying to intercept home-grown terrorists by understanding who they are, who they know. What if we looked at mass shootings as a virus? What if we studied everything about them the way we study SARS, AIDS and ebola? What if we were to think of Harris and Klebold as the prions that helped to create the virus. We need to know about the virus if we want to eradicate it. Unless we want to treat this “disease” the way we have treated other “diseases”…ignore it, let it thrive.

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