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'Abominable' Explores Relationship Between Bullies and Bullied in American Schools

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William Vaughan and Chris Stinton star in Hub Theatre's "Abominable," a play about school bullying.
Courtesy of The Hub Theatre
William Vaughan and Chris Stinton star in Hub Theatre's "Abominable," a play about school bullying.

The National Association of School Psychologists says nearly a third of middle-schoolers and high-schoolers are directly involved in bullying. Further, the association says, far too many students regularly skip out on school so they can avoid being bullied.

And that’s a huge problem, says Helen Pafumi, a Northern Virginia mother of three: ages 15, 13 and 11.

“So I started looking at the monstrous way kids can be to each other that we’re trying so hard to combat in our schools,” she says. “And I also started looking at large-scale school violence, and the way that a community has to deal with that kind of terror, and wondering where is the line between human and inhuman? Where is the line between a boy and a beast?”

It’s those questions Pafumi seeks to explore in Abominable, her new play at The Hub Theatre, which she co-founded in Fairfax in 2008.

“The play deals with a boy named Sam who is going through an intense growth spurt. And as he’s dealing with this, he starts to get bullied by someone who used to be his friend,” Pafumi explains. “Then while that’s happening these mysterious footprints happen around town. So something is preying on the community at the same time that this bullying thing is happening.”

Pafumi says as Hub’s artistic director she’d long been seeking to produce a play that dealt with school violence in what she calls “a Hub way.”

“We do work that’s more magical, that walks into those places that are a little more far-fetched,” she says. “And when I couldn’t find the script I wanted, I went ahead and I wrote it!”

Kirsten Kelly, who directed Abominable, says she loves “how the magical realism looked at this really serious bully issue, took it apart, and found how humanity kind of finds each other.”

Something else she appreciates is how Abominable encourages people not to jump so quickly to blame.

“Like, ‘Is it the school? Is it the parents? Is it the kid?’ We just jump to blame so much that we lose the opportunity to figure out, okay, what is the disconnect here? How can we help everybody in this situation?”

William Vaughan portrays Jacob, the kid who goes from Sam’s friend, to Sam’s bully. He says he hopes the play will remind audiences that all people — be it the bullied, or the bullies — wrestle with their own struggles. Or, to use an even more apropos word: “their own beasts. Whether that is, you know, love, or bravery or just being a teenager and going through puberty.”

The problem, he says, is when those beasts go from growling on the inside… to howling and biting and scratching… on the outside.

“No one just wakes up, especially a kid, and decides, ‘You know, I’m going to be a bully today,’” he says. “It comes from a place of hurt. Or it makes them feel better about themselves. With these ‘bad guys,’ we hope to think they weren’t always bad guys. So at what point did the beast outweigh the human?”

An excellent question — and one not very easy to answer, says actress Carla Briscoe, who plays Prima, the town mystic.

“The thing I really love about the play, or the parallel between what’s going on with the kids and this mysterious creature that’s sort of plaguing the town is this idea of we want so desperately to define it, to understand it, so we can stop it,” she says. “And yet nothing is really quite that simple ever. Which is probably the truth of it.”

That motion is definitely seconded by playwright and Hub artistic director Helen Pafumi, who says her play is less about answering questions, and more about encouraging exploration. So if you’re wondering whether she ties everything up with a neat little bow at the end?

“Oh, well, no,” she says with a laugh. “I need to be full-disclosure there; I wouldn’t know how to tie it up with a bow!

“But I think that there’s beauty in the fact that we’re allowed to say that humanity can win. Love can win. Hope can win. I’m really big on those things at the Hub. I really want hope to be what bubbles up at the end of the day and hopefully at the end of our shows, so people walk out with that.”

Abominable runs at The Hub Theatre through August 3rd, 2014.

Music: "Abominable Theme 1" by Matt Nielson from Abominable

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