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Somerville

Production gets at the heart of bullying

Actors Nicki Morris and Mike Haddad work on a scene.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Actors Nicki Morris and Mike Haddad work on a scene.

SOMERVILLE — For Jeanné Callinan, it only took a few minutes of rehearsal time to admit she had tears in her eyes.

Callinan’s emotion represented years of heartache when her only child was continuously bullied during grade school in Medford. The bullying continued through middle

Actor Jason Hair-Wynn discusses a scene with director Jeanne Callinan.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Actor Jason Hair-Wynn discusses a scene with director Jeanne Callinan.

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school until he graduated and opted to attend Minuteman Regional High School in Lexington in 2011.

Callinan, 55, is the director of Theatre@First’s production of “The Bully Plays” on stage at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

The anthology of short plays has a target audience of 12- to 18-year-olds, and focuses on such issues as gender, sexuality, physical conditions, and social status.

Bullying recently made headlines in Somerville after three high school students were charged with sexually assaulting members of the school’s junior varsity boys’ soccer team.

“This show is going to hit hard. A lot of people have gone through it,” said Callinan’s son, Iain Wright, 16.

“People talk about bullying as a rite of passage, but that’s archaic,” Callinan said.

Counseling services will be available at each show in the event that an audience member needs help. A talk-back session with the actors and production staff also will be held.

This production will be Callinan’s directorial debut. She has previously worked with the Theatre@First — an all-volunteer community theater based in Somerville — as a makeup artist, on the stage crew, and in acting roles.

Callinan, who was raised in Somerville, came across “The Bully Plays” while searching online for support when her son was bullied in school. Wright, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder , began attending special education classes in the third grade and was an easy target for bullies, his mother said.

“Nothing compares to the pain as a parent when your kid comes home and asks, ‘Why are they doing this to me?’ ” said Callinan. “When he told me those things my heart broke.”

As soon as Wright began attending Minutemen Regional High School, Callinan noticed positive changes in her son’s attitude and body language. The tagline for this week’s production, “No One Is Alone,” was inspired by Wright in a conversation with Callinan soon after starting high school when he told her: “I have friends now. I don’t feel alone anymore.”

Callinan hand-picked 10 out of the 24 plays with the idea that the actors would all play bullies and victims throughout the vignettes.

“Playing a bully is not like playing a villain. Playing a villain can actually sometimes be fun. Being a bully never is,” said Richie DeJesus, 26, a software engineer who was approached by Callinan to play several roles in the production.

“If we get one kid to realize that they are bullies or being bullied and then help them want to change that, that makes all of the difference,” DeJesus said.

DeJesus said he was verbally bullied while growing up in the Bronx. Other children called him “Curly Sue” because he had long curly hair. The bullying intensified until he one day went home from school and cut his own hair with a pair of scissors.

Somerville resident Jason Hair-Wynn, 31, who also plays several roles, also drew heavily from personal experience.

In his senior year at Holbrook High School in 2000, Hair-Wynn said he was harassed and beaten in the school cafeteria for being openly gay. He went on to finish high school, and then began raising awareness against bullying and became a program coordinator for an HIV/AIDS counseling and testing program.

In 2009, he traveled to Ghana to raise awareness of HIV. He believes “The Bully Plays” will have a therapeutic effect on both the actors and the audience.

“There are a lot of different ways to save someone’s life,” said Lynn English High School Latin teacher Michael Haddad, 32, another actor.

As a teacher, Haddad now sees bullying from the other side of the classroom. “The only way that the problem will be solved is by changing the mindset of students,” he said.

Haddad became interested in the production because it was the “marriage of his two worlds.”

He described bullying as the horrible elephant in the room at schools today. After being bullied as a student at Boston College High School, Haddad went on to pursue teaching in part to be a shoulder and role model for students.

“As a teacher, your job is bigger than the content that you teach,” said Haddad.

Haddad hopes the audience will understand that bullies rely heavily on their victims staying quiet over the harassment. He also hopes that students will realize there are more children out there against bullying than there are bullies.

Aside from raising awareness, the play will give half the proceeds to The Center for Teen Empowerment, a nonprofit that works with local youth to help improve their standard of living. With programs in Boston, Somerville, and Rochester, N.Y., the group employs urban youths to work after school in their respective communities on issues involving bullying, substance abuse, and youth-police relationships.

Teen Empowerment opened its Somerville site in 2004 with the support of the newly elected Mayor Joseph Curtatone. Curtatone has called Teen Empowerment’s effect on the local community a “success story.”

“I saw it growing up,” recalled Curtatone. “Education is teaching adults and causing me to reflect: Was I ever bullied? Did I ever see it? It has helped me talk about it.”

Curtatone also said he supported the idea of the arts community tackling issues such as bullying.

“Art moves you deeply and it makes you think about why they are focusing on it,” said the mayor, who is planning to attend “The Bully Plays.”

“This is a powerful expression and we need to support it.”

Juan Cajigas can be reached at Juan.cajigasjimenez@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Esteban_Cajigas.
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