Liz Flahive: Moving Up with 'From Up Here'

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Nominated for the 2008 Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, From Up Here premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club this spring with a flurry of praise for a great cast, engaging story and an impressive new playwright, Liz Flahive!

"A darkly funny and unexpectedly moving family story," From Up Here is a captivating new piece about love, forgiveness and the actualities of today's youth at home and school.  The play stars Julie White as neo-mom Grace, and Tobias Segal as Kenny, her troubled son – both in Drama Desk nominated roles. Directed by Drama Desk nominee Leigh Silverman.

Playwright Liz Flahive took a brief moment to correspond with BroadwayWorld and discuss the process that has brought this appealing new production from the page to the stage.  From Up Here concludes its engagement at MTC on Sunday, June 8…

Eugene Lovendusky: Thank you so much, Liz, for grabbing a few minutes to chat with BroadwayWorld about your critically acclaimed new play From Up Here! Just last week you received the John Gassner (Outer Critics Circle) Award for your heralded new play. Congratulations! What kind of whirlwind have you experienced since this success?

Liz Flahive: I think the biggest change has been that when I'm in a room with people, some of them know me as a playwright now. I think as a writer you spend a lot of time trying to get your work produced and telling people you're a playwright and trying hard to believe it yourself.

Eugene: From Up Here is dripping in familiarity; from the every-days of home-life (like busted sprinkler systems!) to the sometimes unbearable pressures of high school.  What influenced your creation of Kenny, Grace and the Barrett family?

Liz: I wanted to create a family that spoke naturalistically. In my mind, that means overlapping, deflecting, running up and down stairs. I think that, well at least in my house, everything happened in the kitchen. Or everything that happened as a group, happened in the kitchen. And Allen Moyer's brilliant set also contributes loads to the familiarity. You can learn a lot about a family from their kitchen.

Eugene: Tobias Segal, who expertly portrays Kenny, told me in a previous interview that something about this play "clicks."  I have to agree – specifically the "little things" like Grace watching Kenny stand tall on a chair or the nerdy-ness of wooing a girl with a guitar… How did all these delightful "life-moments" slip into the play?

Liz: I think I always wanted the play to be a way to use smaller moments to talk about bigger things. Standing on a chair in your kitchen isn't such a big deal but for Kenny (and subsequently Grace) it's huge. If you're awkward, like truly seriously awkward, there's nothing worse than having to ask someone to a dance. I think using humor to buoy up the larger issues in the play was something I was very interested in all along. I wanted the play to be hopeful but not sentimental. To me there's little that's sentimental about being a teenager nowadays.

Eugene: From Up Here began its run at Manhattan Theatre Club on March 27 (to end its engagement June 8)… but the piece itself has traveled an impressive timeline. Walk us through the play's gestation from then to now…

Liz: The first reading was at Ars Nova. Jason Eagan and Emily Shooltz have been developing the play with me for a few years. We did readings and a week-long workshop after Leigh came on board and I rewrote about 80% of the play in 5 days. Then a few more readings. And then we were looking for a theater and were planning on producing the play Off-Broadway somewhere downtown. And we were having trouble finding a theater we liked that fit our budget so we kept pushing our production date. We'd finally settled on February 2009. And then MTC was looking for a play to put into their season as they'd had a production fall out of their lineup. And Emily sent the play over (she used to work at MTC) and then suddenly we met with Dan Sullivan and Mandy Greenfield and began talking about producing the play together a year earlier than we'd hoped. I was so glad that it worked-it was a true collaboration between the two theaters, with everyone in the room and on board for all the big decisions. I'm so thankful that everyone at MTC took a chance on this play-I'm sure there was a safer choice to make as opposed to going with the never before produced first play of a never heard of before playwright. From the start, there was a lot of incredibly energy and devotion surrounding this project and I'm deeply grateful for that.

Eugene: What hand did you play in the casting and/or Director Leigh Silverman's creative process?

Liz: Dave Caparelliotis has been casting every single reading and workshop of the play so he knows it inside and out which I think truly helped us find the perfect group of actors. I was at every casting session and at every rehearsal so I have a strong hand in the process. Luckily, I trust Leigh so completely with the material. She's incredibly good at her job so I feel like I'm there to support her and rewrite, rework or stand up to changes I don't want made to the text.

Eugene: You're a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dramatic Writing. How did that program nurture your playwrighting skills?

Liz: I loved going to school in New York as an undergrad. (I grew up right outside of Chicago, so growing up I saw great theater at Steppenwolf and The Goodman). But, here, the volume of plays you can experience while learning how to write them is staggering. I saw coming to school here as an immersion program-taking classes and seeing as many plays on my own time as possible. I studied with some great teachers at NYU but I think the most influential was Paul Selig. He's a fantastic writer and an inspired teacher. I signed up for every single class he taught-until he told me that I might want to try to take a class with another teacher. He really couldn't shake me.

Eugene: Theatre and education make a beautiful marriage! Tell me more about your involvement with The 52nd Street Project, an organization that pairs inner-city kids with professional artists to create original theatre.

Liz: I started out as an intern at the 52nd Street Project and have been volunteering for 10 years. The Project is one of my favorite places in the world. I've been a volunteer for the Playmaking program-which is an 8 week course where the kids learn to write a play. Then the kids go away for a weekend with the staff and their very own adult director/dramaturg, to a beautiful house in the country and write their first play. Then they return to the city where their director and two professional actors rehearse. Then they're presented in an evening of some of the most fantastic theater you've ever seen. There are more creative programs as the kids get older (the high school ensemble adapts and performs Shakespeare every year), plus there's homework help and their Smart Partner tutoring program.

Eugene: No pressure… but can we expect something new of yours to cross a New York stage soon?

Liz: "Soon" might be pushing it. I don't really have a drawer full of other plays collecting dust. (I wish I were that prolific) I'm working on a new one so we'll see...

From Up Here, by Liz Flahive, directed by Leigh Silverman, with Tobias Segal,Julie White,Jenni Barber,Arija Bareikis,Aya Cash, Brian Hutchison, Will Rogers and Joel Van Liew. Now playing Manhattan Theatre Club – Stage I (131 West 55th Street). For tickets or information call CityTix at 212-581-1212 or visit www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com

Photos: Liz Flahive (2008, Walter McBride / Retna Ltd); l-r: Julie White,Liz Flahive,Leigh Silverman and Tobias Segal (2008, Walter McBride / Retna Ltd)

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Eugene Lovendusky Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF Bay Area, his love for the arts bloomed at an early-age; a passion that has flourished in NYC, where Eugene now lives and works. He is a proud member of the New York City Gay Mens' Chorus.