Tobias Segal: Kids These Days

Hands stuffed in his sleeves and head bent over a sketch-pad, Kenny Barrett returns to the classroom with a thousand eyes boring into him.  After a previous scare, this recluse only wants to make it through his senior year without any more attention…

Kenny, portrayed by the stirring Tobias Segal, is the juvenile under-the-microscope in Liz Flahive's From Up Here, directed by Leigh Silverman, now playing the Manhattan Theatre Club in collaboration with Ars Nova.

"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 also stars Tony Award-winner Julie White as Grace, Kenny's protective yet distanced mother.

BroadwayWorld spoke with the affable Tobias Segal about the effects of portraying the deeply concentrated role of Kenny in this striking world premiere…

Eugene Lovendusky: Congratulations! Opening Night of From Up Here was phenomenal. Your performance is heartbreakingly fantastic.  How do you feel?

Tobias Segal: Thank you. I feel great. I'm really fortunate to have the chance to work with this group. The only reason the play is so wonderful, I think, is because of who Leigh Silverman got to act in the show and how MTC and Ars Nova got on-board from the beginning…

Eugene: How did you get involved?

Tobias: I came in very late in the process, when they started auditioning for MTC.  I know Aya Cash, Will Rogers, Brian Hutchinson and Joel Van Liew had all done readings of it before. Jenni Barber, Arija Bareikis and Julie White got involved at the end. We started rehearsals about two-weeks after my final round of auditions so it was pretty quick.

Eugene: MTC has been waving a banner all season for new playwrights and new voices.  What's it like working with such young talent like Director Leigh Silverman and Playwright Liz Flahive?

Tobias: It's been incredible. Leigh is so good at creating an environment where everyone feels at home. We would not have been able to touch on these emotions we're bringing out if Leigh hadn't have made the rehearsals as comfortable and productive as they were. She's very spare in her direction but she knows exactly what to say to get the ball rolling in a different direction. Julie was a great person for that, too. Liz has been working on this show for years and years – I believe this is her first out-of-college piece. Her husband, Jeff, has been reading drafts of this play for three or four years. She was great about "letting her babies go." Leigh and Liz are wonderful collaborators. It feels like the whole show clicks along.

Eugene: In spite of the awkwardness and the over-protection, there is love in the Barrett household.  Little sister Lauren plays the "big brother" to her big brother. Aunt Caroline brings the sparkle back to Kenny's eyes. And that beautiful moment of silence between you and Grace.  What factors created such magnificent chemistry between you and your fellow actors?

Tobias: Again, it was the environment that Leigh and MTC set-up for us. Everyone is so open and so giving. Some people have been with it for a while so they knew what they were going for.  Leigh was able to find the right people to fill in the gaps. As soon as we got in there, MTC set us up with our set.  We had a couple of table-reads and then all of a sudden, we had our kitchen! That kitchen is the set… everything else is so spare. It's so grounding. If I am at all feeling detached from anything, I can turn myself a little up-stage and there it is.  We didn't have anyone else in our space, so it really felt like it was just us in there.  When the audience showed up for first preview, I was a little shocked.

Eugene: You could have fooled me! Last night, it felt like it was just you guys in the theatre – such a natural-feeling family. On your character, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times says that Kenny is a "high schooler using his shoulder blades as defensive shields." Part of what makes your performance so compelling is how much your face, movement and voice embody Kenny. How did you physically create him?

Tobias: [laughs] It came out of what Liz had written, what other characters say… With so much of this piece, I had to inject some of my life into it. Everybody who went through high school knows what it's like to have a moment of being alienated. It's naturally what people went through during puberty – even the popular kids.  There is the time where you feel like your parents are invading your life too much, you're losing friends in the last years of high school.  Then the characters talk about it; like when Caroline says "he used to be so happy." Grace talks about when Kenny is with Kate, standing straight-up on a chair. That's a very obvious moment.  I'm having to protect myself. How do you protect your heart and cover everything? When you don't want to look people in the eye and you're constantly dodging, I fall into it. Especially with hand movements, you get nervous and start sweating and cover your hands and use the sweatshirt as armor. It really became part of diving into myself a bit. 

Eugene: I'm not saying all teenage boys have contemplated school massacres, but why are Kenny's emotions familiar to so many people?

Tobias: Everyone has experienced alienation – at some point you go through a moment where you say: "I just want to be left alone."  And what is the ultimate point of being alone? – it's dying, of course. That side of it is such a touchy subject.  I knew kids in high school; I'd watch them go through this thing where you know something is wrong and you don't know how to talk to them or take them out of it.  School is so overwhelming – you can get lost in the idea that yes, you are going to be alone. That's what's so beautiful about the end of the play… other people are just as broken-hearted and just as needing in touch, sympathy and love as you are! Family is so important. Friends are so important. You need that connection.

Eugene: America teaches us to fear guys like Kenny. Liz paints this portrait of a community "after the fact" from a different angle.  Should we feel understanding with Kenny?

Tobias: One would hope. With any character, you want the audience to at least empathize.  I hope that when people come and see it, they can see where the anger comes out and where the frustration comes from.  And even a bit of why kids are keeping him at a distance. Obviously there are kids, like Charlie, who are not being mean to him. But Kenny's not involved in after-school activities. His mom is pushing him to join the band – which can sometimes be seen as embarrassing.  I was in marching band in high school.

Eugene: What'd you play?

Tobias: I played trumpet – and ours was a small school.  I imagine the marching band at Kenny's school is not the place to be.  I had a great time… that's where a lot of my friends came from school.  Playing music is such a great way to bring people together. And you see that in this play, when Charlie is playing guitar.

Eugene: Stupid question, but when we see kids just like Kenny and Lauren and Charlie and Kate… shouldn't young people come see this play?

Tobias: I would love young people to come see this! More young people need to come to the theatre in general.  What MTC and Ars Nova are doing with their 30under30 program is wonderful.  The more young people coming to the theatre, the better.  Or any of the arts! Go to shows! Even if it's just rock-band shows, it's people creating. Go to the museums.  I was just in the Botanical Gardens today…

Eugene: In Brooklyn? I was just there, too!

Tobias: Oh, really? It's beautiful. It's art. It's people creating a natural environment for people. Go find the beauty!

Eugene: How'd you get started in the theatre arts?

Tobias: I used to entertain myself – I taught myself to use stilts and juggle and ride a unicycle. But I was never immediately interested in theatre. I played the trumpet in the pit-orchestra my freshman year… but I didn't like sitting in the pit looking up to see everyone having such a blast.  So my sophomore year, I auditioned for Carnival.  When the director learned that I knew how to juggle and ride a unicycle, I was cast as Jacquot. It was fun so when I got to college, I had to pick a major to get my financial aide – I chose theatre and I ended up doing four shows my freshman year at Temple University in Northern Philadelphia! [laughs] But then I got distracted... started partying too much.  By the end of my sophomore year, my Basic Acting teacher pulled me aside and said: "Listen, you did well. I like what you do. But I cannot in good conscious let you pass this class, because you never showed up!" So I failed my Basic Acting class...

Eugene: That's so ironic!

Tobias: [laughs] It was funny, that following year I took-off of school and I was invited to perform in Equus at Mum Puppettheatre.  Then I returned to Temple and took his Basic Acting class again… and while I was in his class, I ended up winning a Barrymore Award for Equus. It was very funny.  I was hooked after that, especially after that show.  I worked around Philadelphia for a while with my agents trying to get me to move to New York, and finally with Doris to Darlene at Playwrights Horizons, I was able to.

Eugene: What do you want on the audience's lips as they leave the theatre?

Tobias: I want them to just talk about it! The most beautiful thing – and also the saddest thing – was a guy who, after the show, told me: "I Used To teach in high school, and I realize now, I had no idea what these kids were going through."  To me that was just… I mean, really? How beautiful and heart-breaking. Yes! Yes, each of these kids you see at school have a life at home that you may never know about. These are all people up on this stage who have real lives behind them. Talk about art.

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, top-bottom: Tobias Segal (2008, Walter McBride / Retna Ltd); Tobias Segal and Julie White (2008, Henry Leutwyler); Tobias Segal (2008, Joan Marcus); From Up Here show-art

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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.