The path from beauty editor to playwright is not a heavily trafficked one, but for Liz Flahive, whose first work, “From Up Here,” opened at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center last night, the two careers have more in common than meets the eye.
“Working in magazines and beauty writing is all about being able to get right to the voice of the magazine quickly,” explains the 28-year-old, who still does freelance work. “It’s also what comes with the playwriting territory, that you have to hear the voices of your characters clearly.”
Playwriting was always Flahive’s true love, though she recognized its perils (“You can become very poverty-stricken,” she admits). And so after graduating from NYU in 2001, she worked in the beauty departments at Seventeen, Lucky and Teen People to support her nighttime literary toils. The fruit of her nocturnal gig is “From Up Here,” directed by Leigh Silverman and coproduced by Ars Nova.
Set in a suburban town, the play focuses on a misfit family struggling to deal with their adolescent son, Kenny, who is returning to high school after being suspended for sinister reasons, which are revealed in later scenes. Kenny’s sister employs sarcasm as a coping device, while his overprotective mother Grace (played by Tony Award-winner Julie White) tries to keep up a brave front. An eccentric aunt Caroline shows up unexpectedly, complicating the family dynamic to both comic and realistic ends.
“I think even the kids who are great in high school have an element of awkwardness,” says Flahive, who spent four years working on “From Up Here.” In fact, much of her efforts were devoted to nailing the cadence of adolescent speech. “Kenny’s most frequent utterance is either ‘yeah…’ or ‘…yeah’ or ‘yeah,'” she points out. “I was really interested in the effort behind expressing anything if you’re an unhappy kid.”
Fortunately, Flahive didn’t have too much personal experience to draw on in that department. She grew up the eldest of two girls (her father is a science teacher and her mother teaches special education) in Highland Park, Ill. A self-described “creative nerd,” Flahive attended the same high school as Steppenwolf Theatre Company founders Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry, where she studied drama, singing and acting. It was a teacher at a summer course at Bennington College who convinced her to pursue playwriting and she has been following that instruction ever since.
And as with any work that deals with family issues, “From Up Here” had her own father on high alert, wondering if any of it was based on him. He need not have worried, as Flahive had no intention of sourcing her home life for dramatic material.
“There’s a reason people only publish plays about their parents after everyone’s dead,” she observes shrewdly.