Munro: Fresno City College comedy examines school violence

FresnoOctober 5, 2013 

Gabe Griffith as Kenny and Olivia Stemler as Lauren in "From Up Here." From Up Here Fresno City College

FRESNO CITY COLLEGE

Reading the brief description of the play "From Up Here," now in its opening weekend at Fresno City College, piqued my interest.

That's a common reaction for me when theater professor Janine Christl is directing a show. She has a way of selecting material that makes me sit up and take notice.

In the comedy-drama, a high-school junior named Kenny brandished a gun at school.

He was suspended. Now that it's a new school year, he has to make a public apology to his entire school. After that, he hopes, he can get through the rest of his senior year unnoticed.

Violence in schools is certainly a ripped-from-the-headlines theme, but Christl says there's more to "From Up Here" than a didactic learning moment. She compares playwright Liz Flahive's writing style to that of the movie "Juno" and the TV series "Modern Family" — capturing the essence of modern day issues with a casual flair but constantly giving the audience insight into the play's core.

I caught up with Christl via email to talk about the show, which I will review in Friday's 7 section.

Question: How does the play flesh out the guns-at-school issue?

Answer: At home, Kenny's mother is wrestling with a rocky start to her second marriage and a surprise visit from her estranged sister. "From Up Here" is a play about a family that wants to regain balance and finds the strength to do that by leaning on each other and finding a way to laugh and cry together. It is not a play focused on the tragedy of tough times, but on how we learn to cope with them and forgive. I would describe it as a very honest portrayal of many families today.

Why did you select this title?

When I read the play I wanted to know where the story could and would go. The issue of "guns at school" really sits in the background of the story, as the play examines many complex decisions we all face in intricate modern times. The play helps the audience to recognize a young kid who felt lost and made a desperate decision. Rather than treating the subject matter as docudrama that retells a factual story, the story makes you root for a family that strives to recover from a hard situation. I also knew that our Fresno City College students would identify and relate to the story. The play does more than make one think about complicated challenges in life, it makes one understand and value the beautiful parts of life.

Is there any danger of events/attitudes outpacing a 5-year-old play? I'm thinking of the part of the storyline that has the student suspended from school for threatening violence. Some people have become so hard-nosed about the subject that it's easy to imagine that school never accepting such a student back.

The play gives us some other bits of information about the day Kenny took a gun to school that makes his return to school more plausible. I think it is probably harder to believe that a school would ask the same student to make a speech of apology to the entire student body. However, as a play-going audience, we are often asked to accept heightened circumstances as a part of the story. (I think that actually helps us engage with the story and feel for the situation.) Is it possible that a school could choose this line of action? I would say "yes." But, even if others disagree — I would say that art isn't always factual and that storytelling often thrives when it is elevated and expanded beyond the expected.

Tell us about the student group you created for the play.

Over the summer as I did show research, I felt like the play was so fertile with talking points for young students that we should have a peer group that tackled the issues in the play. Because of this, I worked on finding two show sponsors to help fund a project based on positive solutions to the pressure experienced in high school. The play itself includes many scenes on campus and I opted to add in an acting ensemble to fill out those scenes and dig into the play's themes as a class project as well. The ensemble group is known as "The Mountaineers." The conversations were motivating and inspirational for the cast and the ensemble has really made something of their small but pivotal roles in the show.

Bullying is a theme in the play. Lots of people in our culture today talk about bullying and how it's bad, but for many its just lip service. What do you think the play has to say about bullying? What are some concrete ways the situation can be improved?

Well, the play offers a short and sweet answer to Kenny's problems. Kenny's Aunt Caroline says, "People are mean, man. There are really terrible mean people out there so you better learn to deal with them." I appreciate that the play doesn't offer a more prescribed solution because I don't think anyone has the perfect answer. If there is a message in Caroline's statement, it is that we have to learn to cope with it in our own healthy ways.

In our rehearsals we talked about "climbing the mountain" quite a bit. The "Mountaineers" also worked on a guide called "How To Climb A Mountain" that has positive coping skills for being prepared for high school. The kids in the cast and crew talked about their own experiences being bullied (or in some cases bullying others) and offered the coping mechanisms they found most helpful. We are visiting some local high schools and sharing "How To Climb A Mountain" as a part of our show outreach.

What do you hope audiences walk away from the play with?

I hope "From Up Here" inspires our audience to take care with their own loved ones. This story is about a devoted family that has to learn how to love in difficult times. We all have our own mountains to climb.

Anything else you'd like to say?

The cast and I will be conducting a "Talkback" after the Friday, 2 p.m. show. We would love to hear from our audience and take some time to discuss the themes of the show. Moderated by clinical psychologist Dr. Bruce Honeyman, the discussion will begin immediately following the show (around 4 p.m., Mainstage Theatre). Anyone that has seen the show, or plans to see it, is encouraged to join us.


THEATER PREVIEW

"From Up Here," through Oct. 12, Fresno City College Theatre. fresnocitycollege.edu/boxoffice tickets, (559) 442-8221. $14, $12 students and seniors.

 

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.

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