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Interview with Eliana Dunn, playwright of Hackathon for Plays by Young Writers 2017

January 11, 2017

Playwrights Project will produce its 32nd annual festival of Plays by Young Writers, sponsored by the Sheila and Jeffrey Lipinsky Family Fund, at The Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center at The Old Globe on January 19 – January 29, 2017. The festival will feature winning scripts from its California Young Playwrights Contest for ages 18 and under.

Contest winners were selected from 365 plays submitted by students from across the state. Four scripts will receive full professional productions, and two scripts will receive staged readings in this highly regarded festival of new voices.

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Hackathon

By Eliana Dunn

Age 16, Pacifica

Directed by George Yé

Eliana, who graduated early from Oceana High School, is a student at the City College of San Fransisco. Eliana wrote her winning play in a summer writing program called California State Summer School for the Arts under the instruction of mentor Zay Amsbury. Her play, Hackathon examines issues of gentrification and bias in the tech industry, as teenagers from different walks of life compete to create an app that will change the world.

How did you first get involved with writing?
I’ve always loved to write and tell stories, but I really started to get serious about writing when I applied to CSSSA, the California State Summer School for the Arts. I attended CSSSA for creative writing, and it was a really amazing experience. My teachers at CSSSA taught me the basics of playwriting and screenwriting, and encouraged me to submit my work to competitions.

Eliana, you live in the diverse Bay Area; what insights into the tech industry have you gained by living so close to Silicon Valley?
The Bay Area is such a special place, and I feel really lucky that I was born here. Because I have grown up so close to Silicon Valley, I’ve gotten to see a lot of the good that the tech industry has done for this region. However, I have also seen the Bay Area transform in many negative ways due to the presence of tech companies, both directly and indirectly. There is a large cultural and socio-economic divide between people within the tech industry, and locals who have lived here since before the tech boom. Gentrification, homelessness, and diversity within the tech industry are all huge issues that activists within our community grapple with how to fix.

How did you come up with the idea for your script?
I actually came up with the idea for the play when I attended a hackathon! I had an internship at a place where the hackathon was being held, and so I was tasked with helping out. The hackathon, like many STEM programs, was touted as being this transformative program that would provide people from all kinds of different backgrounds with the same opportunities for success. Unfortunately, what I witnessed was very different. I saw people segregated by race and high school, and the teams who were noticeably more affluent had a distinct advantage. This angered me, and I wanted to write a play that talked about inequality within the education system, gentrification, and the racism and sexism that are rampant in the tech industry.

What themes are involved in your piece?
One key subject in my play is the American education system, particularly the drastic differences between public and private schools in the Bay Area. I remember visiting my friend’s private school for the first time after attending public school my whole life, and it was almost a culture shock. I thought that the high school I was attending at the time was pretty good because we didn’t have any gang violence. But when it rained the teachers would have to put trash cans around the classrooms to catch water from the leaky roof, and seeing this wealthy private school where every kid got their own Macbook really opened my eyes.

Another theme that definitely ties in with education within the play is race and racism. San Francisco especially has seen a lot of white flight out of it’s public schools. The correlation between a lack of diversity in schools and wealth has led to a lot of racial tension within SF public schools in the past few years. The final theme within the piece, which also relates to race and racism, is gentrification. Gentrification is changing neighborhoods all around the city, and in many cases forcing people of color out of their homes. This is a huge issue here in the Bay Area, and no discussion about socio-economic privilege and the education system can be had without gentrification being touched on.

What is the message you hope the audience takes away with them?
I hope that audiences will consider that helping kids pursue careers in S.T.E.M. is great, but come to understand that there is systemic racism and discrimination within the tech industry that needs to be addressed before it can be a welcoming place for everyone. Additionally, I would like the audience to rethink the “fix all” solutions that I see springing up so often when it comes to education. While it would be great if the achievement gap could be closed by encouraging every kid to be an engineer, that simply isn’t realistic.

Do you plan to continue writing?
Yes, I love to write and would like to continue! Playwrights Project has really encouraged me to see writing as a tool for self expression. It has been not only empowering, but just plain amazing to see something I wrote transformed into a full scale production. This experience and the wonderful mentorship that I have received throughout has motivated me to continue trying to create stories and art that draw attention to the issues that I witness within my community.

What are your career goals and/or aspirations?
My dream is to be a screenwriter, and to write for television. Above all I want to create content that will make people feel happy, represented, and important.

What advice would you give to a peer as they embark on writing their first play?
If a friend told me they were writing a play, I would say, “Ahhhh! Send me it when you finish, and I can give you feedback!” because I believe that getting suggestions from a trusted friend or teacher can be really helpful. I would also advise them to consider how they can tell the story they want to tell using as few props, sets, and characters as possible. When I was writing a play for the first time, I remember that it was easy to forget that what you create does not have to be photo-realistic. Instead, you have to trust that the audience will understand and hopefully be impacted by the experience of watching real people embody fictional characters.

Are you currently working to develop any other plays?
Currently I’ve just been working on revising Hackathon for the stage. I hope to write more scripts in the future though, whether they are for stage or screen!

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Eliana with Program B actors (From left to right: Kelly Nichole, Michelle Marie Trester, Director George Ye, playwright Eliana Dunn, Roberto Castillo and Brandon Kelley).

Hackathon can be seen during Program A of Plays by Young Writers, on Saturday Jan. 28th at 7:30 PM and Sunday Jan. 29th at 2:00 PM. You may purchase tickets for Jan. 28 at 7:30 PM here, and Jan. 29 at 2:00 PM here.

For more information, please contact Playwrights Project at (858) 384-2970 or write@playwrightsproject.org. Visit http://www.playwrightsproject.org/productions/pbyw/. 

*Photo courtesy of Geri Goodale of Reminisce Photography.

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