Interview with Plays by Young Writers Alum Eliana Pipes

Eliana Pipes is a playwright, actor, and filmmaker whose script From Another House was produced in Playwrights Project’s Plays by Young Writers Festival in 2014. Her play Dream Hou$e will be presented as part of San Diego Rep’s upcoming Latinx New Play Festival.

Eliana Pipes

Congratulations on graduating from Columbia! You’re currently working towards your MFA in playwriting from Boston University. How was your first year of grad school, and what advice do you have for young writers starting grad school?

It’s what everyone will tell you when you start Grad School, but it’s universal for a reason: Really take advantage of the time to experiment.  Remember that the process is about you and your growth as an artist, and disengage from any part of the experience that isn’t serving you in that goal.  Have fun – and write to please yourself first and foremost.  For writers, Grad School is a place to take big risks, to push yourself, to be unafraid of failure.  Big risks can lead to big rewards, and as Toni Morrison said, failure is just information.  And if you’re interested in Grad School – I’d recommend looking for fully funded programs, there are more out there than you’d think (BU is one!) and I think it’s easier to take risks when you’re not feeling financial pressure.

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Eliana and her dramaturg Aleta Barthell exchange ideas on her script From Another House during the 2014 Plays by Young Writers Festival.

You describe your writing as “imagistic, political, and playful with a punch; interested in the intersection between capitalism and culture, and the ways that identity is constantly being negotiated.” If you are comfortable sharing, what experiences in your life helped shape and inform the themes you work with now as an adult?

As a queer woman of color, it’s not too hard to guess why I’m passionate about diversity in the theater – but I think that diversity is about much more than just throwing different types of actors on stage.  Many identity-based works treat those identities as though they are stable and unalienable, but I don’t think that’s how we really experience ourselves.

I’m interested in exploring the ways that identity is constantly being negotiated.  How is ethnic culture bought and sold?  How is womanhood tested and earned?  Who are these identity categories really for?  I know that over the course of my own life, my relationship to my ethnicity, to my gender, to my sexuality has radically changed.  I’m interested in that process of transformation. I’m interested in internalized oppression, and who profits from it.

What effect did your involvement with the Plays by Young Writers Festival have on your experience as a writer and theatre artist?

My Plays by Young Writers experience was such a gift.  I really got to see my work come to life through a stellar professional creative team, which was really valuable at that juncture in my writing career. The Old Globe is a beautiful space, and the Festival was one of the first times I got to react to my work with a generous audience of strangers, rather than a house packed with friends.  It was a wonderful launching point for me, one that I’ll always be grateful for.

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Eliana and Aleta watch actors rehearse a scene of From Another House.

From Another House examines how secrets can change a family’s dynamic. I understand Dream Hou$e also delves into familial relationships. Can you give us some insight into the inspiration behind Dream Hou$e? Ultimately, what do you hope the audience will take away from the play?

Dream Hou$e came from two impulses for me: the first was thinking about my own relationship to the house my family left when our hometown started changing.  The second impulse came up as I moved more deeply into the professional world of theater.  As a writer of color in a landscape where (statistically speaking) the majority of theater subscribers are white, I felt like I was being asked to sell my culture for money – and a part of me really wanted to (because of course that’s how we measure success).  This play has been my space to grapple with the gaze my work was going to be subjected to, with the difference between claiming my own narrative and having one put on me, with the relationship between upward mobility and cultural disconnection.  And when the play takes off into the surreal, this is what I’m exploring.

One constant with my work is that I’m not writing to give answers, but to ask questions – and I hope the audience will walk away chewing on those questions too.  The play is about how the Sisters’ attachment to the house has changed, and by extension how their attachment to themselves and their cultural identity has changed.  I hope they’ll come out thinking about their own families, their own hometowns, and the way their relationship to themselves has shifted.

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Eliana, Aleta, and PWP Executive Director Cecelia Kouma after a reading of Eliana’s play Stand and Wait at UCSD, where Eliana was a recipient of the 2018 Gaffney Playwriting Award.

You recently returned to the California Young Playwrights Contest as a letter writer, providing script feedback to eager young playwrights across the state. How does it feel to be supporting the upcoming generation of playwrights?

Being a letter writer for the contest has been SO much fun!  I’ve been absolutely delighted with the work I’ve read – it’s been playful, imaginative, and outside-the-box.  I remember how meaningful it was for me to get feedback from the competition, and I’m so proud to be able to pay that gift forward.  More than anything, reading these scripts has made me excited to see more from this next generation of writers for the stage.

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Eliana writes notes on her script while actors perform a table read of From Another House.

What advice would you give to young writers who are just beginning to explore their voices?

Write everything – follow every impulse and don’t try judge whether it makes sense, or if it’s important.  Funny enough, it’s the same as my grad school advice, write to please yourself first and foremost, and your voice will appear naturally.  Sometimes it’s hard to get a sense of what your style is from just a handful of projects, but if you keep writing then over time a set of trends will emerge in your body of work.  Follow what excites you.

I also think it’s a great idea to write down every idea: if a line or scenario pops into your head, take a second and write it down for later.  In my junior year of high school I started to carry around a notebook that was dedicated to anything but school work.  I thought of it as a net for catching all those little thoughts that I’d usually just let pass, but over time a lot of those half-baked spontaneous lines or ideas have become part of huge projects years down the line.

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Eliana bows with the cast of “From Another House” on Opening Night of Plays by Young Writers 2014.  (Photo by Geri Goodale)

Dream Hou$e will be performed on Friday, August 30th at 7:30pm in San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Theatre. Tickets for Dream Hou$e and the Latinx New Play Festival can be reserved through the San Diego Rep.

To learn more about Eliana Pipes, visit her website!

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