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!

What Inspires You to Give to Playwrights Project? (Part 2)

We interviewed a few of our donors to see what keeps them giving to Playwrights Project.  Each not only contributes monetarily, but also gives their time, energy, and love to the organization.  Their unique stories and creative ways of giving help Playwrights Project prosper.

Karen Ladner

Karen Ladner, Board Member Emeritus and Husband Todd Stone

I attend many Playwrights Project functions, have taken a playwriting workshop, and am a donor. I’m also a board member emeritus.

Playwrights fulfills a great mission for kids – increasing literacy through drama based activities. It has changed the lives of foster kids by allowing them to tell their stories in a safe, creative, encouraging environment. Playwrights also allows older people to express themselves through playwriting, which not only engenders creativity but keeps their memories alive for others. My mother commissioned a play of my grandfather, who was then 98 years old. He was interviewed several times and the play was written based on his stories, by a professional playwright. It was then performed by professional actors on his 99th, and last, birthday. It was fabulous!

Playwrights is also one of the best run non-profits with which I’ve been involved, both fiscally and strategically.

Karen Cebreros

Karen Cebreros, Community Volunteer and Co-Founder of Track The Impact

I was introduced to Playwrights by Ann von Gal when I was in High School in LA. I was part of a project that took my class all three years to see plays and that changed my life forever. The most exciting thing one can do is see a wonderful show from San Diego to New York. My best friend is a playwright and she has won the Kleban Award and best musical in LA……she continues to change lives with her plays.

I have seen Playwrights Project shows for 5 years. I was mesmerized by the cast. I can tell these young writers are destined for greatness.

This year I was delighted to donate by selling  gold that no longer was functioning. I hosted a  “gold party” with my friends and family.  A diamond store on Midway authenticated, weighed, and purchased our unwanted gold items. I gladly donated the $1,000 proceeds to Playwrights Project.

Thank you for keeping young people involved in the arts. Thank you for preserving culture in San Diego.

What Inspires You to Give to Playwrights Project?

We interviewed a few of our donors to see what keeps them giving to Playwrights Project.  Each not only contributes monetarily, but also gives their time, energy, and love to the organization.  Their unique stories and creative ways of giving help Playwrights Project prosper.

Ann von Gal

Ann von Gal, Partner, Olmstead von Gal Associates

Many years ago my dear friend and neighbor Mary Harrison invited me to join her to see a performance of plays written by school age children. Mary and I are dear friends so I said yes, but in the back of my mind the thought of sitting through some “kid” plays was something I was not looking forward to. That evening was my introduction to Playwrights Project. “40 Miles from Tel Aviv” hooked me. And I have been involved with Playwrights Project ever since.

 Playwrights Project helps not just one part of our community but makes a significant difference in the arts, education, seniors, foster youth, children, literacy, writing, speech — the list goes on and on. It is because of this outreach I feel my donations are making more of an impact, a bigger difference.  And because of this extensive outreach, the Playwrights Project budget is larger than one may expect. As all non profits are vying for grant monies and donations, Playwrights Project’s remarkable staff of 4 stretch every dollar to its limits to provide value and excellence with, of course, creativity, while keeping Playwrights Project on budget.

My favorite memory with Playwrights Project was that first night as a member of the audience. It completely turned  my Bah Humbug attitude around.  

Playwright Project is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Jerry Hoffmeister, Recent Chair of The San Diego Foundation

 Jerry Hoffmeister

 What is your personal connection to Playwrights Project?
I really enjoy attending the play readings. They remind me of my days before TV when I listened to radio programs. In some ways, I prefer to visualize the set or scene in my mind versus on a stage.
 
Why do you donate to Playwrights Project?
My wife & I feel strongly about supporting the creative process of play writing for people of all ages.   Everyone needs to explore their creative side to build self esteem & good health.
 
How have you witnessed Playwrights Project changing the lives of others?
My wife gets a real “high” writing plays, especially about her family.
 
What is your favorite memory with Playwrights Project?
It’s always the play readings I attend.
 

CSUSM’s New Play Festival Highlights Foster Youth

In partnership with ACE Scholars Services, Playwrights Project’s Telling Stories program paired theatre artists with former foster youth who attended Cal State San Marcos (CSUSM).  The artists created four short plays based on the lives of  the “storytellers.”  Students at CSUSM are performing the plays as part of CSUSM  Theatre Department’s annual New Play Festival, produced by Judy Bauerlein.  Playwrights Project theatre artist Kaja Dunn is directing two of the four plays.  We interviewed Kaja about her desire to take part in the foster youth program.

What drew you to the project?

The Telling Stories: Giving Voice to Former Foster Youth program, being featured in CSUSM’s New Play Festival, is a representation of everything I love about working at Playwrights Project.  This show not only brings new works to the stage, but in doing so it nurtures new young actors, creates collaborations with seasoned professionals and emerging artists, and furthers awareness in the community about the stories and strength of foster youth.

As the director, and as someone interested in working in the academic field, the opportunity to work with Dr. Judy Bauerlin was priceless.  It was the best kind of collaboration in that we were able to feed off each other’s ideas, and I was able to benefit from her insight and experience.

Ever since my Playwrights Project residency at San Pasqual Academy, I have jumped at any chance to work with foster youth. I have personal experience with the foster care system, and my husband and I hope to be foster parents someday. 

What intrigues you about the scripts?

Most intriguing was the clear message of the value each individual life holds. I was also intrigued by the scripts that focused on how important it is, as an adult, to do a better job fostering each child’s potential.

You can hear statistics about the foster care system until you are blue in the face, but there is nothing like seeing their stories on stage to help you understand the challenges these kids face. Rita Naranjo, one of the storytellers, uses the term “parentless kids.” The scripts offer such a varied view of what it means to be “parentless kids.” They show what it is like to grow up without consistency, without someone advocating for you. But there is also a redemptive outlook that each of these scripts has. They highlight the power people can have when they are willing to take the time to be a role model. There is a great emphasis on the value of the compassion from the mentors who stick with the kids, and the humanity of the main characters, who represent these real life storytellers. All the stories highlight the fact that these are four incredible individuals who have an amazing amount of inner strength and resolve.

What is it like working with college students and storytellers?

Working with the student actors in this show has been amazing. One student in particular came into audition for another role, but ended up as the lead character.  Her experiences as an ACE Scholar and former foster youth brought so much truth to the character in the play. I watched my actors grow in their empathy for each other. One of the greatest experiences was having the storytellers come in and talk to the actors at rehearsal. As a director it is a rare experience to work with the subject of the piece you are directing. Participating in the discussions between the storytellers and the actors was remarkable. I watched the actors begin to realize the impact of the work they are doing. I have such affection for all the cast, faculty, and staff I have worked with at CSUSM and Playwrights Project, and I hope we were able to honor our amazing storytellers with this production.

Scene from ‘A Bad Kid’ by Katie Haroff. Photo by Jason Eberwein

How can readers help?

We will be putting out a bin from Promises2Kids each night for toy donations for current foster youth. Guests can bring a toy (or gift card for older teens) to the show and it will go to a local foster youth.

Plays will be performed by student in CSUSM’s Theatre Department: Arts 101 Building, 333 South Twin Oaks Road, San Marcos, CA 92069.

Performance Dates:

December 1st, 7PM, Suggested donation $2

December 3rd, 7PM, Suggested donation $2

December 4th, 2PM, Suggested donation $2

December 6th, 7PM, Sponsored by Arts and Lectures, FREE

December 7th, 7:30PM, Suggested donation $2

NO RESERVATIONS REQUIRED. SHOW UP EARLY. SPACE IS LIMITED.

Olivia Espinosa, Teaching Artist for Playwrights Project

 

Olivia Espinosa

Olivia Espinosa has been a Teaching Artist for Playwrights Project since 2006.  She is also a local actress, and was last seen in Switch, as part of Playwrights Project’s New Play Festival performed at the Lyceum Theatre this past April. 

This year Olivia has taught our playwriting residency at some at-risk school sites, including a Juvenile Hall.  We’ve asked Olivia for some feedback on her work as a Teaching Artist–there are some great insights!

 

 

You are also a professional actress; does this have an effect on the students you teach in our playwriting residencies?

In some cases the students I have taught have seen me as an actor first.  This is actually an ideal situation because the students seem to trust me a lot quicker, since they have seen me perform and have connected to me in that way before I begin teaching.  They know that I can relate to their work not just as a teacher but as an actor who will perform their work. 

 

Are there any interesting success stories about particular students who benefited from the program?

I recently taught a playwriting residency as part of the educational program for young people detained in Juvenile Hall.  There are about 300 students enrolled daily in the  facility and the unit I taught contained anywhere from 12-19 girls at a time.  On the first day, I brought in 3 professional actors to perform short scripts for the girls so that they could get an idea of what the program had in store for them.  This gave the students a better understanding of theater, live performance and sense of trust, since at the end of the program their scripts would be read by these same actors.  We entered the facility with just our car keys in our pockets.  Personal items like wallets, sunglasses, pens, and even water bottles had to be left behind.  The scripts could not be stapled together and no paperclips were allowed.  The fear in the facility is that something on you might drop and can be used as a potential weapon.  Because of all the fear and preparations needed upon entering the facility I was unsure of what to expect.  What I found were some of the most motivated students I have ever taught.  I think they all benefited in some way from this program that values their ideas and story in an environment that can easily stifle and harden their belief in themselves.

 

Are there any specific challenges in the classroom?

There were quite a few challenges in this residency but not the normal ones that I was used to dealing with.  Normally, classroom discipline is a problem and takes up a lot of my time in the classroom.  However, this was not the case at Juvenile Hall.  There were always 2-3 probation officers watching and monitoring the classroom and the girls knew the consequences if they stepped out of line.  To use a bad pun… they were the most “captive” audience I have ever had.  On the other hand the officers also made teaching difficult at times.  As the principal of the school said, “We who are a part of the school are guests of the probation department.”  Although the Juvenile Hall school provides more resources than other youth facilities in the county, my lessons and class time were always in the power of the officers at hand.  For example, if there was a fight in the unit, the girls would not be allowed out of their cell for school that day.  The most disheartening situation came when a girl, who was always the first to volunteer for activities, had knee surgery.  Despite her constant enthusiasm, in my last days teaching, she was not allowed out of her cell because her knee brace was considered a potential weapon.  Unfortunately, because of this, she also had to miss the final performance with the actors.

 

Have you come across any surprising scripts?

I am always surprised when students trust me and the process enough to write about a time in their life that might be difficult to share and express with others.  The writing process prompts them to relive difficult moments in their lives that may not be easy to deal with.  One student wrote about a girl who wanted to run away from a group home because she was mistreated by the staff in the home.  This character also spoke of the abuse that she got from the officers when she was in a detention center.  I was stunned that she had the courage to speak up and write about the experiences she had in front of the very people who might have behaved that way toward her.

 

How are the playwriting residencies successful?

All the girls were eager to finish and submit their plays for performance and the annual California Young Playwrights Contest.  Although we were not able to perform all of the girls’ work on the final day, due to the fact that all scripts had to be approved by probation, I know that the students got more out of the program than we will ever know.  After the performance, we had a chance to talk with the girls.  It was a wonderful opportunity to see their enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge about theater and the acting process.  Many of them were looking forward to being involved with Playwrights Project and other theater programs after their release.

 

Do you learn anything new after teaching a residency?

It was interesting to learn about the dynamics in a detention facility.  I have always wanted to teach in one and was so glad that I finally got the opportunity.  I didn’t know what to expect and how I would be treated, but what I found was a huge sense of hope from the students in the unit.  Unlike other schools, the girls at the Juvenile Hall school have a lighter more optimistic energy.  Although the students are “stuck” in a system beyond their control, the students there have a stronger sense of hope for their future.  Perhaps because they know exactly when they will get out and that it is up to them whether or not they return to the facility.

Thanks, Olivia, for your excellent work as a Teaching Artist!

Karson St. John, Teaching Artist for Playwrights Project

Karson St. John has been a Teaching Artist for Playwrights Project for the past few years.  She is also a local actress, and can currently be seen as the Emcee in Cabaret at Cygnet TheatreCabaret runs through May 22; you don’t want to miss it!  We’ve asked Karson for some feedback on her work as a Teaching Artist–there are some great insights!

 

Are there any interesting success stories about particular students who benefited from the program?

Some of the highlights for me have been helping the students find their voices to work through big issues in their lives.  This semester, I have a 9th grade boy who is writing a scene about two college-aged guys who develop a friendship after meeting one night in a Denny’s restaurant.  It seemed obvious to me that these two characters had romantic feelings for one another, but the playwright was insisting they were just looking for friendship.  With some encouragement, the student started to open up to what he really wanted to talk about, which was romantic relationship between these two guys.  By understanding that the world of this play is a safe place to explore issues that don’t necessarily making any reflection on the playwright personally, the writer is free to explore any topic that they may be curious about, without being judged.

 

Have you come across any surprising scripts?  And why?

One student at iHigh  this semester is writing a fascinating Sci-Fi piece about time-travel and women’s rights.  Unlike anything I’ve ever seen–really creative and interesting.

 

Are there any specific challenges in the classroom?

Involvement from the classroom teacher (or lack thereof) can sometimes be a challenge.  I have been fortunate this year to have had to very supportive and involved teachers who have helped propel the students to their fullest potential. 

The size of the class can also be challenging.  When the class is very large, it can be very difficult to connect individually with the students, and to give them appropriate feedback and encouragement.

 

How are the playwriting residencies successful?

The students are finding their voices and creating art!  By combining their writing skills with their creativity, they are able to produce a concrete piece of work that comes to life when the scripts are in the hands of the actors.  How empowering for them . . .

 

Do you learn anything new after teaching a residency?

I always learn something new after teaching a residency.  Whether it’s a new activity, strategy, or method to managing time, I always write notes to myself so I can incorporate what I’ve learned into my future residencies.

 

You’ve worked in some non-traditional school sites, such as Pacific Ridge and iHigh.  What has that been like?

I really enjoy the non-traditional schools.  iHigh for example, has been a joy this year because we have ended up with a small group of really dedicated students.  We’ve been able to sit in a circle each class, just five students, the teacher, and me, and really dive deep into their work and their scripts.  They’re working together, reading each others’ plays, giving feedback, and asking questions to the group. 

There is something really special about having the chance to dig in to each piece of work and have the time to connect with each student individually.

 

You are also a professional actress, does this have an effect on the students you teach in our playwriting residencies?

I think being a professional actor somehow legitimizes me to the students . . .  They see that I am making a career in the theatre, so they buy in to my expertise.  They also really look up to the actors who come into the classroom, who are always so great and helpful.

Thanks, Karson, for your excellent work as a Teaching Artist!