Welcome to the DGF Fellows Spotlight.
This series of interviews put the spotlight on individual DGF Fellows and invites you to take a behind-the-scenes look at our program.
The 2020-2021 class of fellows was asked a series of questions exploring where they’ve been, what they’re up to now, and what they hope for the future.
Please take your seats, unwrap your candies, and silence your cellphones as we put the spotlight on Eliana Pipes!
What was your first experience with theater?
I can’t recall a first experience in the theater, because thankfully it’s been part of my life as long as I can remember. My parents met in a writers group/book club, so needless to say they’ve always appreciated the arts and made an effort to take me to see live theater. I grew up in a pocket of Los Angeles called Culver City, and in the early 2000’s two theaters opened blocks from my house which gave me access to a lot of free arts education very early in my life. In particular, a nonprofit called YoungStorytellers that came into my elementary school and gave me a mentor to guide me through writing my first script in the 4th grade. YoungStorytellers was the first of a string of arts nonprofits — from Center Theater Group’s education department, to Sony Studios, to the Actor’s Gang — that shepherded me into the theater. Thanks to them, the arts and advocacy have always been tied for me.
When did you decide to become a writer? Is there a writer, show, or piece of writing that was particularly influential on your path?
I’d been commandeering girl scouts skits and putting on backyard plays with friends for a long time before I ever really considered myself a writer — but for me, a turning point came in high school. I went to a public performing arts school as an actress, and I quickly became frustrated with the kinds of roles that were available to me as a young woman of color (the spunky best friend or supportive girlfriend if I was lucky, more often than not the silent maid).
I started writing plays in my junior year of high school as part of a conscious effort to create space for myself and my friends, to create roles that felt authentic, where we could reimagine and redefine who we could be. One of my high school plays ended up being part of our school’s fourth year project, which I’ll always be proud of. Countless plays and writers were influential, too many to thank here — but I try to thank them in my writing instead.
How do you describe your work overall? What sets your work apart?
My body of work is incredibly varied because experimenting with style and form is part of how I have my fun. After staring down the barrel of an American canon that seemed entirely uninterested in people like me, I was immediately drawn to experimental theater that shattered tradition, challenged norms, and moved the goalposts on what a play could be.
Now, my point of view as an artist stems from a devotion to spectacle in service of story — plays where the dramatic frame and devices are crucial to the theme. I want each play to feel like its own genre invention. I’ve written surreal dreamscapes on reality TV, drag fairy tales, meta-theatrical vignette epics, and even a naturalistic two hander. The play I’m working on for the [DGF Fellows Program] begins with a man’s liver sitting in a cooler on ice.
Even with the variation, there are still common threads. I always reach for large-scale theatricality, for imagism and heart. I always write marginalized characters who have agency, who have complicated desires. And my writing is always ferociously personal.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work you’ve been developing as a Fellow?
The Cowboy and the Moon uses imagistic spectacle to explore the way a modern-day alcoholic Father sees himself within his addiction: as a wandering Cowboy in the Wild West. But outside of the Father’s drunken fantasy, the real world churns on for his wife and daughter. The women must negotiate between playing along with his Prairie world and grappling with the impact of his drinking on their day-to-day lives.
I’m aiming to confront and subvert the western theater canon, which is full of stories of Alcoholic White Fathers, usually written by Alcoholic White Sons. I felt called to disrupt that lineage by moving beyond naturalism, introducing the lenses of gender and race, and approaching all characters in the orbit of addiction with compassion.
What do you find most rewarding about your work as a writer?
For me, the most rewarding thing about being a writer harkens back to those early experiences of making space — both by making space for other artists to practice their craft, and also creating a vocabulary that makes people feel seen.
My early relationship with writing came out of feeling isolated — thinking that nobody else shared or understood my experiences. But then, once I’d committed to articulating those experiences in writing, I got the absolute shock of discovering that there *were* other people who shared my experiences, we just hadn’t been given a shared vocabulary for expressing them. And that vocabulary is also rendered by actors and designers who bring their own experience and expertise into the work.
One of my happiest writing career memories came during rehearsal for a festival showing of my play DREAM HOU$E. I had invented a convention in the play where brackets would indicate when a word was pronounced in Spanish — so [Julia] for the Spanish hu-lia pronunciation and [Julia] for the english pronunciation. That convention opened up a world of new conversations for us in the room — how would a character pronounce “quesadilla”? Or what about her mothers name? In the process, we all reflected on how we code switched in different spaces and realized we all had common experiences that we thought we were alone in.
To me, the greatest gift of being a writer is being able to facilitate those moments of questioning and communion — whether it’s just for myself in the glow of my laptop as I’m drafting, or for a group of actors doing table work, or (hopefully) eventually for a full house and a long run.
Do you have any upcoming work you’d like to share?
I wrote a solo show called “Unf*ckwithable” about a girl living in a van, vlogging for #vanlife by day and shooting down delivery drones to loot the contents by night. It was produced for Drama League’s Directorfest and directed by Cristina Angeles. The show is fully designed and recorded from a theater — which has been so thrilling to watch after a year on Zoom. It’s available to stream from June 14-21 202 and tickets are available at: https://directorfest.org/unfuckwithable
Thank you Eliana, for contributing to the blog! You can stay up to date on Eliana’s work by following @elianapipes on Instagram and Twitter or visiting www.elianapipes.com