Five teen writers win Playwrights Project’s 2020 youth script festival

Playwrights Project 2020 California Young Playwrights Contest winners
The five winners of Playwrights Project’s 2020 California Young Playwrights Contest, clockwise from top left, Kaya Dierks, Declan Kallberg, Jordan Marie Finley, Arely Gomez Hernandez and Sarina Hegli.
(Screen capture from Zoom)

San Diego festival plays focus on family conflict, social media pitfalls and obsessive-compulsive disorder


Five teen writers whose scripts tackled issues of family conflict, mental health and social media challenges are the winners of this year’s California Young Playwrights Contest.

San Diego-based Playwrights Project introduced the winners in a Zoom meeting on Saturday, where snippets of each play were performed and the teens talked about their work. Over the winter, all five plays will be developed with help from writing mentors and dramaturgs, and they will be presented in March at the 36th annual Plays by Young Writers Festival, which will stream online March 11 through 19.

Contest coordinator Rachael VanWormer said this year’s competition drew 243 play submission from students at 73 schools statewide. That’s down sharply from the 561 scripts received last year, a decline no doubt influenced by the disruption in schools caused by the pandemic.

Playwrights Project executive director Cecilia Kouma read and scored all the entries, and the top 50 were judged by a team of professional theater artists. Besides the five winners, 32 other plays were named semifinalists and finalists in two age categories, 14 and under and 15-18.

Festival artistic director Ruff Yeager said many nationally known playwrights got their start in the contest over the years, including Josefina López (“Real Women Have Curves”), Annie Weisman (“Be Aggressive”) and Lauren Yee (“Cambodian Rock Band” and “The Great Leap”).

Here’s a look at the winning 2020 playwrights and their scripts:

  • “Dub Thee Fear” by Declan Kallberg, a 13-year-old student at the i-Shine Student Center charter school in Temecula. The play involves a medieval-style knight slaying the demons in a teenage boy’s mind as he navigates quarantine. Declan said the play was inspired by his own battle with fear and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which has grown worse since the pandemic began. Usually the winning plays in the 14-and-under category only get a staged reading, but the judges felt this play had such dramatic potential, they are planning a full production.
  • “The Love Project” by Jordan Marie Finley, 18, of San Diego, now a student at UC Santa Barbara. Two friends hiding behind anonymous identities on social media reveal their true selves as the result of a class assignment. The Francis Park School graduate’s play “Feliz Cumpleaños” was also a winner in the 2019 festival.
  • “Controversy in the Comments Section” by Sarina Hegli, 16, a senior at Canyon Crest Academy in Carmel Valley. The play is about a mother and son who are unable to communicate face to face but unexpectedly connect online. Sarina said this was one of four scripts she submitted to the contest this year, and it was inspired by how fast wars of words can erupt online, often from simple misunderstandings.
  • “Forward” by Kaya Dierks, 17, a senior at The Branson School in San Francisco. The play is about the conflict between a teenage girl and her widowed father who has dated multiple women since his wife’s death. Kaya said the play was inspired by the death of a friend’s mother several years ago.
  • “The Fight for a Dream” by Arely Gomez Hernandez, 13, an eighth-grader at The Preuss School in La Jolla. A young girl dreams of becoming a famous singer, but her family refuses to support her plan. Arely said she’s a singer herself and believes that dreams can come true if you don’t give up. This play will be presented as a staged reading.

For details on the festival, visit