Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
In elementary school, Elyzabeth Wilder was introduced to theatre. Like all young children, she thought that she wanted to be an actor, but she backtracked when she realized the full demands of acting.
At 17, she went to the Young Playwrights Festival in New York and heard Wendy Wasserstein speak. The festival inspired her to take a playwriting class in college, and in her freshman year, Wilder wrote her first play, which was selected for a new play festival in New York.
“That’s when I realized that I could actually make a career out of writing plays,” she says. “I was hooked.”
The Tennessee Williams Playwriting Fellow is a program instituted by the University and funded by the Tennessee Williams endowment. The program brings distinguished playwrights such as Wilder to Sewanee. The Fellow then teaches Introduction to Playwriting and Advanced Playwriting classes while advising students on their capstone projects in playwriting.
However, this is not the first time Wilder has served in this capacity; she held this position from 2012 to 2015, and in the interim she taught classes in the English and Theatre departments.
Wilder was first introduced to Sewanee in her early 20s when she attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A decade later, she was contacted by Dan O’Brien, a former Williams’ Fellow, who asked her if she would be interested in being the playwright-in-residence. At the time, Wilder was undergoing a creative block just as her daughter was turning two, and was happy to accept.
“When I came here as the Fellow, I had lost who I was as a writer,” she recalls. “Having the time and resources to focus on my writing allowed me to find my way back. I wrote four plays in three years. Three of those plays have received world premieres and the other has been workshopped at a major regional theatre. That’s a huge accomplishment and one I could not have achieved without the resources provided through the fellowship.”
Wilder has written a wide variety of plays, including Gee’s Bend, Fresh Kills, and White Lightning, which have been produced at the Royal Court in London, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and Hartford Stage, among others. Her most recent play, Everything That’s Beautiful, premiered at the New Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco last year.
“Plays are like children and you love them all in different ways,” she explains. “Gee’s Bend was written while my mother was dying and the hope and humanity of the people in that play helped guide me through that experience. The Bone Orchard was written after she died and proved to me that life does go on. Everything That’s Beautiful made me take a long hard look at who I am as a parent and how we struggle to make the right decisions for our children. I think every play has to pull us out of our comfort zone in some way.”
These sentiments are echoed in her newest play, currently untitled, which explores racial bias and the development of colour photography. Drawing inspiration from a story about the Kodak Shirley Cards, which were used in the early days of colour photography for colour correcting photographs, Wilder tackles the issue of racism in photography.
Because colour photography was built around a white model, a woman with fair skin, it was difficult for a long time to accurately represent people of colour, especially those with dark skin.
“Those who control the images we see of others also control the narrative,” says Wilder. “The challenge now is to find a way to tell that story in a way that is accessible to the audience.”
Audience accessibility is important to every art form, but perhaps more so to playwriting, which is especially dependent on it. Wilder writes to make sense of the world around her, and in doing so, generously shares her insight with us so that we, too, can understand.
“In many ways my work is a reflection of what I’m struggling to understand in my own mind,” she says. “I’m motivated by the idea that ‘all art must strive to answer the question, how then must we live?’ I think all art is, in some way, a reflection of our own humanity, both the good and the bad.”