By Brian Young
When entering professor Elyzabeth Wilder’s office, the first thing to catch the eye is the towering bookshelf that consumes the entire right side of the room. However, more peculiar than the sheer size of the bookshelves is the emptiness of them. Only a handful of the shelves house books or papers while the rest remain empty.
This comes in stark contrast to the bookshelves of most of her colleagues in the English department, but after learning about Wilder’s career since coming to Sewanee, the reason for the lack of material becomes clear.
Wilder first came to Sewanee in 2012 to serve as the Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence, and she remained in that role for three years. She then served as a Visiting Assistant Professor of English for three years, teaching both Introduction to Theatre and Literature and Composition, the introductory courses for the Theatre and English departments respectively.
This year, she has returned to her role as the Playwright-in-Residence. This change between Playwright-in-Residence and professor also entails a change in office locations, and a wall of books would make for a miserable move. It’s easy to see why Wilder keeps a limited selection of books in her room.
This semester, she is teaching only one course: playwriting. Teaching one course provides her with time and opportunity to work on her writing. Next semester, Wilder is excited to be teaching a new course called Solo Performance, in which students will be able to write and perform their own works.
Wilder enjoyed an interesting childhood in Mobile, Alabama, where she grew up on a houseboat called Bare Necessities. On the subject of her childhood home, Wilder noted, “If you grow up on a houseboat, you, of course, have to become a writer.”
She moved to New York a month before her 17th birthday and then attended Purchase College, a state school outside of New York City, as an undergraduate. She earned her Master of Fine Arts from New York University, after which she moved to Los Angeles to work on the short-lived television show Clubhouse.
After Wilder’s time in television, The Royal Court in London decided to produce a play she had written in graduate school called Fresh Kills, so she moved to to London to help with the production of the play. This performance was the first professional job for Matt Smith, the English actor best known for his time playing The Doctor in the television show Doctor Who. “We all knew he was going to be a star,” Wilder recalled.
After London, she returned to L.A. to work as a staff writer for another TV show. Wilder’s breakout moment came in 2007 when she wrote the play Gee’s Bend, a story about the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, who are famous for their unique and beautiful quilts. The play enjoyed 65 productions, and as Wilder said, “It changed my life.”
Wilder has a busy few weeks ahead of her, as she will be traveling to work on some of her recently written plays. During October, she will travel to The Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery to workshop one of her plays as part of the Southern Writers Festival of New Plays.
Wilder explained that her play, entitled The Light of the World, was partially inspired by The Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation here at Sewanee. The play was also inspired by a visit to the small town of Uniontown, Alabama. Located in the Black Belt, an area of Alabama named for its black, fertile soil, Uniontown attracted Wilder’s attention because the main street is lined with large estates that once belonged to wealthy slave-holders and their descendants. Now, however, they are owned by the impoverished descendants of those who were once enslaved, and these buildings sit in disrepair as industry and jobs have left this part of the state.
After her time at The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Wilder will travel to Rochester, New York, to work on another play of hers that is set to be performed at the Geva Theatre. This play, entitled The Color Girl or What Looks Like Pretty, was commissioned by the Sloan Foundation for the creation of a play concerning a scientific or technological theme. Wilder’s pitch for the play was, “racial bias and the development of color photography,” and she focussed in on the camera company Kodak, which is headquartered in Rochester.
For the play, she conducted research in the archives of the University of Rochester and interviewed former Kodak employees. In her research, Wilder was intrigued by Kodak’s use of “color girls.” These were women, all fair-skinned, who Kodak used to standardize and adjust the lighting and technical aspects of their cameras.
Using white women with relatively pale skin as the baseline excluded other sects of the American demographic was unideal. This practice prompted Wilder to explore “finding your place when you are outside the norm” in the play, she said.
Wilder’s opportunity to once again serve as the Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence means she has been gifted with the opportunity to write even more plays to add to her considerable repertoire. By the time her second stint as the Playwright-in-Residence ends, expect her shelves to be a little less empty.