An Inherited Wrecked Car and World Premiere

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

What do inheriting a wrecked Rolls Royce and world premiere play have in common? Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder. Teenage Wilder made a deal with her mother: if she graduated from high school she could go to New York City. “One month shy of my 17th birthday I moved to New York,” Wilder said. She’d graduated early. The visit was supposed to be just for the summer. She spent 13 years in New York and another three in Los Angeles. “I wanted to be an actor. I wasn’t willing to do the work it took to be good,” Wilder confessed. “But I was always willing to do the work it took to be a good writer.” It paid off. Sewanee area residents may have seen Wilder around town, although she doesn’t flash fame or glory, even though she’s entitled to. University of the South Tennessee Williams Playwright in Residence since 2012, Wilder has written more than a dozen plays and seen them produced at both national and international venues — the Royal Court (London), Denver Center, Cleveland Play House, B Street Theatre, and Hartford Stage to name only a few. This summer, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival will host the world premiere of “Zelda in the Backyard.” Zelda is the wrecked 1961 Rolls Royce the character Libby inherits from her father. Libby restores the car in a garage crammed with family artifacts and finds her way back into her life.

“‘Zelda in the Backyard’ is the most personal thing I’ve ever written,” Wilder concedes. The 1961 Rolls Royce she inherited disappeared for 10 years. By the time the Rolls reappeared, the car had weathered a hurricane, been wrecked, and was undrivable. She named the car after Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, a woman Wilder describes as “a bit eccentric. She was the sort of woman who would show up at a party late, and no one cared because she was so fabulous. I’d just graduated from college, was starting my adult life, and had a wrecked Rolls Royce in my care. Like Zelda, the Rolls was huge, larger than life.”

“For years, I’d wanted to write a memoir about the Rolls’ experience,” Wilder said. “But I didn’t know how to write a memoir. I’m a playwright.” The solitary rigors of the pandemic forced her to shelve a multi-character play. “A lot of solo plays got written then,” Wilder observed. “Solo plays are theater’s version of memoir. One-character plays lend themselves well to the genre.” Wilder workshopped the Zelda play at an Alabama Shakespeare Festival summer workshop in 2022 and that fall did a closed reading in Sewanee before an audience of 12 people. “I wanted to see if the play worked,” Wilder said. “There is a lot for the audience to interact with. Theater is a collaborative art.”

Wilder is technically a member of the University English department because Creative Writing falls under the English department umbrella, but she actively engages with both the English and Theater Departments. “Elyzabeth is a great outside-the-box thinker and problem solver,” said Theater Department Chair Jim Crawford. “It’s tremendously valuable for our students to see her working professionally as a playwright, getting her work produced. She moves easily and productively between the worlds of academia and professional theatre.”

“Solo performance is one of my favorite classes to teach,” Wilder said. “Students often tell their own stories. They want to talk about ‘What happened to me’ instead of what they did. The main character needs to be active.”

Wilder’s plays are a voyage of discovery for her and the audience alike. “Legacy is a common theme in my work, what we leave behind,” she acknowledged. “I never thought of my dad as someone who accomplished much. What he left behind were these stories. In writing the play I discovered why he lived life the way he did, who he wanted to be, and why he couldn’t be that person.” Zelda in the Backyard is a journey into the land of an uneasy universal truth.

This fall, Wilder will test-drive the play shelved during the pandemic, a portrayal of supreme court justices conducting a mock trial confronting women’s rights and abuse of power. But don’t wait until then to take a drive with Elyzabeth Wilder. “Zelda in the Backyard” opens June 13. For tickets visit <;. “Each of my plays takes me out of my comfort zone in a different way,” Wilder said. “I write trying to make sense of the world around me.” Join Wilder and Zelda for an interactive journey of the mind.

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