In the second installment of the Out of the Rehearsal Hall podcast, I talked with playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder and Geva’s Associate Director of Education, Lara Rhyner. Our conversation ranged from what it’s like to be a Southern storyteller, to celebrating a 105 year old grandmother, to the inspiration we can find in the imaginations of our children.
You can find Out of the Rehearsal Hall on your favorite podcast service, including Google Podcasts, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Radio Public, Overcast, or subscribe by RSS feed. Or, keep up with us on the podcast’s website, here.
Episode 2: Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder
While I’d read Elyzabeth’s wonderful play, Gee’s Bend, quite awhile ago, it wasn’t until just a couple of years ago that I met Elyzabeth. Her agent, Beth Blickers, represents a lot of playwrights we work with, and in fact, one of Geva’s former literary fellows (and a frequent author here on Geva Journal), Rachel Abrams, now works with Beth at Agency for the Performing Arts. Beth knew of our interest in commissioning stories that take place in Rochester and have a place on a national stage. And so, when Elyzabeth received a commission from the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Sloan Foundation to write a play inspired by the development of color photography, especially at Kodak, Beth gave me a call. We decided to join in with EST/Sloan and co-commission Elyzabeth to write what eventually became Looks Like Pretty.
We recorded this conversation on Monday, April 20, which would have been a day off of performances before the fourth week of performances for Looks Like Pretty, had it not been for the COVID-19 virus. We’d been in rehearsal with director Valerie Curtis-Newton and actors Margaret Ivey, Seth Andrew Bridges and Aaliyah Reed-Miller (a student at Rochester Prep High School) for two weeks when we had to postpone the production, and we’d staged the first act, the set was nearly completely built, costumes were ready to go. We still had some time before the lights and sound equipment would be hung in the theatre, but we were very close to getting onstage.
To give you an idea of what’s in store when we are able to finish our production and bring the play to you (keep an eye out on Geva‘s website for information about that), here are two pictures of the scenic model, by scenic designer Jack Magaw.
When theatres around the country started cancelling productions and moving to creating online content, Elyzabeth was one of 22 Southern playwrights asked by Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF) to write a monologue for their 22 Homes project. Each of the playwrights were given a week to write, then actors were given a week to prepare. Elyzabeth’s monologue, performed by Cynthia Barrett, is called “Give Us This Day, Our Daily Bread.”
In addition to being a writer and a teacher, Elyzabeth is raising her daughter, a very smart, talented, big-hearted third grader named Gillian. While Elyzabeth was adjusting to the postponement of Looks Like Pretty and writing the monologue for ASF, Gillian was adjusting to a new world order too. One day, she spent some time alone in her room, and then brought Elyzabeth in to see her creation – her lego-based response to the COVID-19 crisis. And Gillian wanted to share her thoughts and feelings with other young people, so they created a beautiful short video.
We wrapped up the conversation by talking about where she’s finding hope in the world right now. And Elyzabeth shared an excerpt from an Auden poem, which I wanted to share here as well.
From “September 1, 1939,” by W.H. Auden:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
You can find the full poem here.
Here’s her bio: Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s plays include Gee’s Bend, Fresh Kills, The Flagmaker of Market Street, The Furniture of Home, White Lightning, Provenance, and Everything That’s Beautiful. Her plays have been produced at the Royal Court (London), Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Denver Center, Cleveland Play House, KC Rep, Northlight, the Arden, B Street Theatre, and Hartford Stage, among others. Her one act, “Santa Doesn’t Come to the Holiday Inn” was featured in the Marathon of One Act Plays at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. New work includes The Light of the World, which explores our relationship with Confederate iconography. It was workshopped at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Southern Writers’ Festival in 2018. Her play, Looks Like Pretty, which explore racial bias and the development of color photography, was a co-commission from the Geva Theatre and the Sloan Foundation. It will premiere at Geva in the 2019-2020 season. Other plays include A Requiem for August Moon (Pioneer Theatre workshop), The Bone Orchard (Denver Center commission, Great Plains Theatre Conference), and a short play for the acclaimed My America, Too project (Baltimore Center Stage), as well as four commissions from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Elyzabeth is the recipient of the Osborn Award given by the American Theatre Critics Association and is a graduate of the dramatic writing program at New York University. In 2018 Elyzabeth traveled with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival on their State of the South tour where they hosted town hall discussions in 12 cities throughout the South as they explored the changing face of Southern identity. The project culminated in a documentary and was featured in the New York Times. Elyzabeth is the current Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence at Sewanee: The University of the South where she teaches playwriting.