Nancy Bell as Libby in the world premiere of “Zelda in the Backyard” at Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

Playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder went home again this summer — in more ways than one. The Alabama native known for her association with Alabama Shakespeare Festival and their premieres of her plays Gee’s Bend, White Lightning, The Furniture of Home and The Flag Maker of Market Street, was back at ASF for the world premiere of her one-woman comedy-drama Zelda in the Backyard. How close to home was the script? It’s about her late father.

“This is a play about love, loss, legacy, acceptance, and discovery,” Wilder told me during the June 13-30, 2024 run, “but at its heart it’s a play about restoration. There is something everyone can relate to, whether that’s the loss of a parent, the desire to know your parents as people, the bond between a father and daughter, or the struggle to be your authentic self.”

What’s literally being restored is not only the map of a complicated and colorful life, but a derelict automobile that belonged the father of the play’s narrator, Libby, played by Nancy Bell on the intimate ASF Octagon stage

Libby has inherited a Rolls Royce from her father,” Wilder explained. “When she gets the car it’s been wrecked, so the journey of the play is her journey of restoring the car. Along the way she introduces the audience to her father and mother, her father’s boyfriend, and the two women who help her piece together the details of her father’s life.”

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder

Wilder really did inherit a Rolls Royce from her dad. She said, “I named her Zelda after Zelda Fitzgerald, who was a larger than life, iconic character.  It seemed fitting for a Rolls Royce.”

ASF’s outgoing artistic director Rick Dildine directed the production. The play was developed through ASF’s 2022 Southern Writers Festival of New Plays. (I first met Elyzabeth through SWF in 2013, when my play Alabama Story has its first reading.)

I feel a strong commitment to creating dynamic roles for women over 40,” Wilder said. “We were so fortunate to find Nancy Bell, who Rick Dildine, the director, had worked with before. I have loved collaborating with her. She was so willing to go on this journey, and she was able to balance the humor and the heaviness of the story in a way that feels organic and relatable. The character relies on the audience to help with the storytelling and Nancy builds such a wonderful rapport with them every night. While this is my story, I never wanted her to feel like she was playing me, specifically. I wanted to make sure she had space to make the character her own, and she did.”

I’ve always admired the humanity and sensitivity and sheer variety of Wilder’s work, and I was excited that she was game to answer a few questions about Zelda in the Backyard. You can learn more about her many plays (and ask for a perusal copy of the new one) at her website, wilderwriting.net.

You’ve said this is your most personal play. What are the parallels between fiction and life?

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: When I started writing the play, I knew it was going to be largely autobiographical. I’ve been carrying this story with me my whole life. I grew up in Alabama in the 1980s with my dad, who was a gay mechanic, and his boyfriend who worked as a short order cook at the Waffle House. I’d never seen those characters on stage before. I knew I needed to create some distance between me and the character I was writing so that I could be objective. That’s why I gave her a different name. However, everything in the play actually happened — or it’s my memory of what happened. I made a couple of changes that aid in the storytelling, but none of those changes impact the validity of the actual story.

All writing is therapeutic, I think. Writers are getting things out of their systems. Did you grow, change, heal writing this play? How so?

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: When I first started writing this play, I thought I was just writing it for myself.  Then, I felt like I was writing it for my dad.  Seeing it on stage the first time, I realized that it was also a play for my daughter who never met him. But it’s also a story for all the gay men who, because of time, place, or family, were unable to tell their stories. I feel incredibly grateful that the Alabama Shakespeare Festival took a risk and gave the play a home.

Nancy Bell in “Zelda in the Backyard.”

Both of your parents have now passed. Is this a story you’ve wanted to tell for a while? That is, did you say in your twenties that “one day I’ll write about dad…”?

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: When my mother was dying she joked that she hoped I’d find a way to capitalize on my colorful childhood. I think she’d be really happy with what I’ve created. For a long time I knew I wanted to tell this story, but I just didn’t know how. Then, during the pandemic, I just started writing. The thing that held all of the stories together was the journey of restoring my dad’s car, so that gave me a framework for the storytelling.

Is this a “parent-child” play? Does being a mother inform your writing on this project? If so, how so?

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: So much of this woman’s journey is her desire to know who her father was as a person, not just as a parent. I think that’s something we all wrestle with as we get older and our parents become more human. However, because she loses her father when she’s young she has to look to other people to help her fill in the blanks he left behind. Legacy and loss are themes that pop up a lot in my work. These stories are a part of my dad’s legacy; they are what he left me when he died. Seeing the play on stage made me realize that the play is now part of my legacy, something that I’ve left for my daughter; it became a way for her to know her grandfather.

Did you always know it would be a one-person play?

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: I really wanted to write a memoir. There’s even more to this story that doesn’t fit in the confines of the play. That felt really daunting to me. I think solo performance is, in many ways, theatre’s version of the memoir; it’s a form that serves these kinds of stories well. As I said, I started writing it during the pandemic when we were all living solitary lives, so I’m sure that had an impact as well.

Nancy Bell in “Zelda in the Backyard” by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder.

What was the primary challenge of writing the play?

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: One of the biggest challenges of solo work is keeping it active. So often, the character is telling stories about things that have already happened, so it immediately becomes passive. The trick, I think, is to find ways to connect the stories from the past with the present objective. When you’re writing something based on our own experiences it’s very easy to frame things as “this is what happened to me” vs. “this is what I did.” One is passive and the other is active.

Who is the perceived audience?

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: Zelda in the Backyard is a play that will make you laugh and break your heart all at the same time. The humor in the storytelling makes the heavier moments resonate even more. What I’ve discovered is that there is something in the journey of this character that everyone can find relatable. We are performing this play in Montgomery, Alabama and many of our audiences are very conservative. What I’ve loved is seeing how people who are willing to go on this journey are able to connect with the material on some level. It’s certainly a story that the LGBTQ community will find compelling, but it’s also a play that addresses some big issues in a way that is accessible to all audiences.

Nancy Bell in “Zelda in the Backyard.”

You stayed for the entire run at ASF. In rewatching the play, did you learn things and take notes and will there be rewrites in the future? 

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: I think I’m going to need to step away from the play before I do any revisions. Even though I’ve been here for the entire run, I haven’t seen every performance. I’ve learned that distance can be really beneficial. Watching it too much, for me at least, makes me second guess my work. I become hypercritical. I have, however, really enjoyed being able to greet friends and family who have traveled to see the play. I’ve enjoyed interacting with the audience.  The response has been overwhelming. There was a man who asked to speak with me who told me that this story was his story and until now he’d never been able to process it, and he never expected to see it on stage. That’s one of the things that theater does so well; it allows us to reflect on our own experiences and our own humanity.

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Wilder’s work has been seen at Denver Center Theatre, B Street Theatre, New Conservatory Theatre, Arden Theatre and Cleveland Play House, as well as at the Royal Court in London and the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City, where she was a member of Youngblood. Her plays have been commissioned by Denver Center, The Sloan Foundation, Geva Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage and the Alliance Theatre. She is the Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence at Sewanee: The University of the South, where she teaches playwriting.

Zelda in the Backyard was nominated for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and was awarded the 2024 Tennessee Arts Commission Fellowship.