My Little Toy Tractor

A Childhood Memory Hidden on the Set of The Trip to Bountiful
By Julian Wiles, Director and Co-scenic Designer

Directing The Trip to Bountiful brought back many memories for me. Like the 87-year-old Mrs. Watts, the central character in the play, I come from a long line of farmers myself. My grandparents were farmers, and like Mrs. Watt’s childhood home, their home fell into disrepair and eventually into ruin when Grandma and Granddaddy moved into a brand-new house my parents built for them when they were in their 80’s. It was just down the road from the two-bedroom wooden house where they had raised five children including my Mom. They did so in the midst of the great depression and though they lived in humble circumstances, my mother said they never were in want. As farmers they had fresh milk from their cows, vegetables from their massive garden and the warmth and love of each other to sustain them.
My mother and father were farmers too. They bought their farm and 1913 farm house in rural Calhoun County where I grew up on the day they brought me home from the hospital. As a farm boy, one of my first toys was a bright yellow and green cast iron riding John Deere tractor that my father bought for me. I plowed a lot of imaginary acres with this little tractor and remember taking my pet dogs and cats in rides around the barnyards, in the little wagon I pulled behind my tractor.
When Adam Jehle and I began working on the sets for The Trip to Bountiful, particularly, Mrs. Watt’s homeplace, I was looking for a way to jar the memory of Mrs. Watt’s son Ludie and to remind him of his long-ago childhood playing outside his grandparent’s old farmhouse. And so, when I visited our family farm some weeks ago, I came across my toy John Deere tractor. I found it dusty and abandoned in an old shed and I thought the memories it brings back to me might well be similar to those Ludie would feel if he came across his own childhood toy. I brought my little tractor back to the Dock Street and placed it on stage in the final scene. While this special token of my own childhood is only one small element of the overall set design, it represents the kind of special magical elements scene designers seek out to help tell a story and to give it special meaning. You can catch sight of my tractor in the final scene of The Trip To Bountiful. Like Mrs. Watts and her son Ludie, my little tractor has found its way home.

Performances of The Trip to Bountiful continue running March 7th – March 17th at the Historic Dock Street Theatre. For tickets, visit

Photo by @aleecesophia

Playwright, director, designer and educator, Julian Wiles, founded Charleston Stage in 1978 and led the company for 45 seasons until his retirement in 2023.
Wiles grew up on a farm in Fort Motte, SC, and studied history and theatre at the College of Charleston (B.A. 1974). He moved to North Carolina to pursue graduate work in theatre design receiving an M.F.A. in Dramatic Art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1976. He returned to Charleston and in 1978 founded Charleston Stage, the resident company of the Historic Dock Street Theatre, America’s first theatre. Under Wiles’s leadership, Charleston Stage has become one of the region’s largest and most respected performing arts institutions, producing over 120 professional performances annually and including an extensive education program reaching over 25,000 young people each year.
During his 45 year tenure as Founder and Producing Artistic Director, Wiles designed, directed and produced over 300 plays and musicals for Charleston Stage. He has written 34 original plays, musicals, and stage adaptations, eight of which are published by The Dramatic Publishing Company. Many of his original works, such as The Seat of Justice, Gershwin at Folly, Beneath the Sweetgrass Moon, Denmark Vesey, Insurrectionand JFK & Inga Binga celebrate the Lowcountry’s rich cultural heritage and history. More than 100 productions of Wiles’s published works have been performed across the United States and internationally.
Wiles received the National Youth Theatre Director’s Award in 1988, Charleston’s NAACP Special Recognition Award in 2004, The South Carolina Governor’s Award for the Arts in 2010, and was inducted into the SC Theatre Association’s Hall of Fame in 2018. In 2021, he was awarded the University of North Carolina’s Distinguished Alumnus Award.
In April 2024, Wiles will be inducted as a member of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre. The investiture of new members is under the auspices of the Education Department of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D. C. Membership in the College of Fellows of the American Theatre is one of the highest honors bestowed on educators and professionals of America’s educational and theatre community.
For more information on his original works visit