with Philip Auslander
Melissa Foulger has been an important presence on the Atlanta theatre scene since 2002. Described by Atlanta INTown “as one of Atlanta’s finest directors,” Foulger has worked with most of the prominent theatres in the city, specializing in new plays by contemporary playwrights, including many world premieres, ranging in style from intensely realistic to highly stylized. Many of her productions have addressed pressing social issues, particularly around questions of race, gender, and sexuality. Foulger talked with TAS about what it’s like to do theatre in Atlanta, her preference for contemporary plays and the experience of working with their authors, and how she sees the theatre director’s role.
Philip Auslander: What brought you to Atlanta? How would you describe the state of the theatrical scene here at that time? How has it developed since?
Melissa Foulger: A small article in Oxford American brought me to Atlanta. It spoke about a theatre company in Atlanta that was doing international and progressive work. That theatre was 7 Stages. During my MFA program, I cold called them and asked if I could be a free intern for the summer, and they said yes. During that time, I struck up a relationship with Del Hamilton, the Founding Artistic Director, and we applied for a grant through Theatre Communications Group for a two-year mentorship. I ended up working there for five years.
When I got to Atlanta, there was a small, but thriving theatre scene. This included the Alliance, about five mid-level theatres including 7 Stages, and several small upstart theatres. Since that time, the theatre scene has flourished. Several of those small theatres have moved up to a mid-level and have their own theatre spaces. With the advent of the film industry in town, there are new upstart theatres and special projects happening all the time. This is a great time to be in theatre in Atlanta.
Melissa Fougler directed Boy by Anna Ziegler at Theatrical Outfit , Atlanta, Georgia September – October 2017 Photos by David Woolf
Melissa Fougler directed Boy by Anna Ziegler at Theatrical Outfit , Atalnta, Georgia September – October 2017 Photos by David Woolf
PA: You have worked with a number of the professional theaters and companies in Atlanta. How would you describe the range of aesthetics and missions among them?
MF: I have worked with most theatres in Atlanta in some capacity. The style of work varies depending on the theatre. I am an Associate Artist at Actor’s Express, which looks at vibrant contemporary work and revamped classics for a modern age. Theatrical Outfit focuses on Southern stories that stir the soul, so the work is either driven by Southern plays or stories that are compelling and tug at your heartstrings. Dad’s Garage focuses on comedic work and 7 Stages focuses on new and international plays that have a social, spiritual, or political aesthetic. Each theatre focuses on different areas, so you are able to see all kinds of work around the city.
PA: You have directed primarily contemporary plays by living authors. Is this your preference?
MF: I have directed mostly living authors. I think that comes out of my love for working on new plays and finding stories that speak to today’s audiences. One of my personal missions is to keep the work compelling for a modern audience and I find that work that speaks to current social and political trends falls into that category quite well.
PA: Have you had occasion to work directly with a playwright whose work you’ve directed, Pearl Cleage or Caridad Svich, for example? If so, what is the nature of your collaboration with a playwright and what is the value of such collaboration?
MF: I have worked directly with playwrights throughout my career. It is one of my favorite parts of being a director. The first chance I had to work with playwrights was on Caridad Svich’s production of Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell that was Once Her Heart (a rave fable) at 7 Stages. We were always looking for new work and I came across this play in a box of new plays that Del had collected. This play led to my longest collaboration with a playwright, Steve Yockey, who was acting as my dramaturg at the time. He and I have similar aesthetic tastes and, being a local playwright, he would call me to work with him when he had a new script. To date, Steve and I have done ten world premiere productions together and we have a great relationship. I am his go-to director in Atlanta.
Working directly with the playwright is a wonderful experience. Typically, if you like the work (which you should!), you are able to talk with the playwright about their intentions. You are able to help craft the work to go out for further productions and help the playwright to see moments that are working and those that need to be reworked as you put it onstage with the actors. I love storytelling. The ability to be a part of crafting a play’s development so that it is production ready is something that I hope to continue to do throughout my career.
Melissa Fougler directs IPHIGENIA CRASH LAND FALLS ON THE NEON SHELL THAT WAS ONCE HER HEART (A RAVE FABLE) by Caridad Svich at 7 Stages
January 2004, Atlanta, Georgia
PA: What is your approach to or philosophy of directing? What do you see as the director’s function?
MF: My philosophy of directing has several parts. First and foremost, I believe that directing is about facilitation. I have ideas, but my ideas aren’t necessarily the best in the room. It is my job to elicit those Ideas and select the best. I am also a surrogate for the audience. I hope to achieve a story that evokes emotion from the audience and allows them to leave asking questions about what they saw and extending the conversation beyond the stage.
I have a desire to move theatre forward into the 21st century. That currently means that I want theatre to be an experience - it should somehow integrate the audience rather than allowing it to be passive. If that cannot happen, I am also researching different ways to use technology in a performance beyond projection. This might be the use of augmented reality, visualizations that are controlled by actors or audience or any other technology that is used today or will be in the future. Working at Georgia Tech, I have access to equipment and minds that allow that to happen.
PA: If you could direct a production of any existing play that you have not had the opportunity to direct, what would it be? Why?
MF: The play that I have been dying to direct is Mr. Burns: A Post-electric Play by Anne Washburn. This play is so complex. It follows a group of people in a post-apocalyptic setting through 77 years from the moment of devastation to the full rebuilding of society. This play speaks as an immersive experience to me and is something that I am dying to do in the future--once theatre is able to happen again post-COVID.
Melissa Foulger is the Artistic Director of DramaTech, Georgia Tech’s student run theatre. Ms. Foulger has directed throughout the Atlanta area at theatres such as 7 Stages, Actor’s Express, Theatre in the Square, Aurora Theatre, Theatrical Outfit, and Dad’s Garage. Her productions of Wolves, Suddenly Last Summer and Far Away have garnered Top Director nods from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Creative Loafing and The Sunday Paper. Her productions of Wolves, Pluto, See What I Wanna See and Clybourne Park have won multiple Suzi Bass Awards. She was nominated for a Suzi Award for Best Director for Wolves at Actor’s Express. She was a recipient of the Theatre Communications Group’s New Generations Program: Mentoring the Leaders of Tomorrow and has participated in both La Mama ETC’s International Directing Symposium held in Umbria, Italy and the Dah Teatar’s International School for Directors and Actors held in Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro. She was an Alliance Theatre Reiser Lab Artist and is an Associate Artist at Actor’s Express in Atlanta.
Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section. His seventh book, Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation came out in 2018 and In Concert: Performing Musical Performance will be out in 2021, both from the University of Michigan Press.