Sharing Expertise

Acting out Atlanta

Theatre professor studies how the Fabulous Fox Theatre performs its host city

he Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, is a cultural and historical landmark that has hosted iconic performances in the heart of the South for nearly a century.

But beyond plays, concerts and films, Atlanta’s most iconic stage has also performed the city’s identity, according to research by Auburn University Theatre Professor Chase Bringardner.

Bringardner’s current project details how the Fox Theatre tells the stories of the history and evolution of Atlanta, and how its cultural capital continues to shape the city’s identity at the intersection of stage and place.

“In essence, the larger question is: How does the Fox Theatre as a venue stage the history of Atlanta?” Bringardner said. “The relationship I examine in the book is between the city and that space, and the way Atlanta gets performed on that stage at certain points in history. What was being performed in the space changes over time, and that reveals the ways in which the theater itself was thinking about, who is Atlanta? Who could Atlanta be? Or, moreover, who is the Atlanta that we’re specifically trying to appeal to?”

Chase Bringardner standing in front of the Fox in Atlanta, Georgia
The Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, shares a storied history with its host city. Originally designed in the late 1920s for Atlanta Shriners, the space was sold to William Fox and converted to a movie palace. Its ornate design, inspired by ancient Egyptian and Moorish temples, provides a memorable, larger-than-life setting for all its performances.

When movie palaces fell out of fashion, and the Fox was on the brink of being torn down to make room for a parking lot, the city of Atlanta rallied around the theater. The iconic 1970s “Save the Fox” campaign succeeded, and today, the Fabulous Fox Theatre stands as one of Atlanta’s historical landmarks.

Bringardner said the material and living history of the space provides a lens through which to better understand the history of Atlanta. To conduct the book-length research project, he combined his popular entertainments expertise with his skills in theatrical production to expand theatre scholar Marvin Carlson’s metaphor of the theatre as a memory machine, or “haunted stage.”

“Whenever you enter a performance venue, you’re experiencing the ghosts of everything that’s been in there before,” Bringardner said. “I’m expanding that metaphor to say that it’s not just the theatrical space, but it’s also about the city you’re within while seeing the performance. There’s an exchange of knowledge in that interaction that’s contributing to a history not only of that theater space but of the city itself.”

The physical space still includes markers of the past, including separate entrances and exits from a time before the theater was desegregated. The Fox was desegregated in the 1960s in part to secure performances of the Metropolitan Opera. Other performances, such as Alfred Uhry’s “Parade,” which came to Atlanta in the early 2000s, were arguably more popular at the Fox Theatre than on Broadway, despite its critical reading of Southern life.

Bringardner argues the symbolic significance of the Fox Theatre emerges from the engagement of the performers with the audience.

“There’s a reason people go back over and over again. It’s an experience they can engage in,” Bringardner said. “The live bodies in the space, performing, and the live bodies in the audience change the space together. That shared, collective energy and interaction produces an emotional, mental and physical response that theatre studies values as critically as everything else.”

Fox concert theater with packed audience
For Bringardner, Theatre and Dance department chair in the College of Liberal Arts, his love for theatre started at the Fox. A Marietta, Georgia native, his first engagement with the Fox was as a twelve-year-old audience member during a production of “The Phantom of the Opera.”

That performance sparked a lifelong engagement with the theater. Bringardner would go on to work on event staff for the Fox and began to map the theater’s long and complicated history with the city of Atlanta and how it transformed Southern performance.

“Urban spaces configure bodies, but there’s not a lot of material on how a stage performs a city,” Bringardner said. “The Fox cultivates, in many ways, its own audience. As it evolves over time, there is a fascinating history to trace with the city of Atlanta constantly redefining who it is and the Fox as its cultural touchstone.”