In shows like At Home With the Nixons, opening midnight July 27 at Dad's Garage Theatre's intimate Top Shelf space, Fuller demonstrates his usual defiance of the predictable. "Audiences always impose storylines on art, whether it's painting, music or plays," he says. "When their expectations are violated, they're flabbergasted and astonished. When people don't know how to react, that's when I'm most flattered."
Wild theatricality that flouts the rules of storytelling is the standard operating procedure for the playwright, poet and sometime actor. His rock 'n' roll musical of the afterlife, Stella Goes to Hell, featured Jesus and Satan in a battle royale, beginning with thumb-wrestling. In his fantasy epic The Odyssey of Modesty Forth, an evil sorceress rode into the performing space on the hood of a car, flanked by minions with upraised middle fingers. Nixons evokes everything from a young Tricky Dick to theater theorist Antonin Artaud to, as Fuller puts it, "the magic destructive power of the battle for Pearl Harbor, out of which comes the face of Montgomery Clift."
In concocting his theatrical happenings, Fuller draws inspiration less from the rules of playwrighting than from the liberating spirit of the poetry slams of the 1990s and the Los Angeles punk scene of the early 1980s. "When I lived in Los Angeles in 1980-'81, it was an exciting time," he recalls. "You could go out and see Belinda Carlisle smooching with Buster Bateman of the Blasters, and Exene Cervenka of X hanging out with Jeffery Lee Pierce of the Gun Club."
Fuller would like his plays to cultivate the same excitement as those chaotic, hilarious punk shows after which, he says, "You were filled with a sense of happiness and readiness, a sense that life was good and limitless -- unless you hit the floor while stage diving and got a concussion."
A big, bespectacled, curly-haired fellow who shouts "apocalyptic" poems like "Big Blonde Jesus" or "Blue Okra, Spanish Moss" at poetry slams, the 43-year-old writer comes across as more boyish than bombastic in conversation, but he still seems eager to cut loose. Chatting over a slice of pizza, he veers off on unexpected tangents, improvising how he'd play Falstaff's final scene in Henry IV Part II, or illustrating the brilliance of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut by singing a few lines of the "Uncle Fucka" song.
Originally from Pensacola, Fla., Fuller took a roundabout route to playwrighting. Although he did some writing and acting in high school and college, he was more interested in rock music than Artaud's ideas of the Theater of Cruelty. "Iggy Stooge and Alice Cooper meant more to me in terms of theater at that time. Rock 'n' roll always meant more. Poetry readings were a side thing I did when I was trying to get into a band, and the readings continued when the band broke up."
Picked by Creative Loafing readers as "Best Spoken Word Artist" last year and a fan of the late Deacon Lunchbox, he says, "Poetry readings are great places to try out work. The audiences don't judge. They always clap, but you can feel if they're sincere or not. When I got some standing O's at poetry readings, I realized I'd tapped a vein."
In addition to playing guitar and reading poems, Fuller dabbled with plays for years but began taking theater in earnest after moving to Atlanta in 1989 and finding kindred spirits in actor/writers Tim Cordier and Marc Cram. Cordier recalls, "We'd sit in my apartment on Clifton Avenue with a 12-pack of beer and try to write plays about Vikings." The three of them, along with Melissa Mason, Chad Yarborough and Stephano Andreas, co-founded Brazen Act Theatre Company in 1998.
Fuller's first full-length theatrical production was At Home With the Nixons in 1997, and for its upcoming revival he directs Cordier, Cram, Mason, Eammon Glennon and Anthony Melita. After its run at the Top Shelf, Nixons will play at the New York Fringe Festival, a 12-day celebration of more than 100 emerging theater and performing arts companies from around the world.
Fuller's The Odyssey of Modesty Forth played the Fringe Fest in 1999, and the playwright subscribes to the event's commitment to original, unconventional plays. "To me, the role of original material in theater should be the same as in music or film. In music, if you're in a cover band, you're a hack." The notion of restaging and reinterpreting classic work bores him. "It's fun to rewind a good movie or to hear a good story again, but I would consider it a nightmare to do the same set of plays over and over."
Fuller claims that the opportunities of the New York theater scene mean nothing to him. "Atlanta's best hope to have an original playwright who doesn't move to New York is Ian L. Fuller," he says, blending pride and irony. He currently works as a box mover for DeKalb Medical Center and enjoys the spare time the job allows. "I write about four plays a year and have a library of 15-and-a-half -- nine of which are world-class, in my humble opinion," he says. "I like to think that my style is an amalgam of Peter Brook, Bertolt Brecht and Artaud. Only not rich and famous."
Earlier this year Fuller expressed his ideas about theater's biggest thinkers and the untapped potential of drama by publishing "Theater = Festival: An Essay Exploring Ideas for New Theatre in the U.S." Fuller's 40-page manifesto expresses his desire to deliver theatrical experiences full of relevance and immediacy, offering such watchwords as "Street theater is wiser than Broadway" and "Chaos is fun." With "Theater = Festival," Fuller expresses his hope that live theater can reclaim ground lost to film and television and his desire "to convince the world at large that great work, worthy of time and attention, can happen at any venue, but most likely in small spaces featuring original material."
After Nixons, Fuller hopes that Brazen Act can stage another of his shows this fall, but either way, he'd like to see new theater become a national trend at the grassroots level. "Everywhere I go, I want to start a scene," he says. "Movements like the punk rock of Los Angeles happen regularly in rock 'n' roll. In the 1990s, poetry reading did a similar thing. It was on a more dispersed scale, but the poetry movement got nationwide recognition, from '60 Minutes' to TV commercials. Small, original theater can do the same thing. There will be a nationwide theater breakthrough in five or so years," he predicts.
But at the moment, Fuller's anticipating At Home With the Nixons and the big scene where the rabid actors start foaming at the mouth. True to form, he only wants it bigger. "I'd like to invite everyone I know -- I'd like to invite the city of Atlanta -- to be in the town that has rabies."
Brazen Act Theatre Company presents At Home With the Nixons July 27-Aug. 12 at the Top Shelf space of Dad's Garage Theatre Company, 280 Elizabeth St., at midnight Fri. and Sat. and 8 p.m. Aug. 5 and 12. $10. 678-380-1484.