Neeley Gossett is a co-founder of Found Stages. Her play, Beulah Creek (nominated for The Suzi Bass Awards’ Gene-Gabriel Moore Playwriting Award) was Found Stages’ first production, held at Dunwoody Nature Center in 2014. In 2017, The Alliance Theatre produced her play, Alice Between. Roman Candle Summer was a Kendeda finalist, and Decoration Day was chosen as The Alliance’s 2016 Kendeda Alumnus Reading. She is a recipient of The Alliance's Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab. Her works have previously received productions and readings at The Weird Sister Theatre Project, Theatre Emory, 7 Stages, Lark Play Development Center and many others. Several of her plays for Young Audiences are published by YouthPLAYS. Neeley holds an M.F.A. from The Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University, an M.A. in English from The University of North Carolina Wilmington and a B.A. in Theater Arts from Marymount Manhattan College. She is tenure-track faculty at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College and is the Honors College Coordinator for the Dunwoody Campus. Found Stages produced her latest play in 2019, Frankenstein: A Haunted Experience, which she co-wrote with Annie Harrison Elliot, Nichole Palmietto, and Addae Moon.
An Interview With Neeley Gossett
Lindsay A. Chudzik
At some point during my graduate school career, a professor said something to a class that stuck with me for all of the wrong reasons: “It will be frustrating when you see your friends publishing and getting book deals, if you aren’t. No matter how successful you get or don’t get, that feeling will never stop.” As an unpublished author at the time who mostly had other aspiring writer friends who also were unpublished, I wondered if I would understand his comment at a later date. But the truth is, the farther I get from that classroom and the statement that was made in it on that particular day, the less I understand it. When my friends have a play staged, publish a book or story, or make a documentary, I want nothing more than to celebrate and promote that work by attending their plays, buying their books, and watching their films. And the more I accomplish, the more I want to bring others along with me who are just getting started. This includes mentoring students who show a great deal of promise in the undergraduate fiction workshops I teach. For instance, all of our literary interns come from this group of young writers. In the words of Lizzo, “If I'm shinin', everybody gonna shine.”
That’s not to say the cutthroat sentiment my professor confessed to harboring so many years back isn’t sometimes rampant in creative industries. One of the primary reasons I launched this magazine revolves around my need to subvert that toxicity. For writers who identify as women and/or
writers of color, building community is not just important, but essential. With this in mind, I couldn’t think of a better person to showcase for our theater issue than my close college friend, Neeley Gossett. She is a successful playwright and one of the co-founders of Found Stages, a production company that "builds community through innovative storytelling."
I recently spoke with Neeley to learn more about her evolving career, starting with a question about what prompted her to co-found Found Stages alongside Nichole Palmietto. Like most success stories, hers isn’t linear. She and Palmietto first teamed up to apply for a grant through The Alliance Theater in Atlanta, Georgia to develop one of Neeley’s plays, Beulah Creek. Initially, they were turned down. Rather than giving up on that particular project at that particular moment like a lot of people might, however, they decided they still were going to produce the play with or without the grant and this led to the development of Found Stages. She further detailed the direction the project took, explaining, “We were both interested in immersive theater, so we set the play at the Dunwoody Nature Center. It is about a Southern Baptist camp meeting in south Georgia in 1934. The Dunwoody Nature Center became the camp meeting and the audience held candles in mason jars as they followed the characters (to) two different locations, including a creek where one of the characters is baptized.” After the success of Beulah Creek, they knew they wanted to continue collaborating because they were doing the kind of work they both wanted to see. Neeley elaborated, saying, “A lot of immersive theater doesn't have a narrative. We realized that was something that was important to us, so we began producing shows that combine the quality of narratives that traditional plays have with the kind of awe that immersive experiences bring.”
There’s so much that is innovative about Found Stages- telling digital plays via text message like Neeley's The Year Without Summer, for instance- but something I find most compelling is that, like Feels Blind, it was co-founded by women. I wondered if this influenced the work they did and, if so, how. Neeley said, “The fact that we are both women effects the perspective from which we tell stories. Frankenstein's Funeral takes the story of Victor Frankenstein and looks at it from a different perspective. In our retelling of the classic story, we focus on the women who died due to Victor's negligence and arrogance. We tell it from the perspective of Elizabeth, Victor's fiancé, and Justine, his family’s maid, while Mary Shelley walks the audience through the novel. We also allow the monster to have a more fleshed-out character arc. He is not simply a fiend, but an intellectual and another victim of Victor's.”
She went on to talk about Frankenstein's Ball, a project that was included in Thrillist's BEST New Year's Eve Events in Atlanta this past year. She described it as “an immersive play that takes place `at Lord Byron's New Year's Eve party. Percy Shelley and Byron are characters in the play, but the protagonists are Mary Shelley, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Mary's sister, Claire Clairmont. I don't think it was even our original goal to tell these stories through women's perspectives, but that is what naturally happened because Found Stages is a female-run company.” When I noticed the play generating a great deal of buzz on the Atlanta circuit in December, I was thrilled. This was in part because, since I have known Neeley, I have thought of her and her work as being synonymous with the city. Even when we sat in those first playwrighting workshops together at Marymont Manhattan College as undergrads, her storytelling was infused with a Southern sensibility that fascinated me. Week after week, she wrote about worlds that were wholly new to me, but to which I always felt invited. And when I visited Neeley in her hometown and she showed me around Atlanta, it was there that she was at her most electric.
I’ve met Neeley’s parents several times and I have many endearing memories of them—walking in on them dancing to the Beatles in their living room, her entire family planning a vacation around seeing Tom Waits together- but I learned through this interview that their first date was to see a play at The Alliance Theater. It always has been apparent that Neeley gets a lot of her creativity, intellect, drive, and compassion from her family, but I didn’t realize the extent to which they shared a deep-rooted love for Atlanta theater. During our interview, Neeley elaborated on the factors that continue to make Atlanta theater so exciting decades later, describing it as “a supportive community for playwrights, particularly female playwrights. So many of the artistic directors in town are female, which is highly unusual. People are willing to take a risk on new work and Atlanta in a different way than they are in other cities.” While creatives tend to think of cities like New York, LA, and Chicago as destinations, Neeley emphasized how many people now come to Atlanta from other places to find work.
While we encourage you to seek out and read Neeley’s plays, I asked her to pay it forward during our interview and share with our readers other female playwrights who also should be on our radar. Without hesitation, she named two: Ruth Margraff and Young Jean Lee. She said, "They are not only daring playwrights who challenge stylistic conventions, they don't wait for anyone else to give them permission to produce their plays. When I sat down to read one of Lee's scripts, I opened it, and on the first page I read it was produced by Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company. That completely changed my career. She is bold and unapologetic about self-producing. I had previously thought of self-producing as the vanity projects rich Atlanta men produced in the 90s, but here was an acclaimed playwright willing to have her own production company.” There are obvious parallels between Young Jean Lee’s career trajectory and Neeley’s. When Neeley was told “no” and turned down for a grant, that “no” led to her co-founding her own production company. Her and Palmietto’s persistence also led to them getting that grant the following year. Ruth Margraff was one of Neeley’s professors when she earned her MFA in playwrighting at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. Neeley said, “I remember her talking about how there are so many playwrights who wait years for regional productions, but she just dives in.” She described both Lee and Margraff as writers who determine their own destinies, calling their writing and productions "acts of rebellion," a spirit we certainly celebrate.
Because it takes productions at Found Stages about a year-and-a-half to develop, their next big projects will be coming in 2021. They already have started working on several pieces, including one that is set in Atlanta in the early 80s and another that is an adaptation of a classic work. We will keep you updated as these projects further develop and we will encourage our readers to attend once they launch. It turns out there’s little that is more satisfying than watching someone arrive who has boundless talent, but also is genuine and hardworking. My complete and total admiration for Neeley's work and the recognition that work continues to receive proves what I suspected all of those years back in graduate school: my professor was dead wrong.