Saiah’s Terminus stops traditional theater in its tracks

Why local performance groups are ditching the theater for parks, cars, and warehouses

In the spring of 2013, an untimely thunderstorm made Saïah Arts International’s Moby-Dick spectacular beyond its creators’ design.

The company’s theatrical version of the Herman Melville novel was already an unforgettable event. Moby-Dick took place in the Lifecycle Building Center, a 100-year-old, 60,000-square-foot warehouse in Southwest Atlanta. Saïah’s production used selective props, the cavernous space, and the roving audience’s imagination to evoke a 19th-century whaling town as well as the high seas, with an old loading dock doubling as a Nantucket wharf and a rolling metal staircase as a tempest-tossed longboat.

Marium Khalid, Saïah co-founder and Moby-Dick’s director, recalls signs of inclement weather ahead of one evening’s performance. “There was a storm warning, but for after the show,” she says. Saïah proceeded with the performance, expecting to finish before the rain rolled in.

But the storm arrived ahead of schedule. “Right when the audience got to the ship, that’s when it opened up. There was lightning, pouring rain — a mist was even forming inside the warehouse,” recalls Phillip Justman, 26, Saïah’s other founder and co-owner.

“All the patches we’d put in ceiling began leaking,” Khalid, 27, says.

And that was when Justman made his entrance as Captain Ahab, nearly bellowing the obsessed seaman’s quasi-Biblical invective to the spectators. “Rain was pouring right on me, my coat was blowing around me, we saw the biggest flashes of lighting. At one point all the lights went out, but I kept talking — and the lights came back on again. It was the biggest, most mesmerizing moment,” Justman says.

“And the audience thought we planned it that way!” Khalid says.

Only brief moments of Moby-Dick took place outdoors, yet the show still found itself at the mercy of the elements, just like many of Saïah’s immersive productions. Founded in 2011, Saïah specializes in theater performed in offbeat settings that engages the senses in atypical ways. The company’s latest show, the Civil War-era Terminus, had two performances called due to rain over Easter weekend. Such projects require an Ahab level of determination, but Khalid and Justman, who are married as well as artistic partners, project the kind of calm you find at the eye of a storm.

Justman and Khalid met as drama majors at Kennesaw State University. He’s a native Southerner born and raised in Conyers, while she’s from Pakistan and grew up in a succession of countries, including Bangladesh and England, due to her father’s work travels. Named after an Urdu word for shade, Saïah’s first production, City of Lions and Gods, dramatized Khalid’s great-grandmother’s experiences during Pakistan’s struggle for independence and won acclaim locally and at the Prague Fringe Festival.

Moby-Dick’s thrilling stagecraft gave spectators a fresh, immediate connection to a canonical American novel. Terminus, playing through May 17 at a 28-acre Decatur nature preserve, pushes the company’s site-specific, interactive ethos even further, tailoring a show to a unique location while ensuring that the audience members are more than passive observers.

Saïah is not alone in its approach. Some of the most exciting theater of the past few years has taken place not on Atlanta’s acclaimed stages, but in cars, living rooms, libraries, and stables. These shows approach the relationship between a text, an audience, and a performance space in radically different ways, changing the way people see plays — and theater artists tell stories — in the new century.

Shakespeare’s “O for a muse of fire” speech in Henry V begs the audience to use its mind’s eye to envision the affairs of nations: “‘Tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.” Terminus, written by Khalid, doesn’t require viewers to fill in imaginary blanks. Instead, it gives them a chance to share the experiences of characters separated by 150 years.

In Terminus, Decatur’s Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve doubles as a forgotten corner of the Rebel lines during Sherman’s march through Georgia. While the production nearly coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta of July 1864, the show doesn’t intend to literally represent “Terminus” as the city of Atlanta’s original name and location. Nevertheless, the troops of the time would have marched through similar terrain and piney vegetation.

The action begins when a young Confederate named Fiver (Weston Manders) has a vision of annihilation and convinces a handful of his comrades to desert. Fiver’s brother Hazel (Brandon Connor Partrick), a natural leader, and now coward, agrees in part out of longing for his young wife. Fiver, Hazel, and their fellow soldiers embark on an odyssey through a war zone, avoiding the troops of two armies and encountering the likes of black freedman Bigwig (Marcus Hopkins-Turner) and Native American woman Kehaar (Blaire Hillman).

Guides with lanterns lead the spectators over raised wooden walkways, through clearings with ponds, and around massive exposed boulders that make natural stages. At one point, two rebels have a heated exchange while hiking through the forest, occasionally with members of the audience passing “invisibly” between them. Attendees must divide their attention between the actors’ conflict and avoiding mud puddles.

If Saïah wasn’t up front about its source material, you might not recognize the play’s origins in Watership Down, Richard Adams’ epic about rabbits braving the wilderness to find a safe haven.

The play originated the way a lot of creative ideas in Atlanta do — inside a car. “Three years ago after I finished reading Watership Down, I was driving home and heard an NPR feature on bluegrass music,” Justman says. He started chewing on the idea of Watership Down translated to the Civil War. “They could be deserters, the injured seagull could be a Native American — this could work.”

Khalid worked on the script and drew influence from some Moby-Dick audience members, who pointed out that history tends to chronicle the deeds of men without dwelling on the women left behind. “The more I wrote, the more the women needed their own voice and their own story,” she says. She similarly felt that the first suspenseful episode of Watership Down needed its own distinct storyline.

Terminus depicts three simultaneous, interlocking dramas. The Deserter’s Path requires a moderate amount of walking to follow the central group of disaffected rebels. The Path of Snares branches off from Deserter’s about halfway through the action and requires extensive walking. The Homestead Path, depicting the women on the home front, requires virtually no exertion. Audience members wear different colored tin cups around their necks so the guides know which path they’re following.

When I arrived to follow the Deserter’s Path, the twilight visibility was bright enough to read by, but the show became full dark within an hour. The midpoint presented not so much an intermission as a longueur when the weary travelers built a campfire and Hopkins-Turner softly sang traditional songs. Two servers appeared as if from nowhere to serve us fragrant meat stew and biscuits on tin plates. Chef Taria Camerino serves as the production’s food curator, preparing meals designed to fit the mood of each of the three storylines and giving Saïah the chance to evoke taste as well as the other four senses.

For longer than a conventional play, nothing overtly happens, giving the audience a chance to savor the smell of the woodsmoke or notice the evening birdsong give way to the racket of frogs. During the pause, you can ruminate on anything: the characters’ wartime experiences, your own childhood camping trips, or just the relief at enjoying a reprieve from big-city cares.

Partrick acknowledges that acting in Terminus brings unique demands compared to indoor shows. When Hazel hurriedly exits, he can’t just hustle behind a curtain, he must sprint down the path until out of the audience’s vision in one of the play’s many cinematic moments. “I’ve busted myself a few times already, mainly twisting my ankle and such,” he says. “So now I do a lot more preparation, stretching, working out. Also, I bring clothes for whatever weather may come. Atlanta throws some curveballs.”

It’s a taxing performance even without injury. “Being as exposed as we are, we get a lot dirtier, we worry about the ground traction after heavy rain, the bugs feast on us, we dodge branches, and the audience is right there with us,” Partrick says.

The Homestead Path unfolds as a more conventional play, with the audience remaining seated in a single clearing between two cabins, the sets shown in cross section. One belongs to Hazel’s wife Margaret (Kate McKenzie), the other to the mother and sister of Hazel’s friend Blackberry (Josh Brook). The women go about the business of survival — doing the wash with scrub boards, shucking corn, tending gardens — while fending off despair over the long-absent men in their lives. During one of the musical interludes, McKenzie reveals a singing voice that would fit in on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

While theoretically intended to stand alone, each story reveals information that’s crucial to the others, so seeing just one may feel like an incomplete experience. The Homestead Path never relocates, but we notice the other action in the distance. When we hear far-off gunshots and see the guides’ lanterns approach, we don’t know whether to be filled with joy or dread for Margaret’s sake. Khalid and Justman take advantage of the possibilities for simultaneous action: The Homestead Path’s prologue presents the farewells of Hazel and Blackberry before they go off to war, proving that an exit from one story can be an entrance to another.

Not surprisingly, handling 13 actors and crowd control for three groups of spectators all at once requires precise logistics. “You should see my notebooks,” Khalid says.

Justman jumps in, “They have all these circles and arrows, with profanity in the margins. It’s like A Beautiful Mind.”

“As theater and art folk, we don’t have to deal a lot with math,” Khalid says.

Theater may be a timeless art form, but it needs to evolve in some ways to stay economically viable in America. A National Endowment of the Arts survey released in 2013 found steadily declining theatrical attendance between 2008 and 2012, with musicals dropping by 9 percent and straight plays by 12 percent. Movies, by contrast, increased 6 percent over the same period. Part of the problem is that theater appeals to an aging audience, and younger people aren’t taking up the slack, although improv comedy troupes help attract new generations to playhouses.

Open-air and immersive performances have the ability to attract viewers who would never set foot in a playhouse. Along with Saïah, Out of Hand Theater, gloATL, and the Lucky Penny are among local groups participating in the larger trend of interactive, site-specific shows. “This was the evolutionary step in theater,” Khalid says. “People want to experience and not just witness.”

The current vogue for immersive shows can partly be traced to Sleep No More, a loose adaptation of Macbeth by London-based company Punchdrunk. For the 2011 New York version, masked attendees wandered through a warehouse complex made over as the five-story McKittrick Hotel for a unique vision of Shakespeare.

7 Stages associate artistic director Michael Haverty, a fan of Punchdrunk, applied a similar ethos to the theater’s production of The Navigator in the fall of 2013. The original YA novel depicts a fatherless young man who takes on the forces of evil in a post-apocalyptic landscape. “I read it, and the story felt so interactive, I thought it would be a shame to have the audience just sit there and watch it,” Haverty says.

A highlight of 2013 theater, The Navigator took audiences on a Star Wars-esque hero’s journey with giant puppets, characters on stilts, and projected imagery. The Navigator offered purely black-and-white characterizations, but gave audiences the feeling of being recruits in a battle between good and evil. Who wouldn’t want to fight the forces of Mordor or the Galactic Empire?

Haverty staged The Navigator at the Goat Farm, where Saïah is a theater in residence. “It already looks like the book — it has that steampunk, falling-apart look,” he says. The arts complex has become the de facto ground zero for immersive, unconventional theater in Atlanta in part because of its 19th-century industrial architecture, but also because of its supportive approach to programming. The Goat Farm provided both The Navigator and Saïah’s second show, Rua|Wülf, with funding through its Arts Investment Package (AIP) for experimental and innovative works. The Goat Farm also awarded Terminus and Moby-Dick AIPs through the Goat Farm’s Outlands Program for Atlanta shows staged outside the arts complex.

Georgia Shakespeare artistic director Richard Garner has long wanted to do an immersive show. “The Royal Shakespeare Company in residence at Davidson College in North Carolina did a really cool promenade production of The Winter’s Tale and Pericles,” Garner says. “It involved walking through a confined space and the audience, naturally, amoeba-like, formed and reformed. There used to be an empty Harris Teeter down the street from Oglethorpe, and I always wanted to do a show there.”

Garner has experience with producing shows outside the safety of a theater, as Georgia Shakespeare began with summer productions in a tent on the Oglethorpe campus and currently stages annual productions at Piedmont Park. “When we moved from the tent into the Conant Performing Arts Center, we could finally control the audience environment in terms of sound and light,” he says.

Garner explains the trade-offs, pointing to the Shakespeare in the Park staging of As You Like It this June, a remount of last summer’s indoor show and a natural for outdoor production given its setting of the Forest of Arden. “We have not re-staged the outdoor shows to be more quote-unquote operatic,” he says. “You lose a bit of subtlety, like the way someone might breathe during a scene, but you also get a bit of grand, epic scale with the stars as your roof.”

Serenbe Playhouse always has the stars as its roof, but applies a site-specific sensibility to its open-air productions south of Atlanta. 2011’s The Ugly Duckling took place on a platform in the middle of a lake against a farm-like backdrop, while the musical Hair (2013) was staged in a wildflower meadow meant to evoke Woodstock’s three days of peace and music.

Setting ingeniously combined with story for last fall’s runaway hit The Sleepy Hollow Experience, which guided an audience in and around a functioning Serenbe stable, only with the equine residents temporarily removed. One wing the of stable replicated Ichabod Crane’s schoolhouse, the other, the town’s covered bridge that serves as a haunt of the Headless Horseman. If thin dramatically, the show’s haunted house-type effects, including the horseman’s climactic appearance, were literally breathtaking. Any loss of narrative nuance was worth it.

Founder and executive/artistic director Brian Clowdus acknowledges that sometimes the natural surroundings can distract from the show. But that can also be an advantage. “I would much rather have an audience distracted by what’s around them than sitting in a theater spaced out,” Clowdus says. “You can’t quite relax, because you’re kind of on sensory overload. The audience is actively engaged whether they like it or not, especially if they’re on their feet.”

Haverty agrees. “This type of work encourages a wandering eye and a wandering ear. You have to expect that and make it part of the show,” he says.

He finds it to be a kind of theater particularly suited to the new tech-savvy, socially networked “culture consumers.” “I think it’s a game changer at the moment. There’s no way to predict where theater’s going, but the way we live our lives, our senses adjusting to take in so much more information at a time, this resonates with the way people experience their lives now. The audience seems to be really asking for this performance,” Haverty says.

For more than a decade, theater has competed with the Internet and other digital forms of entertainment, occasionally espousing an “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach by incorporating video effects and online connectivity into stage plays. While frills like live video feeds tend to have mixed success, immersive shows with no high-tech frills seem, ironically, better at engaging audiences.

For the short term, the trend hasn’t run its course. In addition to Georgia Shakespeare and Serenbe Playhouse’s open-air productions this summer, The Sleepy Hollow Experience will return this October, and Haverty says that when 7 Stages announces its 2014-2015 season in early May, it’ll include a return visit to the Goat Farm for another site-specific show.

Groundbreaking plays like Terminus, however exciting, don’t necessarily improve on traditional forms of theater. Terminus’ strengths lay less in the arcs of specific characters, who are familiar archetypes, than in cultivating a unique atmosphere. Watching Terminus feels akin to attending a Civil War re-enactment that focuses not on the details of a battle, but the emotional states and interpersonal conflicts of a group of disaffected soldiers.

“It definitely feels more like the real thing,” Partrick says. “I can’t say that I know what the real thing is, in terms of starving Civil War soldiers. But I know that the feeling of hiking through the woods for a good mile with a full pack, smelling the pine and hearing the bird calls, all while engaging with the audience and telling the story — those are things you can’t replicate in a theater easily.”

Garner hopes that immersive theater proves to be more than just a fad. “I love that it’s a major trend in Atlanta right now. The younger audience is open to that kind of stuff. I hope that whatever theater is in Atlanta 10 years reflects the influence of now,” he says.

Khalid and Justman are too caught up in Terminus to announce their next show, but they may not work with nature next time. Khalid says, counting Terminus, “the last three stories we did lent themselves to this format. We never put borders around ourselves. As soon as we settle to a formula, it can become mediocrity.”

Saïah’s immersive shows generate excitement partly through the feeling that the company is learning by doing, and that the audience is collaborating with the experiment. Many aspects of Terminus succeed beautifully and make it a must-see, but the script and the location still seem to have kinks that Saïah may not be able to work out given the show’s limited-run, without-a-net nature. Most immersive shows I’ve seen come across as brilliant redefinitions of theater while still having room for improvement.

The heart of theater doesn’t need elaborate extras. A few actors with the right material in a tiny, spare space can be as electrifying as any Broadway extravaganza. Such smaller, cheaper shows would keep ambitious theater artists on a road more traveled. Instead, Khalid, Justman, and their peers have dedicated themselves to art that pushes people beyond their comfort zones. Shows such as Terminus send live performance down a new path without the benefit of a map. But you can’t make fresh discoveries without entering uncharted territory.