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.
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