As students at Kennesaw State University, Phillip Justman and Marium Khalid realized they shared not only a passion for theater but the kind of work that interested them. Soon after they graduated, they formed a few unions of their own — not only did the pair get married but they also started their own theater company, Saïah.
Known for edgy, interactive fare such as Rua | Wülf, a revisionist look at Little Red Riding Hood staged at the Goat Farm Arts Center, and last year’s Moby Dick, held at the Lifecycle Building Center in southwest Atlanta, Saïah opens its third major production this week. Running April 16 through May 17 at the Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve in Decatur, Terminus is the company’s interpretation of Richard Adams’ classic novel Watership Down.
It’s set in the South, as the Civil War is ending and General Sherman is burning Georgia. Khalid wrote the piece and she and Justman are codirecting, with Justman also handling production manager duties. An accident last week has shifted tasks a bit. Khalid fell and fractured her arm. “I’ve taken more of the reins the last couple of days, but things are moving along,” Justman says. “Marium has done most of her work already.”
Justman first read Watership Down three years ago and thought it was something the company could adapt. “Folks I asked about it, they either read it in the ’70s or when it was required reading and they sorta remember it, or they had just read it, because it has gotten a revival recently,” he says. “I thought it was a captivating story. I wanted to see if there was anything there to theatricalize it.”
He approached Khalid with the idea and they agreed to think it through, but a radio segment helped expedite the theme. “I was driving home one day listening to NPR and they were doing a series on bluegrass music,” Justman says. “I was running the story in my head and I made the connection. What if we set this during the Civil War? It made sense that they were deserters.”
Khalid — one of our 30 Under 30 artists — took the idea to another level, researching the novel and discovering author Adams had talked about how the book came from his own experiences in World War II. The rabbits in the story were actually the men in his unit.
In writing Terminus, it evolved into a parallel world with three different stories. The audience gets to pick which path they want to follow.
The Homestead Path chronicles the women and children left behind, put to their own devices waiting for the men to return. “The drama and stakes of that is just as high as for the men out in battle,” says Justman. “When you hear Civil War stories, it’s usually about the battles of the guys out front, but the stories Marium wanted to bring up were just as important.”
The Deserters Path follows two brothers — Hazel and Fiver — who have left their army, while the third, the Path of Snares, is an offshoot of the Deserters story following the character of soldier Blackberry. Twenty patrons a night are invited to this path, with the Deserters Path capping at 30 and the Homestead Path at 70. All three end at the same place, but do intersect along the way.
Many of the characters from the book appear, but Justman says Terminus quickly becomes uniquely its own, spread throughout the 28-acre venue with a team of 12 actors.
He calls the Decatur location multilayered, allowing each path to be distinct. “Logistically, each path is a different level of physical exertion,” he says. “The Homestead path is the most like traditional theater. It’s a light stroll, 300 feet.” The Deserters path, however, is a quarter-mile long and the Path of Snares goes on for over a half-mile. The ever-changing landscape — a hardwood forest, a swampy area, a pine forest, a bamboo grove, creeks, ponds and a small collection of granite rocks — keeps the show dramatic.
Handling the outdoor technical aspects for Justman isn’t just a matter of having enough onsite portable toilets; it’s also a matter of not overdoing it. “We want the tech done in a subtle way so it ignites the nature instead of overpowering and forcing something onto it,” he says.
Each separate path includes its own culinary experience during intermission, created by chef Taria Camerino. “It’s not just interesting Civil War stuff,” Justman says. “It’s fine-tuned ingredients layered out in a way that correlates with the energy of the piece, what is happening in that moment.”
Justman acknowledges that Terminus is a risk, but virtually everything the company has done has been risky. In forming Saïah, Justman and Khalid knew they wanted to carve out a company that was different from others out there. “We wanted to create something that excited us and excited others, but also had the root of authentic, solid theater, going the further step of diving into something with all five senses, experiencing a new environment,” he says. “It also works for audiences these days, because sometimes folks aren’t up for sitting in a theater for a while, for whatever reason.”
It’s the goal for each Saïah production to offers audiences an unseen universe. “The experience is ripe with new scent, and a new place, like going to a new country,” Justman says. “Audiences arrive and wonder how we are going to integrate the story into the space. There are so many surprises, beautiful moments that can happen when you do a show like this outside, in a nontraditional space that probably won’t have theater for a while. We really do try to make it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I think and hope that we are establishing ourselves as a theater that doesn’t have a home; rather, we create environments and invite people to that.”