SAÏAH: Redefining Theater

I was lucky enough to get a ticket to one of the last sold-out performances of Terminus, the most recent production by theatre company SAÏAH, based out of Atlanta’s Goat Farm. It’s hard to explain how Terminus is different than many of the other plays on any given night in Atlanta; calling it a play certainly is not appropriate. Let’ try this: An outdoor, choose-your-own-adventure, civil-war era, moving performance based on the plot of Watership Down. It was amazing.

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SAÏAH’s postcard for Terminus.

I don’t want to give away all of SAÏAH’s secrets, as I’ve heard this is not the first “theater experience” they’ve hosted, nor do I think it will be the last. But I do want to highlight the aspects of Terminus that really stood out to me,and have certainly made me want to keep on eye out for what this group does next.

I went to see Terminus on a double date with my coworker and friend, Renee, and our husbands. We heard about it from Weston Manders, a former intern of ours at Oglethorpe University, where Renee and I work. He was offered the part of Fiver, a leading role, and when he explained to us how Terminus was “not just a play”, we knew it was going to be good. After our first reservations were canceled because of rain (as several other performances were) we ended up going on the very last weekend the group was scheduled to perform.

We arrived at Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve in Decatur, the venue chosen for Terminus, checked in and were told to choose which path we wanted to follow. The plot of the story was split into three paths, each showing a different perspective. The only way to see all three story lines was to see the play three times. The paths had varying levels of physical activity involved, from very little walking to one that required guests to run at some points to keep up with the action. We chose the path in between these two options, that followed Fiver’s story. Every guest was given a metal cup on a twine string to carry throughout the performance, the color indicating which path was chosen.

Once the performance began, I learned quickly that I needed to be in the front of the crowd to be able to see the action (I’m only 5’1″). There were no stages; there weren’t even platforms or special areas for the actors to perform. They acted out each scene on the same dirt paths on which we walked, staying within several feet of the crowd. The actors often bumped into guests, or pushed through the crowd to leave a scene. It was as if they were alone in the woods and the 30+ people surrounding them were invisible. At one point, I was seated on a bench (a welcome respite from the 1.5 hours of standing) and the actor who played Bigwig knelt directly in front of me, almost touching my knee. It was a very moving experience to be that close to the action and be able to see the expressions on the actors’ faces up close, and not 50 feet away from a seat in an auditorium.

This scene took place in a clearing with some benches was particularly touching, though there was very little plot movement. Bigwig made a campfire – an actual campfire, with no matches. There was an argument and Blackberry stormed off, followed by the guests who chose his path at the quiet calls of an usher saying, “White cups. Anyone with a white cup please follow me.” Soon several people appeared out of the darkness from the opposite direction, carrying plates and baskets and a large dutch oven. This was our intermission.

Each guest was given a plate with a piece of bread and a small portion of beef stew and had their cup filled with water. The actors served themselves and they ate as we ate. Bigwig began to sing a sad, slow song you would expect to hear from a Civil War soldier during a quiet evening on the battlefield. Weston later said this scene also made a big impact on his personal experience in Terminus. That’s what wartime often was – a lot of waiting around doing nothing with short bursts of heart-pounding action.  It was incredibly moving and everyone stayed perfectly silent. There was something about the entire performance that made it seem rude to speak, even during the transition periods from one area of the preserve to the next, and almost no one spoke the entire time.

Me, Weston and Renee - with our blue cups.

Me, Weston and Renee – with our blue cups.

The play began in the evening and it wasn’t long before it was dark. There were no spotlights to light the action, or lined walkways to show us where to go. We moved along the path as the story progressed through the forest. The actors held lanterns, often speaking or yelling at one another as they moved along, and guests moved with them. In several areas an usher was positioned with a flashlight to point at a step to ensure no guests were injured.

Toward the end of the performance there was a fight on the path, right in front of me. It was dark, and several characters were fumbling around on the ground. It was hard to see what was happening, just as it would have been in real life. Renee later said she and her husband actually became concerned for one of the actors after he fell – hard – on the path. His breathing was labored and he really looked like he was in trouble. That is not something she would have experienced in a traditional play.

Within one minute of the play ending, after all three paths intersected again and all guests watched the final scene together, I realized that not everyone had the amazing experience that I did. “Did you get that?” a lady said to her friend, “’cause I didn’t get it.” I’m not sure what she didn’t get. Perhaps she was expecting a more literal adaptation of Watership Down, or perhaps she hadn’t read the book, in which case she might not understand the parallels in the two stories.

I read an article recently about SAIAH’s last play, Moby Dick, and it sounds like these folks have a knack for extraordinary performances that inject their guests into the story like they never expected.
I can’t wait to see what they do next.

 

 

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