‘Terminus’ takes audience over hill and dale for Civil War drama


'Terminus.' Presented by Saïah. 7 p.m., Wednesdays-Saturdays, April 16-May 17. $25. The Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve, 2580 Pine Bluff Drive, Decatur. Parking at International Community School, 2418 Wood Trail Lane, Decatur, .5 mile from the Preserve. 404-418-8164, http://terminus2014.brownpapertickets.com/

Most visitors to the Clyde Shepherd Nature Preserve come to the tucked-away sanctuary seeking some peace and quiet among the wetlands and pine groves that line South Peachtree Creek. But over the next few weeks the little park just north of downtown Decatur will receive some new visitors who will weave their way through the preserve’s wooded trails, not to commune with nature, but to follow the stories of Confederate deserters in the last days of the Civil War.

Beginning April 16, the preserve will become the setting for the theatrical production “Terminus,” which invites audience members to leave the confines of the traditional theater behind and follow the play’s action through an immersive setting.

“When you move from scene to scene, you’re really moving into different environments,” says Phillip Justman, who co-founded the Atlanta-based theatrical group Saïah with his wife Marium Khalid in 2011. “The topography of the land is so diverse. There are stony areas, there’s a small growth pine forest, there’s a bamboo grove, there’s a creek, there’s a lake.”

In other words, there’s no need for the group to build elaborate scenery to create the show’s Civil War setting; the different environments of the nature preserve provide the perfect backdrop for the action.

Saïah specializes in such non-traditional, immersive theater. 2012’s “Rua|Wülf” had audience members follow actors through the crumbling Victorian architecture of the Goat Farm Arts Center for a gothic retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story, and 2013’s “Moby Dick” placed Melville’s famous tale in the ship-like environment of an early 20th century industrial warehouse in southwest Atlanta. Their latest show, “Terminus,” is set during the last days of the Civil War as a group of Confederate soldiers choose to desert the fight. Audience members can follow the ragtag band of soldiers as they make the difficult and dangerous journey home.

Khalid, who wrote the script, says the story was inspired by “Watership Down,” Richard Adams’ classic 1972 novel about a group of rabbits escaping the destruction of their warren to establish a new home. “What inspired us most of all was the back story of Richard Adams, how he was in some ways writing about his own journey during World War II,” she says. “One day something just clicked with us. We asked, ‘What if we set this during the Civil War?’ That’s where the interesting shift happened for us. Then the story just completely took on a life of its own.”

Audience members for “Terminus” will park at the International Community School, a half-mile away from the park. When they arrive at the box office at the nature preserve, they’ll be asked to choose one of three different paths, each offering a different story.

The Homestead Path follows the story of the women and children left behind during the war: it’s a more traditional show, with the audience remaining seated for about 90 percent of the performance, with a walk of about 100 feet over level ground. On the Deserters’ Path, audience members follow the story of brothers Fiver and Hazel, who desert the Confederate Army. It’s a slightly more challenging walk, less than a half-mile. The final option, the Path of Snares, follows the character Blackberry, another deserter who breaks off from the others, and it is the most challenging, with a half-mile journey that involves some walking and running over uneven ground in partial darkness.

All of the various paths and their story lines intersect at different points during the show, and they all begin and end in the same place.

“Terminus” isn’t immersive just for the audience. To prepare the cast of 12 for the production, Khalid and Justman took them on a retreat to an isolated spot in the countryside near Conyers.

“We wanted to get them acquainted with the land, existing without electricity and cars,” says Khalid. The cast spent two days without electricity, computers or cell phones, lighting their way with candles, chopping firewood and preparing their own meals over an open flame.

“It was really inspiring for the actors. They went kicking and screaming, but by the end, they didn’t want to go back. That carried over into rehearsals really well. They started to understand the culture and the time of the story.”

The shows’ creators also spoke with Civil War historians and re-enactors about the period and bought props and costumes from Brigade Sutler, a shop that specializes in Civil war uniforms and reenactment equipment in Meansville. All of it, in the end, is designed to create an immersive and convincing experience.

The hope is that “Terminus” will be as rewarding and memorable for the artists creating it as it will be for the audience members daring enough to follow the play’s twisted paths.