Phillip Justman's Venture Into the Whale



Phillip Justman, Co-Founder and Owner of SAÏAH, is revamping Herman Melville's classic Moby-Dick and leaving not one ounce of ingenuity out. Set in the Lifecycle Building Center, Justman and the creative minds at SAÏAH have created a symbiotic relationship between the piece and location space that lends a different persepctive to the standard. BANG! asked Justman all about the thinking behind their addition to Moby-Dick interpretations, and got some pretty some good stuff out of him.

BANG! What was the deciding factor in taking a classic on instead of a newer piece?

Phillip Justman Our goal with Moby-Dick is not to reinvent the story or to tell it in a new way, but to ignite that which we love about the novel itself, and share that love with the public. With us, there is no debate about the “newness” of the story, simply the excitement of inviting our audience to come and live in this world with us.

BANG! The Lifecycle Building is simply massive, which obviously serves well for a play like Moby Dick. How will the story move throughout the space? How does the space inform the piece?

Phillip Justman The Lifecycle Building center is truly a larger-than-life venue, -60,000 sq ft, three stories high, industrial architecture from 1914, and building-length windows that diffuse daylight into a golden glow. The space does more than just inform the play. It is the whale’s belly, the innards of the ship, and the expanse of the sea. The audience travels and experiences all the secret corners of the space. Even the smell of old industry informs the story.

BANG! This production has traveled around quite a bit between places like Kennesaw and Morocco. What changes with each performance, if anything?

Phillip Justman There are three different versions of the script that exist, with this third version of the script the playwright (John Gentile) has combined the longer two hour version with the short 60 min version that traveled to Morocco. This is the third version of the script, it has been beautifully shaped to fit into and fill the expanse of the Lifecycle Building Center.

BANG! Could you elaborate on the “brave theater for brave people” expression?

Phillip Justman This is one of our philosophies, we challenge ourselves to never “think realistically” but be as brave as we can be with our choice of story, location, and the way we create. Furthermore, we challenge our audiences to be brave with the experience, -to engage and immerse themselves in the story past the point of comfort.

BANG! Do you think the location behooves more of the “belly of the beast” or Ishmael’s journey?

Phillip Justman Our last production of Rua | Wulf was the journey of Red Riding Hood into the belly of the beast. It seems that Moby-Dick is Ishmael’s journey, perhaps not towards the belly of the beast, but existing within it the entirety of the time.

BANG! There’s a different relationship between the space and performer as opposed to the space and the audience member. What do you think that difference is?

Phillip Justman The telling of a story is an equidistant triangle between three points, - story, performer, and audience. Through Saiah we blend story and location as much as we can. It is not just a place we have been rehearsing a play, the actors have become a crew living in the walls. It is not just a place to come and see a play, -it is an immersive world of experience for the audience. The space is the story, the performers already exist within, we invite the audience to come as well.


BANG! What about Moby Dick lends itself to the interactive, immersive nature of this interpretation?

Phillip Justman Melville’s first intention with Moby Dick was to simply write an encyclopedia on whaling, after convinced by Nathaniel Hawthorne to interweave it with a story; we have the novel as it exists today. Yet it is still saturated with every fact and detail of whaling, it is these details that lend the novel to an immersive experience. We have filled the LBC with these details, and layered them in the performance.

BANG! Due to the mutual corroboration between the space and the piece, were there concerns about one overwhelming the other?

Phillip Justman There is an extreme challenge of integrating the story into a space of this magnitude, with one informing the other and continuing the dialogue throughout the experience. We have done our best to use the existing beauty of the space, building with it. For example, the soundscape has been created with the intention to blend with the distant sounds of passing trains.

BANG! What other versions were cited for inspiration or direction?

Phillip Justman Only Melville’s work, long conversations with scholars, and many books on whaling.

BANG! What overriding theme is highlighted in this interpretation of Moby Dick?

Phillip Justman By placing this story in a sprocket factory built in 1914, the deep and harsh industry of what whaling was has come forth as a major theme. The life of a whaler was one of unimaginable work and hardship. The boats were floating factories and all the men were parts of a greater machine, working and dying for the sake of the industry. This machine of whaling is what Ahab skews towards his own monomaniacal purposes, the hunting of the White Whale. The audience will smell the oil, see the fabricated metal, and experience the mighty brutality of what was once the most profitable American institution.

So, just in case you feared an experience clad with tacky wooden swords and rolling cardboard seas, now you know Justman and the good people of SAÏAH intend nothing along those lines-that is unless they wanted to, in which case it would probably be genius and hailed in high regard like their performances of Moby-Dick are right now. Get the facts at the event page:https://www.facebook.com/events/519406648117724/, and stay in touch for future ventures at http://www.saiah.org/. Moby-Dick runs April 10-May 12, so grab your tickets soon!

-Miles Jenson