While living in Bangladesh at age 12, Marium Khalid learned that a close friend had been kidnapped. The kidnappers took the wrong girl. At a time when Bangladesh and Pakistan were warring, they wanted Khalid, who is of Pakistani heritage.
This is one example Khalid gives when describing the propensity for violence in most societies. The violence and its aftermath — the idea that humans can survive horrible things and live to tell the tale — is a driving inspiration in her work and the work she does through Sky Creature, her combination theater company, production house and studio.
Khalid, 33, is the first to say she’s had an interesting life. She’s the daughter of a Kashmiri father and a Pakistani mother and had lived in five cities when she moved to the United States as a young teen for her father’s textiles job. After studying theater at Kennesaw State University, Khalid cofounded her first theater company: Saiah International, named for an Urdu-language word that means “an oasis-like spot of canopy shade.” Through Saiah, Khalid became one of the first artists to bring immersive theater to Atlanta. After an illness that resulted in a coma, she closed Saiah to begin Sky Creature.
Her passion for immersive theater has carried over to Sky Creature, but Khalid says the company is determined not to box itself into any one medium. She describes Sky Creature as more of a production house than a straightforward theater company.
“Whatever story we feel passionate about, we ask the story what medium it needs to be told in,” she says. “Usually, if you’re paying attention, it reveals itself.”
Sky Creature also does performance art, readings, concerts and film. Upcoming projects include a short film titled Mazloom, about a young woman who’s sexually assaulted by her father’s boss, and a documentary about scent featuring a curator of unique scents designed to invoke emotion rather than being worn as perfume.
Khalid gravitates toward myths and fairy tales. Saiah’s 2012 production of Rua | Wülf, an immersive take on Little Red Riding Hood, illustrates that. But the stories she’s drawn to most often are true stories, past or present. That they are true stories makes them all the more impactful, she says. They may not be stories everyone wants to hear, but they are stories that must be told.
One of Sky Creature’s more ambitious undertakings was 2014’s Terminus, a three-track immersive experience that explored the antebellum South. It was inspired by the adventure novel Watership Down, but research Khalid did on those left behind by the American Civil War changed its focus.
Audience members could choose to sit and eat period- and tone-appropriate food with wives the soldiers had left behind, to follow deserters into the wilderness or to watch one particular deserter wander into his doom at the hands of semi-cannibalistic vagrants. All three tracks were taken from true accounts of life during the war.
Regardless of the medium, one thing remains a top priority in Khalid’s work — that it be immersive. When audience members are part of a piece, they more readily empathize with the characters in the story, she says, the exact reaction she wants to inspire. She also prefers true stories. “I could read something that’s fictional and be moved by it if it’s brilliant,” she says. But her mind and heart activate when she hears a true story because the human connection is so strong.
Khalid says she hopes that Sky Creature will expand outside of Atlanta, but she does acknowledge that with transplants outnumbering native-born Atlantans, the city is fertile ground for her storytelling. “This city is full of juxtapositions and this really beautiful but at the same time brutal history. The kind of people who come here are inspiring.”
Khalid is collaborating with the Alliance Theatre on a piece titled The Journey that will become a Theatre for Young Audiences production. It’s based on Francesca Sanna’s 2016 children’s book about refugees trying to escape war in their country.
“I want to create stories so someone who feels alone, unheard, unvalidated sees something that looks like them, feels like them,” Khalid says, “and they don’t feel so alone.”