Even before the pandemic, Marium Khalid sensed it was time.
The founder and artistic director of Saiah Arts International theater company was eager to make a transition from the kinds of work she had been staging for more than a decade in Atlanta. By the time Covid-19 forced arts organizations to scramble in how they reached audiences, Khalid, under the umbrella of her new company Sky Creature Productions, was learning how to incorporate film and other media into her repertoire. She’s now ready for the release of her newest project, Pinocchio.
A collaboration with The Object Group and its artistic director Michael Haverty, Pinocchio will be available for viewing December 27 through 31 via TheObjectGroup.org. With Haverty and Khalid serving as co-directors, co-writers and co-producers, the 30-minute short film uses puppets and actors to cover the first eight chapters of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 book. The film’s second half will be available next August, and the complete work also will land as a stage production at a location to be determined.
It’s not the first time the two have collaborated. Haverty worked with Khalid while he was employed at 7 Stages, directing her in the company’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Khalid has also served as board president of The Object Group.
The two share a love for experimental work, says Haverty, and when the artists were brainstorming what project to pursue next, they agreed Pinocchio was one with which they could have fun.
“It was the first story I remember learning about as a child,” says Khalid, 35, who was born in England and identifies as Pakistani/Kashmiri. “It was a running joke in my family that I watched and read Pinocchio so obsessively. Of all the fairy tales, it was one that was so dark and twisted. It has some very adult lessons and moments. There are some things that aren’t even hidden. All my life, I wanted to explore why it was written as a children’s story with all of its darkness and all of its warped nature.”
The two call this a “rambunctious” take on the classic. Haverty finds it especially relevant to the current moment. “The story resonates today,” Haverty says. “I think we are witnessing the effects of human nature on all manner of things, from what’s going on in society and culture in the U.S. to the effects of climate change. We are coming pretty fast up on the ramifications of our actions. Pinocchio is not human but he tries on human nature and what it means to be greedy and angry and violent. All around him he is witnessing a series of corrupt officials.”
Over the years, Khalid has received notice for her innovative work and approach. Not long after she graduated in 2009 from Kennesaw State University, where she studied theater and performance art, Khalid founded Saiah Arts International, an outfit known for its stagings’ immersive elements. The company’s productions included the highly acclaimed Rua | Wülf, a re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood, and the Civil War play Terminus. Then Saiah Arts unexpectedly shut down in 2015 due to Khalid’s major health issues.
“I became sick (with a neuromuscular disease) and literally was not able to do anything for a year,” Khalid says. “It wasn’t just illness; it was the whole process of recovery and starting to learn your body again and your physical limitations. Being aware of (my) limitations required me to make a new structure. I didn’t want to have another space where pushing for projects constantly, one after the other, was the goal.”
After she had taken time to heal, she founded and became the artistic director of Sky Creature Productions in 2018. The goal was to continue her brand of immersive/installation theater with other elements as well — albeit pursued at a slower pace.
“I wanted to take my time,” she says. “I wanted to invite people to work here who have long-term plans. I wanted Sky Creature to become more of a studio space, for development and curating slowly. Saiah still lives in the way we approach the work, the ‘Let’s get it done, let’s create it with our hands.’ That element is part of it, but the energy has shifted and is more grounded.”
The first Sky Creature production was 2018’s Sin Piel, a personal show for the artist. Leading up to the opening, she wrote an essay about the immersive/performance art piece and her health scare for ArtsATL.
Around that time, Khalid realized she wanted to move some of her storytelling to film. “It was just something I was naturally going toward,” she says, adding that the last few years have been an opportune time to learn the technical side of the business from other filmmakers.
Her first short film made some noise. Mazloom, about a young girl who is assaulted and has to deal later with repressed trauma, was a selection of the 2020 Atlanta Women’s Film Festival and the 2021 Los Angeles Women’s International Film Festival. Khalid was encouraged by the reception.
Today, Khalid is more knowledgeable about the craft and ready to stretch more, learn more and take on various additional projects. For instance, she worked on a music video with Atlanta singer Ruby Velle this past summer. Pinocchio, she adds, combines elements of what she knows and loves already in theater with what she’s been able to learn in the film world.
Earlier this year, Khalid was named one of three associate artistic directors at 7 Stages, along with Ashley James and Elizabeth Dinkova.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to work in the theater community again,” she says. The three “were hired to see if we can create a collaborative environment and start to curate each piece and help develop the company more into a more equitableand diverse place.”
Khalid anticipates another huge project early in 2022 — the expected birth of her son in January. She plans to take a few months off but the hope is that her boy will always be a part of the work she does, including the second half of Pinocchio.
The artist is quite proud of the pivots she has made over the years and feels theater companies have to adapt to be current — and, ultimately, to survive.
“We have been doing a certain kind of theater for a long, long time. In the last year shifts have happened (that have forced companies) to be more equitable and to be more balanced in terms of gender and race and more in order not to be just a forgotten craft. If theater wants to survive, it has to brace for the evolution that is coming to it, whether it’s adding elements of film or involving more young ideas. My hope is that as we move forward, people will start to embrace the change and let it evolve the way it should.”
Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog Douglas.