(Editor’s Note: Marium Khalid became a rising star in Atlanta theater with her company Saiah and their daring productions. Their 2011 edge-bending City of Lions and Gods was ArtsATL’s choice for best production of the year. The even more ambitious Rua | Wülf, an adult retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story, was voted Best Play in 2012 by the readers of Creative Loafing. But after the stunning outdoor 2014 production Terminus, Khalid seemed to vanish from the landscape.
Khalid has returned with a new production company, Sky Creature, and a new show, Sin Piel, which opens Thursday in The Circus School building at 575 Boulevard SE.
In this exclusive personal essay, Khalid talks about her past few years and the inspirations behind Sin Piel.)
This is not a theater show.
Let us begin there.
In 2014, I was running an arts organization called SAIAH Arts International, with the intention to create work that aspired to meliorate, even after the story was done being told. Most of these being immersive and performance art experiences, inspired by a lifetime of studying patterns — the necessity and form of them. I founded this company with the desire that those subtly hidden nuances, embedded within each experience, could sneak in when least expected and shift some small truth into perspective. I attempted to tell story after story, in hopes to illuminate the external manifestations of internal turmoil — draping it in eloquent language and placing it in spaces such as a 70,000-square foot sprocket factory, a 28-acre nature preserve, etc., where you, the audience, would be enveloped by the environment, as far as the eye could see.
Then — my body broke.
Then — it broke again.
Then — the rest of it, with the inevitable, yet relieving diagnosis of a neuromuscular disease. And another one, soon after. While my internal self unveiled itself, so did my external. Everything I had built fell apart. Since this isn’t an article about my personal life, I’ll leave it to this: my whole existence, as human as consuming sustenance, to whom I would now present myself as to the outside world, did a complete 180.
The strange thing about willpower, however, is that with the ruthless circumstances comes a fierce drive toward forward upward momentum — which leads us to the following steps that began the journey that is Sin Piel.
“The elders who carry the gift have their eyes peeled, often looking for the one who is ‘sin piel,’ the skinless one, the one who feels so much and so deeply and who observes the larger patterns of life . . .”
— Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Step 1. REVELATION
A year after my last creation, I timidly began wadding through the pulsing hope for new work, perhaps even, dare I say it, a new company. Beat. Crash. I am in the ICU. In a state where one has no control over their physical being, where body is an amalgamation of organs, whose sole purpose is to stay afloat by any means necessary, and those who interact with said congregation of blood, skin and nerves treat it like a piece of commissioned work, with no budget and an impending time line.
To my surprise, this was to be the place and state of being where I would perhaps have one of the most profound moments of my existence. I am at the precipice — I am submitting to the hand that has been dealt and letting my fragmented body go. And then I heard “it.” The best way to describe “it,” without sounding like I am two tabs away from pulling a Syd Barrett, is that it sounded like genderless whispers, coming from every corner of my hospital room, from my being, from all. It laid out a law: “We are all creatures derived from the elements — Land, Sea, Metal, Fire and finally Sky.” It explained further details and eventually showed me every person in my life and what creature they were. Finally, it brought me to Sky. Sky was the existence that remained within and without. It has the ability to be united with the other elements and bring them to their highest fruition. But, eventually, it must return to the place it comes from — a place where it envelops all things, seeing the truth of all, from all perspectives. Right before it faded, it absorbed into my breaking body, and I took a breath of my own for the first time in weeks.
Needless to say, waking up from this isolated chamber became a fiery bull to matador priority — if for nothing else than to build a physical manifestation of this surreal Sky Creature, as well as an exploration of the after effects of being dismembered, for the sake of healing.
(Still with me? Good. It gets better.)
Step 2. EXPLORATION
Deep breath in. Hold.
A few months into a choiceless, yet self-inflicted hibernation whilst developing the building blocks of the Sky Creature venture, I reunited with an old college mate. Enter Laura McCranie. Marketing director, photographer, She-wolf, all around astounding creature. McCranie’s pixie-like presence, with the swag of a smuggler shooting across the triangle of death, are the immediate things you notice upon first meeting her. However, the grace with which she shares her cracks and crevices in turn, when you reveal yourself to her, is what pulls you in. So obviously, minutes into our conversation over overpriced lattes, we poured out our traumas, our responsibilities, our atonement. We talked about why both of us, like so many others who have experienced one or a combination of abuse, violence, mental illness, etc. severe enough to leave physical reminders on our skins, choose to drown it internally so as to not disturb the narrative of the “real” world. We found ourselves confessing to the other, e v e r y t h i n g.
Inhale. Hold. Uncomfortable long silence.
(Both McCranie and I learned from pasts where being strong through adversity means keeping our reactions, our scars, to ourselves. “Keeping your tongue tied,” as they say.)
We began discussing the possibility of what art could look like coming from these raw, open places. For McCranie, it was the taste of organs and different explorations of them. For me, it was a present moment, where language was something only spoken through our gestures and bodies.
Then I met Barrett Doyle at an after show party, and within minutes over a flask of gin, we were discussing the human body and how the external wear and tear flows so seamlessly into the internal. Let me backtrack. Doyle is intense, emoting the coolness of an unreachable object of affection of a preteen protagonist in a mid-1990s film, simultaneously, a beautiful creator, painter, set designer, and all around “let’s just build it” guy.
Back to the now — Doyle promptly introduced me to the study of the Anatomical Venus, a figure inspired by Venus by Botticelli, with skin built of wax that could be removed, in order to reveal the anatomy. Doyle went on to describe, with his own seamless 17th-century Italian flair, that these bodies commissioned by the Medici family, that were meant to teach, inform and make the common man less afraid of superstitions and more in tune with the science of illnesses, soon turned into side-show affairs, to be placed in glass caskets, untouched and “othered.”
The irony was not lost on either of us, and neither were the unabashed connections we started to make between these two respective conversations.
Step 3. DISSECTION
What if we create a piece of work that allows us to look into self, raw, fragmented and whole — one that has manifested in our organs, our canvas of choice for Sin Piel, as we continue to absorb, digest, embed suffering in any and all of its manifestations whilst continuing to linger behind masks, numbness and veils? The seed planted, started to take shape faster and with more ferocity than any of us could keep up with. All we kept hearing, within ourselves, as well as through the voices of people we described a flick of an idea to, was this needs to be done.
It became clear to us that Sin Piel was to be the inaugural experience of the newly founded Sky Creature Productions.
It had been developing as if parallel to our lives, and all we had to do was turn and face it as it presented itself to us, as if it had a life and consciousness of its own, exhibited as an immersive sensory art installation experience.
With most art, audiences sit back as a slightly removed voyeur; our intention is to submerge all five senses into this experience and have the audience step deep into the world of Sin Piel. The journey begins with the Fragment Creature (played by the incomparable Emma Ally), which has been removed from the whole as a result of trauma. The fragment is the part of the self that embodies all the soft things the self once hoped to be.
As we follow her deeper inward, she makes her way into The Skin, the holy place with a once divine presence, a place to confess, atone and heal but that has now become corrupted sanctuary, held up by a warped gatekeeper, played by the graceful Nicolas Goodly. The first line of defense, soaking in the trauma that created the split between self and fragment to begin with, it perspires Guilt (played by Andrew Harrison), a true spark of light, and Shame (Barrett Doyle). In order to pass through its gates, the audience must participate in a ritual that involves tasting the very space they will exist in.
The next space is The Throat. Once upon a time a home, or the possibility of one, and now a nest spun into quicksand like stillness and well . . . nausea. This space is housed by the wisest 14-year-old this side of the hemisphere, Beatrix Clark, portraying the creature that has been left in the throat — the lump we refuse to release.
The Mind was my first and immediate casting decision. This sterile, numb spherical environment, activated by an entity that moves as if bolts of lightening shoot in and out of every nerve ending, like an eruption of depraved cells spreading through the organ. There is only one performer in my mind who has, pardon my french, the couilles to go to such heavy places whilst keeping the journey a sensitive one to be soaked in — the inimitable Josh Brook.
After the confrontation Mind Creature and Fragment have, she enters The Heart or one of the layers of the heart, Space, this being the pull to and from all things, whether years of hurt have jaded us into thinking otherwise. A place that feels nothing like we expected and yet is exactly what we needed. The fearless Nicole Johnson from the Fly on the Wall troupe accepted my invitation to portray the creature that is the essence of heart. We end at The Sight space, where the audience follows their own will with some instructions, to allow all they have embodied to let settle with what they just created. Throughout this journey we are tasting “food” and absorbing “scents” curated by none other than our very own alchemist and gastral synesthete, Taria Camerino. The texturally delicious music to accompany these spaces is being composed by Mathew Vetter and Gray Dowsley, and our fearless production director, Brandon Ross, is making all our dreams come true.
In order to tell a story, this or any other, in a spherical manner as the origins of this company demand, I discovered that we had to create a new form, a new language, a new perspective of development as well as experience. Before, the desire was to tell stories to illuminate the external in order to understand the internal. And now, as I direct this beast of a creature, I aim to empathize first with the internal, by digging to the root of the crack, after the external has beaten down on it, repeatedly. In simple terms, after a trauma has occurred, what happens to our insides; how do we anatomically harden or shift? If we could see those organs convert into living, breathing entities, what would they say, how would they move, but most importantly, what would they want from the parts of us we are afraid to let out? These are the guidelines we have set for ourselves as we build this immersive sensory performance. We are, through the gaze of the Sky Creature, building an experience — pure, vivid, visceral — once again, which is not theater . . . as you know it.