The multi-disciplinary collaboration between Marium Khalid and Michael Haverty on their interpretation of Pinocchio started well before Covid. It was back in 1523 — 500 years ago. Well, not really . . . but it certainly feels that way to the artists. Two years ago, the pair made a film from the first 16 chapters of the famous book, and now, a stage version opens this week at 7 Stages, running March 3 to 12, with the remaining take of the story. Patrons will receive the filmed first half (running 30 minutes) before they see the conclusion. “It seamlessly fits together,” promises Haverty.
Both artists knew they wanted their own spin on the classic. “We always talked about what it would be like to create Pinocchio on film,” says Khalid. “Another aspect would be immersive, and we always played with those aspects. Then Covid happened and we thought — what if we laid it out in this way?”
Their collaborative effort — both artists wrote and directed the piece — incorporates puppetry, dance, video and projections. The story is episodic, and when patrons enter, the immersive aspects are located in three different spaces. Pinocchio begins in the 7 Stages lobby, which is the puppeteer’s theater, then moves into the main stage for several episodes, and then heads backstage for the finale, in the belly of a whale, where Pinocchio has wound up.
“It’s me and Marium bringing what we each do well together, so it’s equal amounts of all those elements,” says Haverty. “It’s a show of surprises that doesn’t stop moving and changing. We try to use each of those elements to point up and lift up the elements of Carlo Collodi’s original book and story that interweaves sophomoric humor with some weighty contemplation of big themes.”
This take of Pinocchio also involves sensory sensations. “With every immersive piece, there is an aspect of [that] — touch, taste,” says Khalid. “With each space, we are guiding the audience through a few of those moments. It has to make sense for the story. Some places, you get hints of scent, and others, you get a hint of taste, and other places, we encourage you to feel the surroundings to be immersed in all three at the same time.”
Khalid and Haverty started chatting about this project back in 2019. They had known each other and worked together before that, with Khalid being the founder and artistic director of Saiah Arts International and now leading Sky Creature Productions. Haverty, meanwhile, is artistic director of The Object Group. Collodi’s book speaks to both of these visionaries.
“It was one of those stories that was always fascinating for me — a story that I came back to time and time again,” says Khalid. “We wanted to do something together, and the more we explored it, the more we realized how relevant Pinocchio is to what is happening in our world right now and with our communities. We kept finding connections.”
Haverty calls Pinocchio a story of love and family. “It’s about children and the child within. Are you going to suppress the child or release it? That feels very present now. We are all considering what we are doing in this life, this society, and that is what the story is all about,” he says.
During planning stages, the two had no idea so many people would be producing Pinocchio right now, including director Guillermo del Toro, whose animated film version is favored to win an Academy Award. “Everybody is doing it now,” says Khalid. “It feels like a shift in the air that everyone wants to do it.”
Yet Haverty is not surprised it’s all the rage again. “The book has been around for so long; I think it is the most translated book in the world, over the Bible. We have talked in rehearsals about why that is, why is it so popular and why has it lasted so long. There is a tenderness to the story that is rather healing to be a part of. I think in terms of why — we need a bit of that feeling after the last few years, and we are hoping that will provide that after a whirlwind [we’ve faced].”
For Khalid, Pinocchio is about someone wanting something so desperately that they make wrong choices, with all the consequences appearing in a very visceral, immediate way. “It’s almost a journey through grief for us and we are exploring that, in a way, with the relationship between Geppetto and Pinocchio,” she says.
Different takes on the classic appeal more to young audiences, while others are more geared toward adults. “There are so many different versions out there, “ says Haverty. “So many weird versions, including a Nazi version. Khalid recalls a Ukrainian version, a surreal one with a piece of wood instead of a puppet. They both agree their Pinocchio is most definitely appropriate for adults and older teens.
“Whatever mental state you want to go down, it’s ripe for exploration,” says Khalid.
Haverty himself appears in the show as Harlequino, while the performer playing Pinocchio is female. “I have not been thinking of Pinocchio as any gender. He is called a boy throughout, but that stands for child. There is not a lot of gender going into the character. It’s not a choice in any direction. We found the best person in human flesh, and her name is Rachel Wansker. She had the character. She is a professional clown, has worked with refugee communities and has this kindness and exuberance and wackiness. We hardly have to direct her — she has this character down.”
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.