Cinderella Story: Silk Road Theatre Project's Sweet Deal / by R. Sheth

Cinderella Story
Silk Road Theatre Project's Sweet Deal

April 7, 2006

From the deck of the pastor's quarters on the 23rd floor of the Chicago Temple, it's easy to spot the facade of the former Noble Fool Theater Company a block away. The Bavarian fantasy structure - formerly the Old Heidelberg restaurant and home to the Fool for less than three seasons - is now a teahouse, where customers sip masala chai on the tiny balcony and the wait staff bustle through a door marked ACTORS to get to the kitchen. When the comedy group walked away two years ago it was a state-of-the-art venue, built with the help of a million-dollar grant from the city and $125,000 from the state, but no theater company was willing to take it over. "You can't operate a 150-seat theater as a commercial enterprise," Fool's managing director Paul Botts said. So what makes Silk Road Theatre Project think it can succeed with an even-smaller venue in the temple's basement?

The plotline is similar: a Cinderella company lands a fabulous new home in the downtown theater district, where it's expected to live happily ever after serving an intimate off-Loop-style experience to tiny audiences. Silk Road, the not-yet-four-year-old creation of partners Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani, will present Yussef El Guindi's Back of the Throat as its inaugural production in the temple's newly constructed 80- to 120-seat venue. Located on Washington between Clark and Dearborn-facing Daley Plaza, a block away from Marshall Field's, and down the street from Millennium Park-it's a prime piece of real estate. Gillani just doesn't want you to call it a basement.

The 27-story skyscraper, designed by Holabird and Roche and completed in 1924, is famous for its soaring spire and the way its first-floor sanctuary is echoed by a tiny, octagonal chapel at the top, where natural light filtered through stained glass windows-not the view-is the main attraction. That and a pair of carved wood altarpieces: one in the lower sanctuary, showing Jesus gazing across Jerusalem, the other in the sky chapel, where he's focused on the Chicago skyline circa 1950. Now, after a $1.5 million renovation, it also has an elegantly lit, marble-floored, brass-and-oak-trimmed theater complex, complete with classrooms and offices and planned by Bailey Edward Design to be compatible with the church's neo-French Gothic architecture.

The temple is home to the First United Methodist Church, which was founded in 1831 and has had a mixed use facility on the site since 1858. The current building has 17 floors of offices, most occupied by lawyers (Clarence Darrow was on six), which provide an income stream for the church. That commercial orientation is something the church shares with Silk Road: both artistic director Khoury and executive director Gillani have more experience in business than they do in theater. That could be a weakness, but Khoury, a cross-cultural consultant and fledgling playwright, thinks it's an advantage.

Khoury and Gillani come from Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds, and each had struggled with their cultures' resistance to homosexuality. Galvanized by the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment they saw after 9/11, they formed the theater to provide a bridge-building local forum for the work of playwrights and actors from the Silk Road Diaspora. They came in contact with First Methodist, which also shares their interest in diversity, while selling group tickets to a play they'd mounted at the Cultural Center. Though the church didn't buy tickets, Gillani, being a good marketer, kept the conversation going. In 2003 Silk Road became the church's resident company, performing in temporary quarters on the second floor, but retained its artistic independence. "The church is our patron, but they do not control our content," Khoury says. "We are not a Methodist theater."

And here's where the story departs markedly from the Noble Fool folly. The church has paid for nearly all of the $1.5 million build-out and is providing the space rent free. Silk Road contributed $100,000 toward equipment, money it got on a five-year no interest loan from Gillani's brother. Noble Fool staggered under monthly rent and utility costs of about $15,000, but Silk Road will pay only a share of maintenance costs, not expected to exceed $12,000 annually. There's no lease, only a multiyear renewable agreement. Silk Road's budget, $284,000 this year, will grow to $349,000 for 2007, including in-kind donations like the rent. The theater will present a three-play season next year with spring, summer, and fall productions-taking advantage of tourist season-along with staged readings and a program for Chicago school kids.