Theatre Profile / by R. Sheth

Theatre Profile

April 14, 2006

It's part of local theatre lore that Steppenwolf started out in a church basement. If the same status one day affixes to Silk Road Theatre Project, the story will be slightly different. It will be a cross-cultural theatre company that got its start in a "lower level."

When you first walk down the stairs of The Historic Chicago Temple Building at 77 West Washington St. in Chicago, you might think you're going down to a basement, but after a $1.5 million renovation the new space Silk Road calls home is a far cry from the typical dingy, dreary, underutilized church basement.

"It's now really something very attractive," said Jamil Khoury, Silk Road's artistic director."

Whatever you call it, this is a swank new multi-purpose performance space that has been funded almost entirely by the Methodist congregation that hosts Silk Road. "We have been astounded by the generosity," Khoury said. The senior pastor and church leaders wanted to make changes to the basement space. They agreed to finance a full theatre which-in deference to the need to have a versatile space the church could also use-is best described as a "chocolate brown box."

Behind a rich brown curtain, in a space designed with reds and browns instead of black, there is a versatile stage that can be easily transformed. If it were configured as a proscenium it would leave a 32-foot by 26-foot playing space. Depending on the stage set-up, the house can seat 80 to 120 people.

There are also a green room, management office space, dressing rooms, a technical booth, storage space and private bathrooms for the actors, as well as large bathrooms in the lobby for patrons. It's a far cry from the converted chapel and adjoining parlor Silk Road played Yussef El Guindi's Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith in during fall 2005. "It's really turned us around. It's given a chance to grow at a much faster rate," Khoury said.

"The theatre is going to allow us to become a company with roots, rather than this idea that goes from place to place to tell stories," agreed managing director Malik Gillani.

Silk Road brought in $100,000 in equipment, but is not paying rent and the church funded the rest of the project. "This is a really unprecedented situation that we have with the church," Khoury said. "They are very visionary and very open-minded and really understand what we're doing as a complement to what they're doing.

"I hope that this becomes a template for other theatre companies and churches because the overwhelmingly majority of Chicago theatre companies are itinerant and a lot of the churches have underutilized space."

It's all the more striking when one considers that Silk Road's mission is not about spreading the Christian word. It aims to be, as Gillani puts it, "a global theatre telling global stories."

Life partners Gillani and Khoury had the idea for the theatre back in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A Muslim-American and an Arab-American, respectively, the couple was considering organizing a speaker series, or making educational videos to help fill in the gaps in understanding among cultures when they hit upon the idea of a theatre company.

Khoury had written a couple of plays when he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Gillani went to U of C's Graduate School of Business. So their approach to starting a theatre came from a unique combination of both their backgrounds-not from a need to get work as actors or directors.

"We really have approached it as an entrepreneurial venture," said Khoury.

And the product they're selling is communications and understanding. A theatre "would be a way to convey these ideas through a creative medium," Khoury said. "Theatre tends to be a safe space and there's a lot that can be explored in the theatre and through art that isn't really explored in some of these other forums."

The initial idea was to focus on Middle Eastern experiences or broader Islamic world experiences, but in researching the plan the co-founders kept coming across references to the Silk Road. It became a metaphor Khoury and Gillani couldn't resist. The trade road stretching from Italy to China was also a means of sharing stories and a route for cross-cultural exchange across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. These stories, these cultures were what Silk Road would set out to present.

"It's a very diverse grouping of people and cultures and regions and yet one that is really underrepresented and often times misrepresented on Chicago stages," Khoury said.

"We felt that maybe we could do greater good by telling stories of multiple different people and different communities to bring in what's common among all these people," said Gillani. "We felt that maybe theatre could do that."

Added Khoury, "If you look at a lot of the conflicts that the United States has in the world today it reads almost like a who's who of Silk Road countries... So much of the challenges this country is facing politically, diplomatically, economically and so forth are really focused on that broad part of the world. If in any way theatre and stories can act as a bridge, we see that as something that's really necessary and important."

Silk Road's inaugural production was Precious Stones, which Khoury wrote in grad school. The play is about a Palestinian and a Jewish woman who form a Jewish/Arab dialogue and fall in love. The 2003 show was followed in 2004 by Tea, Velina Hasu Houston's play following the lives of five Japanese "war brides" settling with their servicemen husbands in rural Kansas.

2005's Ten Acrobats featured a Muslim-American family, and this month's Back of the Throat, also by the Seattle-based El Guindi, sees an Arab-American being interrogated by government agents looking to find terrorists in our midst.

Italy and China are next on the horizon as the company aims to go from its current two shows a year to three a season starting in 2007. It also supplements its stage shows with readings and has already hosted 13 since inception. Five more are on the docket for 2006.

It's part of Silk Road's aim to be a playwright-focused theatre. "It's kind of a corrective measure in that these are playwrights who are often overlooked," Khoury said. The shows it selects are written by playwrights, and have protagonists, with a Silk Road background.

"From project to project you're going to see diverse casting," Khoury said. "What's important to us is that the actors somehow look like the people that they're playing."

It means that along the way Silk Road also provides performance opportunities for actors who might not normally get a chance at a starring role. Actors performing at Silk Road have told Gillani this is a welcome change as they have typically been relegated to minor character roles because of their race or ethnicity.

Demonstrating the diversity of the region is important to Silk Road in selecting its offerings. "We want to really touch on this kind of breadth, if you will, of Silk Road experiences," Khoury said. "We're interested in people whose work has sort of an edge to it, be that a social edge or a political edge, and also provides real insights into the culture. We're attracted to work that somehow has a pedagogical nature to it. We're going to learn, but in addition to learning we're also going to be entertained and be somehow moved."

Still, he adds, "At the end of the day, it has to be a really good play and it has to be something that we believe is going to resonate with our existing audience and help us expand our audience."

The company's outreach to cultural organizations in the community represented in each play has helped Silk Road achieve a diverse audience. Typically the company will see 25 percent of its audience coming from the ethnicity being represented on stage at the time. Many may not have been in the theatre before, or at least not to see an English-language play, Khoury said. "For us, part of our success is really gauged by who is in the audience and we want to see that the people who we're representing are seeing the plays."

El Guindi, for one, is someone who's happy to have Silk Road around. "They're just a great company. They're doing work that nobody else is doing," the playwright said. "They went to bat for 10 Acrobats when a couple of other theatres wouldn't. So I just think they're giving voice to voices that have not been heard from and I feel, even from Seattle, that they're adding to the Chicago theatre scene and to theatre in general. You know there's a ripple effect."