Silk Road Theatre Project produces theater for post-9-11 Chicago
by Suzy Evans
When two planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Malik Gillani’s world turned upside down.
The information technology consultant who was born in Pakistan and moved to the U.S. went from being someone his clients trusted to someone who frightened them.
“I was no longer this great consultant,” said Gillani, a U.S. citizen who is also a practicing Muslim. “I was now a threat to my clients because of my skin color and my faith. And I did not want to hide who I was.”
Gillani, 38, and his life-partner, Jamil Khoury, 43, decided they needed to react to this difficult political and cultural climate, and the pair formed the Gilloury Institute (a combination of their last names) as a way to explore what their response should be. The institute became the parent company for a writer-based theater, Silk Road Theatre Project, which produces work by playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean descent.
“The idea was to really create a venue for dialogue and for an exchange of stories,” said Khoury, who is of Syrian heritage and lived in the Middle East for five years. “Theater presented itself as a really wonderful medium for doing that.”
During the course of six seasons beginning in 2002, Silk Road Theatre Project has produced 11 productions and won numerous awards. In April, playwright Yussef El Guindi received the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, given by the American Theatre Critics Association to a non-New York world premiere, for his play “Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat,” which premiered at Silk Road last year. The play is about the portrayal of Arab-Americans in the media.
“They bring voices to audiences that you don’t often hear from and that’s fantastic and absolutely essential at this time in particular,” said El Guindi, 49, who has had two other plays produced at the theater.
Gillani, Silk Road’s executive director, and Khoury, the artistic director, call themselves “immigrants to the theater” because they came from the world of spreadsheets and marketing, rather than from directing and acting. Before forming Silk Road, Khoury was a cross-cultural trainer for corporate families moving overseas, a position he left when Silk Road kicked off. Gillani balances his role as executive director with his work as an information technology consultant.
“Very few theater companies are started with the understanding that this is a business first and foremost and that business component does not relegate the art to a lesser status but that the business and art are one in the same,” Khoury said. “There’s a complementary dynamic in that one cannot really exist without the other.”
Over the years, Gillani and Khoury have transformed the nonprofit from a self-funded venture to an Actors’ Equity Association theater existing through the support of individuals, corporations and foundations. The association is the labor union for actors and stage managers in the U.S., and Silk Road became a member in 2006. As such, Silk Road must pay its union actors more than twice as much as non-union actors and provide health benefits.
As a nonprofit organization, Silk Road covers its operating expenses primarily through ticket sales, program services and fundraising efforts. Gillani said granting organizations will not provide funding to recover losses so in order to be a sustainable business, the theater must generate sufficient funds through its own revenues. And even if a show is successful, the theater never makes a profit.
Public support, including individual, corporate, government and foundation cash and non-cash contributions, rose 17.8 percent and revenues increased 10.4 percent last year compared with 2007, for a total of $656,374 for 2008. This comparison excludes the 2007 donation of a mural with an estimated value of $250,000.
Silk Road’s administrative office is located on South Federal Street, but its performance venue is in the basement of the First United Methodist Church Chicago at the Chicago Temple building on West Washington Street. Silk Road is the theater-in-residence at the church and receives its performance space for free.
Like many businesses, the economy has taken a toll on Silk Road as well. The theater changed four of its five full-time employees to part time, including Gillani in December 2008. Other positions were changed in April and early May. Gillani hopes to return two of the part-time employees, including himself, to full-time status by this Fall. The theater also had to cancel a children’s show it commissioned for the summer because the grant was withdrawn, which contributed to the staff cuts.
“You can be an amazing theater but you cannot protect your funder from losing money in the market,” Gillani said.
Gillani and Khoury’s business backgrounds help distinguish Silk Road from other artist-run theater companies and will help them weather the recession, said Marcia Feston, director of the Arts Work Fund for Organizational Development, which supports the business-side of many Chicago arts organizations. The fund has given grants to Silk Road for three years, and Gillani and Khoury’s ability to connect to patrons have impressed Feston.
“They really take in this understanding of their audience and the way their audience interacts with theater to develop a really multifaceted engagement strategy I’m not sure others are doing,” she said.
One example of this strategy is Silk Road Sojourns, a program through which Silk Road broadcasts conversations with artists and board members on the Internet and cable television. The program also includes a print magazine, podcasts and a blog.
Carolyn Ryffel, who has seen every Silk Road production, said she donates to the theater for its outreach projects. “I know it’s not just us that go and sit in the audience,” said Ryffel, referring to the Silk Road education program, Myths to Drama.
Despite the current financial market, Gillani and Khoury continue working to make Silk Road a nationally recognized theater, and the pair has already begun to achieve just that. Silk Road partnered with Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco and the Lark Play Development Center in New York to create a $10,000 commissioning prize for a developing Middle-Eastern-American writer. The first prize was given to Adriana Sevan last year.
The theater also continues to create dialogue about the Silk Road region and encourage artists from that community. Minita Gandhi, 30, is a first-generation Indian-American actress who has performed at Silk Road and other Chicago theaters, and when she saw an Indian actor in a leading role for the first time at Silk Road, she was inspired to pursue acting.
“It was really profound for me to see someone of my own ethnicity onstage at a main stage in Chicago,” Gandhi said. “This is something that I think our audience now is looking for.”