Cinderella Story

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 waitstaff 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 schoolkids.

Lives of the Saints

There was grumbling among the Saints, the city’s volunteer usher corps, after a recent advisory that they should be prepared to stand for the entire performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place. The show uses four Saints at every performance to augment the theater’s paid staff. “It’s unusual,” says Saints president B.J. Nelson. “We go on duty at 7 and the show’s out at 9:15, and this is one of the theaters that wants us to pick up afterward. A lot of people can’t stand that long.” Eileen LaCario of Broadway in Chicago, which is presenting the show, and Drury Lane general manager James Jensen say the problem is that the show’s been sold out. “If we have four unsold seats at showtime,” Jensen promises, “the ushers can sit.”

The Saints, now nearly 1,800 strong, were among the groups that got their start at 2851 N. Halsted, former home of Saint Nicholas Players, Steppenwolf, Organic Touchstone, and soon, ComedySportz. That was in 1980, former president Penny Schaefer says: “An ad in the Reader asking for volunteers to help at Saint Nicholas drew more than 50 people.” After that company folded in ’82 the Saints moved to the Organic, and in ’84 they broadened their mission to serve theaters across the city. Schaefer will be part of a panel at a closing event for the Halsted space, which is about to be demolished. The event will also include excerpts from notable past productions and a guided tour. ComedySportz will be out by the end of the month and will take up temporary residence at Fizz Bar & Grill, 3220 N. Lincoln, for at least two months.

Like to Do It in Public?

Harry Gantz, director and producer of Taxicab Confessions, is searching for a few dozen couples willing to take reality TV to another level. Sexual Healing, a series starring local therapist Laura Berman, is halfway through shooting eight installments and still looking for subjects willing to share their idiosyncrasies with a few million viewers. Each of the hour-long programs follows three couples through a six-day workshop. “We’re recruiting heavily in Chicago,” says Gantz, who’s serving as executive producer. “There’s no particular demographic–straight, gay, whatever–but they have to be in a committed relationship. And we want couples who genuinely have problems.” Dominance issues, body-parts aversion, and an open mind about infrared cameras, for example, could qualify you and your sweetie for a week of food, lodging, and counseling–not to mention a pair of remote-control vibrating panties. Call 800-854-0018 for an interview.

Back of the Throat

WHEN: Previews through 4/7, opens Sat 4/8, runs through 5/28. See theater listings for details.

WHERE: Silk Road Theatre Project, 77 W. Washington

PRICE: $15-$25

INFO: 312-857-1234 or

MORE: Silk Road will host a free open house on Tue 4/11, 5:30-8:30 PM.

A Farewell to 2851

WHEN: Sun 4/9, 1-4 PM

WHERE: ComedySportz, 2851 N. Halsted

PRICE: $25

INFO: 773-549-8080 or

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Flynn.