Founded by Jamil Khoury and Malik Gillani as a response to 9/11, the Silk Road Theatre Project quickly established itself as one of Chicago’s most exciting new theater companies. While the initial idea focused on intercultural exchanges with the Middle East, the company soon embraced the entire region along the historical Silk Road.The pre-modern trade route that stretched from Japan to Italy served both as a geographic guide for the new theater company and as a metaphor for intercultural dialogue. Having won multiple awards, including the American Theatre Wing’s National Theatre Company Grant (2010), the Broadway in Chicago Emerging Theater Award (2008), and the City of Chicago’s Human Relations Award (2008), the Silk Road Theatre Project reinvented itself under the name Silk Road Rising in 2011. In addition to presenting perspectives of Silk Road cultures in live theater performances, the new organization’s mission includes the production of “video dramas” that are exclusively available online. CAR Theater Researcher John Carnwath recently spoke with Jamil Khoury, Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising, about the reasons for the change, their new mission, and the challenges of rebranding a successful theater company.
What led you to expand your mission as a theater company to include online video content?
Since founding the company as a response to 9/11 and the climate of suspicion and fear that surrounded that period, there’s always been a very strong activist, civic engagement component to our work. It’s been a very comfortable coexistence between artistic content, storytelling, and an activist/social change agenda.
We had started noticing early on that people were contacting us from outside of Chicago and oftentimes outside of the United States who had somehow stumbled upon our website and were intrigued by our mission. They were intrigued by the type of work we were producing and the subject matter that we were grappling with. We never knew what we could do for these individuals, many of whom—interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly—were Muslim women living in Europe. Our messaging, as it appeared on our website, was resonating with them.
So we started thinking that there had to be away of connecting with this potentially global audience. Geographic location could not forever be a restraint on our ability to effect change. Also, we’ve always been very keenly aware of the fact that being a US-based company that primarily focuses on Diasporic voices from Silk Road countries, we could have conversations and say things and probe issues that one may not be able to discuss in countries along the Silk Road. By in large, the countries of the Silk Road—with a few exceptions—really are a who’s who of dictatorial, anti-democratic regimes. Again, there are a few exceptions. So we can say things that would be prohibitively dangerous or illegal, or restricted by government censorship or societal censorship in many countries. And of course the Internet provides this wonderful egalitarian, democratic, accessible vehicle for reaching and disseminating information. Now, because we’re so small, we’re not on anyone’s radar screens in terms of shutting us down. So that will be the indicator of when we’ve had success, when X regime starts blocking us. (Laughs)
Given that the “Silk Road Theatre Project” was already a well-established theater company, why did you decide to change your name?
We did a number of focus groups—in classrooms, with supporters, and with patrons of the theater—in which we presented the idea of creating another facet of the company, a facet that would live online and that would be largely video driven and also have an interactive component. It would live in the world of theater and storytelling and also in the world of civic engagement.
We love live performance, obviously, and we are very committed to producing live theater and to working with playwrights. We’re really a home for playwrights. Now I don’t think theater has to be strictly live performance, and I want to clarify something here: we’re not looking to be a film production company, which is why we use the term “video play.” It’s a hybrid. And as more video plays are released, I hope people will get this. We’re taking a theatrical language and a theatrical aesthetic, shooting these pieces in our theater, in what is clearly not a realistic space, and we are marrying that to a cinematic vantage point. We’re working with both theater professionals and film professionals. We’re looking for something that is very clearly the world of the theater, but we are using close ups and filming scenes from cinematic angles. So hopefully, we’re bridging the best of both worlds and giving you an experience that feels and reads like a hybrid of theater and film. So they’re not filmed plays, which can sometimes be excruciatingly painful to watch. We’re interested in short content for the online videos. We’re not looking to take our mainstage productions, which are full-length plays, and turn them into video plays, but rather to do original short-form content that becomes more palatable for online viewing.
But in the focus groups people said that the word “theater” had a very specific meaning for them. It was very difficult for people to disentangle that word from live performance, and the live theter associations of the name Silk Road Theatre Project did not open up space for an online performative artistic video content.
We gravitated towards “Rising” because it is aspirational, and it is inspirational, and metaphorical. So “Rising” as part of our name essentially tells you nothing, but can also tell you a lot. It doesn’t necessarily tell you that we do theater and that we do videos. Given the local history of the Silk Road Theatre Project and the fact that most people simply refer to us as Silk Road, not having the word “theater” in our name should not be a problem. But time will tell.
Has this been a process of growth for the organization or has it been more of a shift? Have you scaled back in some areas to focus on others?
It’s probably been a shift at this point. For example, we did not do a fall production of a live play, and that was a very strategic choice. It was also a risk because it took us out of the traditional theater cycle, and it gave a lot of credence to this rumor that we had stopped doing theater, which has been quoted back to me so many times: “But you said you weren’t doing theater anymore!” Well actually, no, we never said that. But as a small organization, we knew we had to devote our time and energy and resources to launch this online work.
How did your funders respond to the proposal to add video and online content to your mission?
The funding community, which is very supportive—we have some really great funders, who are very invested in our work—has taken a sort of wait-and-see approach. Not everyone is thrilled that we’re doing video work. There tends to be a generational divide. But many are intrigued, and some are really excited and see it as highly innovative. You have this thing in the funding community, a sort of fear that video is going to replace live theater. I mean, people have been writing obituaries for live theater for decades now. But there’s still this fear, and there’s also this whole generational thing about who’s online and who’s not and who would access art online. There are some theater purists who really look with great suspicion at anything that smacks of film, but by and large we’ve gotten a lot of benefit of the doubt, which is testimony to the respect they have for us as an organization. And people want to see if it works and we’re sort of setting ourselves up as guinea pigs in that respect.
Chicago is becoming more and more of a dynamic indie film city, and I think you’re going to see a development similar to the way it became an important theater town. There’s a great deal of film activity now, certainly on the indie level, but even with the big players discovering Chicago. I think it’s an exciting time to be doing these two genres in tandem and really looking at how they can support, and compliment, and reinforce each other, how establishing an online audience could affect your live audience and vice versa. It’s all very early, so we don’t have the answers, but I have a feeling that you’re going to be seeing a lot more of this type of work at other theater companies. We get a lot of inquiries and I’m hearing a lot of ideas in that direction.
What did your landlords at the Chicago Temple say about your repurposing of the performance space?
Well, we have these amazing hosts, the First United Methodist Church and once they understood the changes we’re making they completely supported our new direction. I mean, they don’t want us to stop doing live theater—but that’s not what we’re doing. I know that there were some people who were disappointed that we didn’t do a fall show and some people who wondered if we’d gone away, but we’ll be back in the regular producing rhythm as of this spring, and I think most people see it as exciting.
Jamil Khoury is a playwright and the Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising. His play Precious Stones won Gay Chicago Magazine's 2003 After Dark Award for Outstanding New Work and has been performed in ten cities across the U.S. His play Fitna was performed at University Theatre of The University of Chicago, and his play Azizati was performed at Café Voltaire. Khoury holds an M.A. degree in Religious Studies from The University of Chicago Divinity School and a B.S. degree in International Relations from Georgetown University 's School of Foreign Service. He is a Kellogg Executive Scholar (Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University) and has been awarded a Certificate of Professional Achievement in Nonprofit Management. Khoury is the 2010 recipient of the 3Arts Artist Award for Playwriting.