April Loop Employee of the Month: Malik Gillani

As the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Silk Road Rising, America’s first theatre and media arts organization dedicated to telling stories of Asian and Middle Eastern communities, Gillani has helped bring hundreds of stories to life in the Loop’s Chicago Temple Building.

Chicago Loop Alliance

Malik Gillani understands the power of stories. As the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Silk Road Rising, America’s first theatre and media arts organization dedicated to telling stories of Asian and Middle Eastern communities, Gillani has helped bring hundreds of stories to life in the Loop’s Chicago Temple Building.

His focus has always been a story’s ability to enable audiences of all backgrounds to find themselves and build understanding. Gillani and his husband and co-founder, Jamil Khoury, originally formed Silk Road Rising as an intentional and creative response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

 “After 9/11, we felt the need to own our own narrative instead of having our story be told by media, or by people who were imposing a narrative on us,” Gillani said. “We thought the best way to do that would be to work with a family of artists, story-tellers, and playwrights.”

 By making the legacy of the Silk Road central to the company’s narrative, the stories presented have focused on a variety of different communities and issues.

 “We didn’t want to be limited to our own experience,” Gillani said. “I’m Pakistani. Jamil’s father is from Syria. We could have potentially only done Muslim and Arab work, but that felt limiting—especially as a creative response to 9/11, which highlighted the lack of understanding all around. We thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we were inspired by the Silk Road, which is a 1700-year legacy of cultural exchange, and bring it to the 21st century?”

 These stories have unfolded steps away from the commercial theatre district in the basement of the Chicago Temple Building – the oldest church in Chicago – for over fifteen years. The space was donated to the company in 2003 but was never meant to be a theatre.

 “I was simply trying to sell tickets,” Gillani said. “I got in touch with the Senior Pastor, and he put his finger on a bigger idea, which was that we are new Americans, telling new American stories. And this Methodist Church has been at this corner even before the founding of the City of Chicago, so they are old Americans. He thought, wouldn’t it be great if we learn from each other’s stories?”

A year after the company moved into the lower-level space, they ended up remodeling to accommodate a professional equity theater. Gillani said he can’t think of a better place for the theatre to call home. He too, is a resident of the Loop.

 “We say that all roads lead to Rome, and all roads lead to the Loop,” Gillani said. “We love the fact that no matter where our patrons are, they can get to us by every imaginable transportation line and by car. Our love for being here, and not wanting to go somewhere else, is that the Loop is the central gathering place for all of Chicago.”

 As the company’s Executive Director, Gillani spends a majority of his time at the company’s office on Michigan Avenue. He oversees an administrative staff that “enables art-making.” However, his favorite part of the work is hearing patrons’ stories.  

“My favorite part of this job is meeting people,” Gillani said. “Whether I’m meeting them at the theatre or our offices. It’s those conversations you have with patrons. They start revealing little bits of themselves. Most people get here 10 to 20 minutes before the show, so it’s not a lot of time to gab. But because it is a short amount of time, they really truncate their narratives to essential pieces of why they are here and what brought them to Silk Road, and I really love hearing people’s stories.”

Michael Mead