Rula Sirhan Gardenier is a triple threat. She’s a striking, high energy, driven woman who has overcome the challenges of her immigrant background, including a harrowing escape from an arranged marriage. Now, after years of working both in the corporate sector and on a variety of Chicago area stages, this River Forest mother’s latest role is managing director of Circle Theatre.
“Rula has a drive and passion that seems unstoppable,” Circle Theater’s Producing Director Bob Knuth said. “She is a real go-getter with such an amazing amount of positive spirit, which is contagious. Having her on board at Circle has already led to a new and renewed sense of energy. It is the kind of spirit that will help Circle keep on going for another 23 years.”
But Gardenier is taking on her new gig at what could be a very precarious period for the theatre company. She is the first of the Circle board members to reveal that the building that houses Circle Theatre has been sold. Public records maintained by the county show the mortgage for the property was purchased through an area bank for more than $1.2 million. It is unclear, Gardenier said, what exactly this means for the company.
“I think Circle could be a Steppenwolf just waiting to happen,” Gardenier said. “The product … is certainly a viable commodity. What will happen to us remains to be seen. Could we move to Oak Park? What does our future hold? This is a very exciting point for us, despite the insecurity of the building being sold.”
Circle Theatre has been a fixture in the local arts community since the early 1980s. From the beginning this innovative company enjoyed a reputation for being an intrepid, cutting-edge storefront troupe that thrived on taking chances.
They’ve mounted a string of exciting new works, launching playwrights on to national careers, and winning rave reviews and heaps of awards in the process. They became known for doing dicey, edgy work. Circle was the first company this side of Halsted Street to feature nudity. They also created a niche for themselves showcasing dazzling productions of Broadway musical “flops.”
Though some shows are more popular than others, their critically acclaimed mounting of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” which is currently playing, is so successful that audiences are complaining about a shortage of tickets.
Despite the insecurity and the blurry future the sale of building is causing, Gardenier said the outcome will be positive, even exciting.
She is hopeful that people will rally around the company and lend whatever support may be needed.
“I know how to access the business world and to earn money,” she said. “I quit a corporate job, giving up a huge salary after 18 years to become a full-time actor and now managing director. One of my goals is to upgrade audiences and to keep building our numbers at Circle.”
Last seen on Circle’s stage in the Spanish classic “The House of Bernarda Alba,” Gardenier has enjoyed an extensive background in acting. Her credits include working with Donna Blue Lachman on the two-woman show “For You Were A Stranger,” which the pair performed together in Chicago. This drama focused on the relations between Jews and Arabs. Gardenier was born in the Middle East.
“I was just a teenager when I fled to escape an arranged marriage,” she said. “We had moved to England from Palestine when I was 13 and when I was 17 or 18 I discovered my family had scheduled me to marry a 34-year-old step-cousin. So, of course, I rebelled. With the help of a male friend I escaped with little money to the United States. I was out of touch with my parents for a very long time. You see, Arab children are much like Asian children. Ideally they are supposed to be very compliant and obedient. I was naïve and terrified when I fled to New York City. But I knew I didn’t want to marry this man.”
The role of a demure and otherwise traditional Middle Eastern woman was not one that Gardenier would willingly play. To speak one’s mind, to hold strong opinions, to take charge of one’s own destiny, for a woman, she said, drew criticism from those in her ethnic community.
“While my mother was trying to imprison me, she really freed me,” Gardenier said. “By enforcing my future, she caused me to flee and to make my own way. It was scary and I was unclear what might happen to me, but I was determined I would not stay and marry that man.”
Eventually, after adjusting and arriving in the Midwest, Gardenier left a secure corporate Chicago position to pursue acting. Almost from the beginning she was playing a variety of nationalities.
“Because of my looks I play many different ethnic roles, from Greeks and French characters to Isabella Rosselini types,” she said.
Most recently Gardenier appeared in the independent film, “The Miracle.”
Though she plans to pursue acting at a later date, for now, she is deep in her job as managing director of Circle Theatre.
“Rula’s amazing energy and business acumen have reinvigorated the spirit of Circle Theatre,” Artistic Director Kevin Bellie said. “She has had the power to make stagnant programs re-ignite. This is a special trait that so few possess. Rula, on the other hand, overflows with this quality.”