Personal: Age, 54. Son of the late Reinhold Schuller and Wal Schuller, of Bourbonnais. Reinh…
Klaus Schuller is in the unique position of both building a theater and assembling a show to go inside it.
Schuller, who grew up in Kankakee County and graduated from Bishop McNamara High School in 1983, is now the executive director of Teatro ZinZanni, a circus dinner theater described as “the Moulin Rouge meets Circque du Soleil.” The Chicago show is billed at “Love, Chaos and Dinner.”
The show is playing Wednesdays through Sundays in a theater inside the Hotel Cambria in downtown Chicago, 32 W. Randolph St.
Think recently spoke with Schuller. The questions were asked by Phil Angelo, and answered by Schuller. Both are edited for length and continuity.
How did you get your start in theater?
As I was growing up, I participated in plays at Bishop McNamara, both at Madcaps and Shakespeare. We had a teacher who loved to do Shakespeare. I performed with the Kankakee Valley Theatre in many shows, including “Guys and Dolls” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” I built lifetime friendships through KVT.
It must be nice to be back close to home.
I certainly try to get home every time I can. A lot of Kankakee County people have been up to see the show.
You had a long stint with Second City, which is Chicago-based. How did that start?
I was told that they were looking for a part-time stage manager. I was hired and gradually worked my way up, to full time and then to being a producer. In 2005 I was asked to move to Toronto and take over management of Second City in Canada. I developed an odd expertise. That job involved supervising the construction of a new theater. I then became a consultant for other Second City construction projects, including new theaters in Cleveland and Las Vegas and a rebuild of the Chicago theater after a fire.
I’ve had the good fortune to work with many of the TV alumni of Second City. I’ve produced TV shows for Martin Short and Eugene Levy and for other Second City veterans who are not as well known, but just as talented.
My work building a theater was one of the things that led to Teatro ZinZanni a year ago. They had a project that called for assembling a staff and supervising construction.
So, how did a theater wind up inside a hotel?
It was there all along. When the hotel was built, the space was a Masonic Lecture Hall. That was covered up years ago and turned into offices for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. They moved out. Two years ago, they were renovating and found out, “Oh, my God; there’s a four-story-tall theater on the 14th floor.”
Connecting the dots, this was an extraordinary opportunity to construct a theater and a show from scratch.
We kept as many of the features of the original lecture hall as we could. You can still see the “bones” of the building and see it in its history and context.
How did the theatrical recreation go?
It is a spectacle. As a patron you become overwhelmed by the space. You get onto a bland hotel elevator. When you arrive it’s like seeing the valley of Shangri-La from “Lost Horizon.” Your mouth drops and you’re waiting for something to happen.
Now Teatro ZinZanni is not unique to Chicago. There are other versions.
Seattle has had a show for a couple of decades. San Francisco is building a new location now.
How would you describe Teatro ZinZanni?
The show is a mixture of comedy, live music and opera. It’s really a 100-year-old Belgian art form, a Spiegeltent that is a deep purple plush velvet with stained glass and decorated mirrors.
It has some elements of a play and some elements of a variety show. It’s a full night out. The picture I have is of my parents on their honeymoon. You turn the camera around to see what they are seeing, and it’s an elegant night out.
These shows are the ones you would see in Europe, in Berlin and in Brussels.
The show runs through September?
It is meant to be continuous. We hope to be here for 20 years. The actual show would change twice per year.
How many performers in the show?
Nine, and they come from all over the world, from Paris to the Crimea to Canada. That does not include the waiters and waitresses, who are part of the show, too.
How has the show done so far?
Sales have been good and the reviews have been excellent. We are attracting a lot of attention. We hold 300 seats for a four-course dinner. Three of the courses stay the same, and you have your choice of five entrees.
What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
I love to hide away in a corner and watch the audience response. It’s magical. It makes me feel connected and emotionally real. There’s nothing like it.