The cofounder and guiding artistic spirit of the Wilma Theater is stepping down. Blanka Zizka will end her four-decade run at the helm of the company July 31, when she will become artistic director emeritus.
For many, Zizka and the Wilma have been synonymous since she and then-husband Jiri Zizka took the reins of a small, experimental 1970s troupe and turned it into one of the city’s artistic powerhouses. She previously thought that she might retire at the conclusion of a novel three-year shared leadership model announced in 2020.
Like others, though, Zizka, 66, experienced the pandemic as a time to take stock, and decided that now is the time.
“What happened was during COVID, I spent eight months with my son in Bellport [Long Island], and I was on a bike for two to three hours a day in the wetlands by myself and listening just to birds and insects,” she said. “And I just realized how much I have missed in my life, this part of existence.”
The city’s cultural leaders this week were just beginning to gauge Zizka’s contribution and ponder what her departure might mean.
“Blanka transformed what it meant to be a regional theater in Philadelphia,” said Terrence J. Nolen, who was still a Northwestern University senior in the mid-1980s when he came home to Philadelphia and saw a Wilma adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox. “It was on the El home after that I thought, ‘I think we can start a theater company in Philadelphia.’”
A few years later, he cofounded the Arden Theatre Co., where he is now artistic producing director.
Zizka has worked in a variety of material, Nolen said, from Shakespeare to musical theater to new work, but always on her own terms. “The finances of making theater are brutal, especially at the scale she worked at, and throughout she’s had a fierce commitment to making art,” he said.
LaNeshe Miller-White, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia, pointed to diversity of actors and shows, high production values, the development of an artistic incubator, and the Wilma’s new shared artistic director structure — with one taking the lead each year — as some of Zizka’s legacy accomplishments.
“I think she set up something really cool and innovative with the co-artistic director model,” said Miller-White, referring to the trio of leaders: Philadelphia playwright/director James Ijames, Russian-born director Yury Urnov, and Morgan Green of the New Saloon theater in Brooklyn. “I feel like we don’t have founders step down often. So is this a signal for how to move forward with our older institutions?”
This fall, the lead will be Ijames, whose job suddenly looms a bit larger with the news of Zizka’s July exit. He said he will feel her absence.
“But I am also really aware of the fact that I can call Blanka and ask, ‘What do you think about this?’ and ‘What did you do when this happened?’ and she will be there to offer wisdom. If there is anyone who can answer questions about the ins and outs of running a theater, it’s Blanka Zizka,” Ijames said. “I am sad about this, but I can also understand wanting to move into a different phase, and in many ways I feel that’s what I am about to do right now. So I am trying to take a lesson from her about the life of any artist, and when do you choose yourself?”
The Czech-born Zizka arrived in Philadelphia at age 23 when her husband landed a job working for Philadelphia filmmaker and animator Paul Fierlinger.
“We had no money, we had just a suitcase and a little baby,” she said.
They began an association with the itinerant Wilma Project, directing a production of Animal Farm in Old City in 1979. Tickets were $4.50. Two years later, they had taken over the company, inaugurating a new 100-seat theater space at 2030 Sansom Street with The Woolgatherer, a two-person play by Trenton-born playwright William Mastrosimone.
“In four years, Jiri and Blanka Zizka, a young husband and wife team of directors, have turned the tiny Wilma Theater into a dauntless Philadelphia equivalent of Off Broadway,” wrote a New York Times critic in 1986 in a review of a Pavel Kohout adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.
The Wilma was also Off Broad Street in those days, but in 1996 the theater company made the jump from the small space on Sansom to its prominent site catty-corner to the Kimmel Center. (Jiri Zizka died in 2012.)
Many wondered whether the company’s plucky, risk-taking personality would survive the move. It did. But Zizka, who directs shows as well as overseeing artists and repertoire, says “from time to time I felt the building was a prison for me. Buildings create a world, and this building, this space has a grandiosity about it. The stage is huge, and not every play can stand up against it, so it influenced a little bit the kinds of plays we could do here or that could be successful here.”
The stakes are higher in a bigger space, she says.
“So the question is, can you actually take risks the way you do in a small theater when you are risking people’s jobs when you do something too crazy or too experimental?”
Zizka talks about the pressure and “loneliness” of leading a theater company.
“I think it has been difficult all the time. Really one of the things that is so difficult in regional theater in the U.S. is that you have to fight constantly that art and theater are not merely entertainment. It’s not consumerism, it’s not about coming and consuming art. It’s actually about an encounter, an experience. It’s not something that is an overall idea that is out there in the zeitgeist of America, unfortunately. And so I felt I was always on this little raft in the sea of commercialism trying to find my way through it and the waves are a little bit too high. And it’s exhausting, basically.”
The hard work brought artistic riches to the city. Among the production highlights of her tenure, she cites Jim Cartwright’s Road (1995), Quills by Doug Wright (1997), Tom Stoppard’s Invention of Love (2000), Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith (2002), and Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad (2009). Zizka directed them all.
She’s been especially glad to have extra help in the past 16 months. In February 2020, a scant four weeks before the pandemic shutdown, the Wilma announced its new leadership structure, in which Zizka would work alongside three new co-artistic directors.
Ijames says artists and repertoire for the 2021-22 season are set, though not yet announced. Like other groups, the Wilma has been presenting online during the pandemic. Leaders expect to bring back live audiences in the fall.
The shared model runs through summer 2023, but plans beyond that are currently undecided. Will the split model continue? Will a new artistic director, or two co-artistic directors, emerge from the current three?
“We had a three-year experiment and one year we spent in crisis operating in a very different way,” says Wilma managing director Leigh Goldenberg. “So we’re still asking the questions.”
“It comes as a bit of a surprise to me that she’s stepping away as opposed to what we were thinking of as a more gradual transition,” said Charles McMahon, artistic director of the Lantern Theater Company, who has followed the Wilma from its earliest days. “A transition of leadership is difficult for arts organizations because they tend to acquire the personality of the person leading them, and Blanka is a big personality. She has a distinct style and it has defined the Wilma.”
As artistic director emeritus, Zizka expects to be deeply involved with the Wilma HotHouse Company, the artistic incubator she started a decade ago with actors to develop new methodologies on how to fully embody the text, and expects to have some influence on what kind of artistic leadership the company will have next.
Some of that work she can do long distance. Zizka plans to split her time between her Philadelphia home and the 112-acre Catskills farm she bought in January.
The land there is on a similar latitude to that of the Czech Republic, she says, and some of the plants are the same. “My sister tells me on my farm I have the whole of Bohemia — I have the mountains, I have the ponds, I have the meadows.”
Zizka says she has been thinking about this change since last August, while reconnecting with nature and revisiting readings in existentialism and Buddhism.
“And I started to feel very strongly about how difficult the last few years have been for me at the Wilma in terms of finding a space for myself. Life is also not just understanding others but understanding of self. And I had spent very little time with myself and I needed to do that before I kicked the bucket.”