The sign outside on Broad Street says “the Wilma Theater,” but effectively it’s the house that Blanka Zizka built, along with her late husband, Jiri.
Now, after nearly four decades at the helm, Zizka is bringing in new voices, in a shared model of artistic leadership for the internationally renowned Wilma.
The Wilma announced Tuesday afternoon that Zizka has recruited three new co-artistic directors — noteworthy local playwright/director James Ijames, Russian-born director Yury Urnov (who’s had a long association with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington), and Morgan Green of the New Saloon theater in Brooklyn — to share the AD responsibilities with her starting this summer and running for the next three years.
Each of the newcomers will take one year as lead artistic director, working in collaboration with the others.
The next few months — through the last performance of Is God Is on June 14 — seem likely to be Zizka’s last as sole artistic director, she says. “For the next three years my position will only be in support of these lead ADs," Zizka said. "I will not be the artistic director ever again, I don’t think.”
When the current season concludes in the summer, Urnov will take over as lead — choosing, developing, and shepherding through production the works that are presented at the Wilma for the season to commence in September. Ijames, Green, and Zizka will work in support.
Ijames will then assume leadership in year two, Green in year three.
Probably, that is.
“I’m looking at this as a total experiment, said Zizka, who doesn’t want to have set ideas about “what this could turn into.”
If a new AD needs another year, she said, he or she may get it. The three-year time frame could change. New people could be recruited to join the team. The experiment could continue, it could end after three years, it could go on in a different form.
She’s determined not to decide precisely what the new arrangement will be before it has a chance to evolve into what it should be. The only thing she knows for sure is that company will be immediately open to new creative voices, and that whatever new model ultimately arises, she won’t be running it alone.
‘New voices enrich the conversation’
“I think we are living in a country that has different histories, many different people. We need to have more than one point of view in the leadership," she said. “New voices actually enrich the conversation.”
"Rather than to be afraid of it, you lean into it, and out of that comes interesting work,” said Zizka, who said the “new” model is actually closer to the open, collaborative model she and Jiri inherited when they first arrived in Philadelphia.
The two arrived from Czechoslovakia in 1978 and a year later became artists in residence at the fledgling Wilma Project, then an avant-garde feminist theater.
In the years that followed, they rose to become codirectors of the Wilma, establishing what has been called an “Eastern European” sensibility at the theater — famously collaborating with fellow Czech expat Tom Stoppard for works like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and forging a friendship with playwright Václav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic.
The company moved to its current home on the Avenue of the Arts in 1996. Jiri died in 2012.
New ideas and styles
Zizka said that Eastern European sensibility — which she described as being less reverential of a playwright’s text than American productions — will now be “in conversation” with the ideals and styles brought in by the new ADs.
In terms of style, Zizka may have most in common with Urnov, who immigrated to the United States from Russia, and who may bring to the Wilma some of what was lost when Jiri passed. “He’s similar to Jiri in that he has a sense of absurdism and intellectual comedy that he will bring to the cohort," Zizka said.
Zizka knows Urnov and Ijames well — they’ve both been connected with the Wilma HotHouse Company, an actors’ workshop and collective launched by Zizka in 2014.
Urnov, who directed Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play at the Wilma in 2018, says he was impressed with the way Zizka runs the HotHouse, and sees its principles working for the new trio of artistic directors. “It’s about how you can work to build an ensemble, and how you actually develop as individuals faster when you work together as talented equals,” he said.
“If that’s what’s happening on the acting level, I see no reason whey it can’t work with the artistic directors.”
‘Generosity and a positive spirit’
Zizka directed Ijames’ Kill Move Paradise at the Wilma in 2018, and he will be directing Is God Is at the Wilma this June. He is currently directing My General Tubman at the Arden Theatre (through March 15).
Zizka said "he brings with him the experience of the black South and his cultural perspective. He also brings a love of theater that is infectious; he brings generosity and a positive spirit.”
Ijames said he’s thrilled with the new opportunity, and excited by the flexible nature of the collaborative venture, which he said reminds him of the Wilma when he first got to know it a decade ago.
“The Wilma when I came to Philly was run by Blanka and Jiri, and there was definitely a sense of two different sets of eyes and two different points of view, two different senses of humor working together to create the work. So in that sense, this cohort feels like the same thing, different aesthetics and different backgrounds coming together."
‘Rigor and experimentation’
Zizka, who is 65, said she also wanted to add youth to the mix.
“I wanted to bring in a young woman because I’m the old lady in the house,” Zizka said. "I was interested in bringing in somebody who would represent a younger generation, and that is Morgan. “
Green, now 30, cofounded New Saloon theater in New York when she was in her early 20s. “I thought it was really wonderful to see that she, at the age of 22, started a company that was able to bring both rigor and experimentation and real focus to the work," Zizka said. "And you could see how she also developed fund-raising and organizational skills that are part of the mix.”
Hmm. Did the young Green remind Zizka of anyone? “She does not remind me of me, no! I think she is much more poised than I was at her age,” Zizka said.
Green said she’s enthusiastic about the new venture, and about the opportunity to contribute her own ideas to a “structure” she’ll be involved in building.
“There is a lot of openended-ness intentionally built in," Green said. “When I was talking to Blanka about it leading up to the whole interview process, a lot of my questions she didn’t have answers to, and that was intentional. She wanted the cohort to come together and shape things as we start to do the work.”
Zizka is taking a pay cut (half salary) to help fund the new working arrangement. Each lead AD will be paid a full salary for their work as lead director, and those in support will make proportionally less.
The Wilma is also bringing in Leigh Goldenberg from Theatre Philadelphia as managing director to oversee operations, marketing, fund-raising, and finances.
Zizka herself is looking forward to expanding the work she’s been doing with students at University of the Arts and at public high schools in the city. She also plans to write, and will continue to oversee the artistic practice at HotHouse.
It’s that hands-on theater work — separate and apart from the duties of administration, fund-raising, and marketing — that Zizka has found increasingly rewarding, she said, already grateful for the “freedom” that comes from separating herself from the grueling responsibilities of administration.
“For me, it’s been returning to the feeling of starting a company," she said. "And it’s been wonderful.”