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Philly People Behind the Curtain: Wilma Theater’s Blanka Zizka


Photo Courtesy of Wilma TheaterIn 1979, Czechoslovakian natives Blanka and Jiri Zizka, joined the Wilma Theater as artists-in-residence, and gained acclaim for their bold, innovative productions. With a dynamic, physical production style and original music accompaniment, the Zizka's original adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm focused a new spotlight of attention on the Wilma. 

Blanka shares part of her story with us. “Because of growing up in a country where censorship is so prevalent in television, radio, books and papers, theater was the only place where you could relate to an audience with some sense of truth, reading between the line or some sort of subtext. Theater was often an act of courage. To me it was an expression of understanding of moral issues and actions as much as a form of entertainment." 

The Zizkas assumed artistic leadership of the organization in 1981, and moved the Wilma to a 100-seat theater on Sansom Street. Within five years, the Wilma's audience had grown dramatically and the Theater was operating at nearly 100% capacity. A decision was made to expand the theater to a new 296-seat home; and in 1989, a location was identified at the corner of Broad and Spruce Streets. In 1996, the Wilma opened its new facility on Philadelphia's Avenue of the Arts

During the Zizkas' tenure, The Wilma Theater has established a national reputation for provocative work ranging from the international drama of Bertolt Brecht, Athol Fugard, Eugene Ionesco, Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard to new American plays by Tina Howe, Romulus Linney, Quincy Long, Doug Wright, Amy Freed and many others. CBS News called the Wilma "one playhouse that has emerged from the shadow of the Great White Way to make history on its own." 

Photo Courtesy of Wilma TheaterBlanka recalls some reactions and responses from theater patrons towards some of the more daring, thought provoking projects mounted by the Wilma.

“I am reminded of the strong reactions to our production of The Pillowman, a story telling setting in an eastern European country.” The Pillowman was written by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. An especially dark black comedy, it tells the tale of Katurian, a fiction writer living in a police state who is interrogated about the gruesome content of his short stories, and their similarities to a number of bizarre child murders occurring in his town. Blanka continues,” some of the audience took that as the play actually supporting the act of cruelty to children, which was a terrible misunderstanding. It was also terrible timing as we were in the middle of previews when the horrible murders of the Amish children had just taken place. So this was very difficult for us and we also had gotten many letters from people, some who swore they would never step foot into the Wilma again.” 

“On a more pleasant note, I am reminded of the amazingly positive reactions to our 1986 production of Fugard’s Statement after the Arrest under the Immorality Act, which was based on a story about a South African black school teacher and a white librarian who had a love affair at a time when there was a law forbidding this. The staging happens in the nude for about 70 percent of the play. My board of directors were very worried about this as this was one of my early ventures and they feared it would be the end of the Wilma.” The play was such a huge success that it was repeated again during the summer. 

The artistic mission of the Wilma is dedicated to presenting theater as an art form. “The plays chosen for production engage our audiences in an aesthetic and philosophical [fashion]. In the effort to react imaginatively to current events, our productions often acquire subtle connections to current political and social issues," according to the Zizkas’. 

“Our commitment to original plays is reflected in discovering new writers. However, the process doesn't stop with a one-time production. We believe in developing long-term relationships between our theater and new authors, living both abroad and in the U.S., which leads to our commissioning of new plays, translations, and adaptations.” 

Blanka and Jiri certainly have they eyes focused on some wonderful future productions including world premieres and they are interested in pursuing some Shakespearean pieces which would be another new venture that the Wilma has yet to explore. 

For more information about the Wilma, visit http://wilmatheater.org/  

Photos Courtesy Wilma Theater