Change seems to be on everyone’s mind, especially organizations coming out of a pandemic. For one cultural institution that calls the Avenue of the Arts home, one change is coming in the form of leadership: The Wilma Theater recently announced that the theaters co-founder and co-artistic director Blanka Zizka will become Artistic Director Emeritus starting with the 2021-22 Season.
This announcement was met with an outpouring of support for Zizka.
“Blanka is a rare case when aesthetical and ethical walk hand-in-hand. A big talent too often comes in a package with a horrible person. She is the opposite – she is an amazing artist because she’s a highly-ethical human being and vice versa,” says Yury Urnov, Co-Artistic Director. “Blanka thinks and works long-distance in the world full of day-flies. This makes her art, her company, and her theater grow and develop year-by-year. Blanka thinks people first, because she knows theater art is people and grows from people Artistically, she is a grower not a builder – she prepares soil, plants seeds, and waters plants till they are in. That’s why they taste so good.”
The co-artistic directors worked with Zizka firsthand after this regionally unprecedented move was announced in early 2020. The co-founder was joined by Philadelphia-based performer and playwright James Ijames, co-founder of New Saloon (a Brooklyn-based experimental theater company) Morgan Green, and an award-winning director with over 40 productions under his belt, Urnov. Each of these Co-Artistic Directors—personally selected by Zizka—were selected because they have an understanding of the Wilma’s past artistic practices and values and brought their insight, skills and artistic talents to the popular theater, and will continue to do after Zizka is gone for the next few years. This joint effort was unique to the Wilma and makes them one of the only regional theaters of this size in the country to do something along these lines.
“Blanka’s work has had a major influence on who I am as a theater artist. She is a remarkable figure in theater and her impact will be felt for generations. On a very personal note, Blanka has invested in me and my work and that has quite literally changed my life,” said Ijames.
Zizka has been in the biz for quite some time. According to a release, after emigrating from Czechoslovakia, Zizka and her late husband, Jiri Zizka, directed a production of ‘Animal Farm’ for the Wilma Project in 1979. In 1981, they assumed leadership of the organization and renamed it The Wilma Theater. Among her achievements, in 2016, The Vilcek Foundation announced Zizka as recipient of the Vilcek Prize, which is awarded annually to immigrants who have made lasting contributions to American society. In 2011, she was awarded the Zelda Fichandler Award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation. She is also a six-time winner and 16-time nominee for Outstanding Direction at the Barrymore Awards, Philadelphia’s version of the Tony Awards.
On top of all of her achievements, Zizka also has collaborated with many playwrights including Paula Vogel, Richard Bean, Yussef El Guindi, Doug Wright, Sarah Ruhl, Tom Stoppard, Linda Griffiths, Polly Pen, Dael Orlandersmith, Laurence Klavan, Lillian Groag, Jason Sherman, Amy Freed, Robert Sherwood, and Chay Yew.
Her legacy as a molder of the minds continues on with her resident cohorts at the Wilma.
“Blanka is one of those people who inspires. She just does. Her work comes from deep within her. There is no bullshit. Her power as an intuitive, playful, and wise artist is profound,” said Green. “I can’t wait to see what she is going to create in this new chapter of her life.”
To learn more about The Wilma Theater, visit wilmatheater.org