History

The Wilma's history since 1973 including videos honoring Founding co-Artistic Director, Jiri Zizka.

VIDEOS:

REMEMBERING JIRI ZIZKA: 1953-2012
PHOTO-MONTAGE OF JIRI ZIZKA'S WORK

Established in 1973 as The Wilma Project, the Wilma challenged the Philadelphia cultural community to create theatrical productions of original material and to develop local artists. From 1973 through 1979, the Wilma dazzled the Philadelphia public by presenting work with renowned avante garde theater artists, including the Bread & Puppet Theatre, Mabou Mines, Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, The Wooster Group, Ping Chong & the Fiji Company and Spalding Gray.

In 1979, Blanka and Jiri Zizka, natives of Czechoslovakia, forged a creative relationship with the Wilma 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. 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. Designed by renowned theater architect Hugh Hardy, the new 296-seat theater retains the Wilma's intimate flavor while enhancing and expanding its performance space, establishing an ideal home for the Zizkas' artistic vision.

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, as well as premiering Jiri Zizka's original adaptations of classic novels. In 1995, Blanka Zizka's Barrymore Award-winning production of Jim Cartwright's ROAD was presented at the International Theater Festival in the Czech Republic, the first American company to be invited. CBS News called the Wilma "one playhouse that has emerged from the shadow of the Great White Way to make history on its own."

At the Wilma, a great theater experience does not end at curtain call. With each production, the Wilma offers free or low-cost discussions which address topics and themes relevant to the play.  Our Student Sunday Program exposes students to live theater, providing tickets for as little as $10. Our Fellowship and Internship Programs provide valuable training to students and recent graduates in all aspects of professional theater.

Why the Name Wilma?

In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf imagines Shakespeare's sister Judith, as brilliant as her brother but beaten into silence - both literally and figuratively - by the age she lives in. To explain how the lives of two siblings could so dramatically diverge, Woolf recalls a bishop who explained to an inquiring parishioner that, just as cats don't go to heaven, so cannot any woman possess the talent of Shakespeare: "How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare." It was simply a given.

The Wilma Theater inherited its name from the original Wilma Project, which began in 1973 as a feminist collective. They chose to name their theater after an invented sister of Shakespeare, but not after Woolf's Judith. The founders created the fantastical Wilma, a talented sister with a room of her own, the means and freedom to express herself. When Blanka and Jiri Zizka took over The Wilma Project, they did not abandon its namesake. The Zizkas' Wilma does not take the status quo as a given. Instead, it constantly strives for new ways of expression and revelation, social relevance and impact.

 

Blanka Zizka
Founding Artistic Director

Blanka Zizka has been Founding Artistic Director of The Wilma Theater since 1981. Blanka most recently directed Yussef El Guindi’s Language Rooms and Athol Fugard’s Coming Home. She previously directed Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched and Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll, which received a combined total of 17 Barrymore Award nominations. She directed Eurydice, the opera Kát’a Kabanová by Leoš Janáček for the Academy of Vocal Arts, Age of Arousal, The Life of Galileo, My Children! My Africa!, Ariel Dorfman’s The Other Side starring Rosemary Harris and John Cullum at Manhattan Theatre Club, and Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill. In 2002 she directed the World Premiere of Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman at Manhattan Theatre Club, McCarter Theatre Center, Long Wharf Theatre, ACT in Seattle, and at The Wilma Theater. She was awarded the first Barrymore Award for Best Direction of a Play for Cartwright’s Road. She directed Jiler and Leslee’s Avenue X (Barrymore Winner, Best Overall Production of a Musical and Best Direction of a Musical), Wright’s Quills (Barrymore Winner, Best Overall Production of a Play), the East Coast Premiere of The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard (Barrymore Winner, Best Overall Production of a Play and Best Direction of a Play), and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis (Barrymore Winner, Best Overall Production and Best Director).

Jiri Zizka
Founding Artistic Director

Jiri Zizka, born in Prague and educated at Charles IV University, became an Artist in Residence at the Wilma in 1979 and co-Artistic Director in 1981, where he directed over 70 productions. Some of the highlights included Orwell’s Animal Farm, Camus’ The Stranger, Brecht’s Mother Courage, Capeks’ The Insect Comedy, Weiss’ Marat/Sade, his own adaptation of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Brecht/Weill’s Happy End, Orwell’s 1984 (also at the Kennedy Center and Off-Broadway), Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist and the U.S. Premiere of Havel’s Temptation (a co-production with Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival). Jiri also directed a feature film of Václav Havel’s Largo Desolato, adapted by Tom Stoppard, starring F. Murray Abraham, for PBS’s Great Performances. He wrote and directed Inquest of Love, a film nominated for an Emmy® Award. His theater credits also include George F. Walker’s Love and Anger, Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, David Gow’s Cherry Docs (with David Strathairn), Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Stoppard’s Indian Ink, Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues, Charles L. Mee’s Big Love and Wintertime. He also directed a co-production between the Wilma and The Philadelphia Orchestra of Tom Stoppard’s and André Previn’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, a play for actors and a philharmonic orchestra, at The Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Jiri directed Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day, Itamar Moses’ Outrage, Ken Ludwig’s Shakespeare in Hollywood, Mark Saltzman’s The Tin Pan Alley Rag (Carbonell Award for Best Director), Caryl Churchill’s A Number, Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman (six Barrymore nominations), Sarah Schulman’s adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Enemies, A Love Story, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, Roy Smiles’ Ying Tong and Schmucks, Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, and most recently, the U.S. Premiere of Václav Havel Leaving. In 2010, Jiri moved into a consulting relationship with the Wilma in order to pursue other artistic endeavors.