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 has been Founding Artistic Director of The Wilma Theater since 1981.  In the fall of 2011, Blanka received the Zelda Fichandler Award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, which recognizes an outstanding director or choreographer transforming the regional arts landscape. For the past three years, she has been developing practices and programs for local theater artists to create working conditions that support creativity through continuity and experimentation. She has organized nine compensated advanced training workshops for dozens of Philadelphia artists with the goal of creating an ensemble of actors surrounding the Wilma. Most recently, Blanka directed Paula Vogel’s World Premiere Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq, Richard Bean’s Under the Whaleback, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class, Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, and Macbeth, which included an original score by Czech composer and percussionist Pavel Fajt.  Blanka has directed over 60 plays and musicals at the Wilma.  Her recent favorite productions are Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched, Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love and Rock ’n’ Roll, Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice (which featured an original score by composer Toby Twining, now available from Cantaloupe Records), Brecht’s The Life of Galileo, Athol Fugard’s Coming Home and My Children! My Africa!, and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9.  She collaborated closely with Dael Orlandersmith on her plays Raw Boys and Yellowman, which was co-produced by McCarter Theatre and the Wilma and also performed at ACT Seattle, Long Wharf, and Manhattan Theatre Club.  Blanka was also privileged to direct Rosemary Harris and John Cullum in Ariel Dorfman’s The Other Side at MTC.  For the Academy of Vocal Arts, she directed the opera Kát’a Kabanová by Leoš Janácek.  She 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.   

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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.