Inside The Wilma Theater: Q&A with Blanka Zizka, Founding Artistic Director

Aneta Kernová in Adapt!. Photo by Michaela Zemcikova, courtesy of The Wilma Theater.

How are cultural leaders and practitioners addressing artistic and organizational challenges today? And how do they make room for creative and institutional growth, while facing shifting audience expectations and consumer behaviors? In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the organizational and artistic practices of many of Philadelphia’s leading cultural institutions and practicing artists, their distinct characters, aspirations, and more.

Here, we speak to Blanka Zizka, founding artistic director of The Wilma Theater, whose Center-funded project, Adapt!, premieres March 22. The first play written by Zizka, Adapt! draws on her personal experiences as a Czech émigré to the US in the 1970s, and explores themes of identity and exile, the idealism of youth, and the compromises of adulthood. Zizka talks with us about the Wilma’s identity and approach to theater making, her commitment to learning and experimentation, her vision for the future, and more. Adapt! is on stage through April 22. View ticket information and more, here.>>

How would you describe your organization’s character or personality? What is a unique quality that distinguishes your theater from others?

At the Wilma, we produce both contemporary and classical plays that offer the potential to reveal connections and analogies to current political, social, and cultural complexities and issues. We search for plays that are both emotionally and intellectually complex, and that may be ambiguous, with multiple possible meanings. Whether poetic, abstract, or vernacular, we look for language that is deeply connected to human emotions. Even though the inspiration and foundation of our artistic collaborations is text, the Wilma’s productions are a synthesis of many artistic disciplines, including the visual arts, musical composition, sound and lighting designs, choreography, and of course, acting.

I lived my formative years in Czechoslovakia, a state that no longer exists. As a person whose life can be easily divided into two, before and after leaving my native country, I’m attracted to plays that explore themes of identity and belonging, dramatic transformations of human beings, losses, searches for meaning in life, beliefs and passions, betrayal and seduction, the role of time in our lives, memories, and the limitations of language. I find that this results in collaborations with other artists whose experiences relate to my own: international artists, immigrants, those connected to deep histories and deep loss.

Depth is an important word when it comes to the Wilma’s work. Most recently, we have been applying it to our work with the HotHouse [resident acting] company. In working consistently with a group of actors who train regularly together in the same methodology, we have been developing deep artistic relationships that translate to rich work onstage.

Finally, the work at The Wilma Theater is fearless and unpatronizing. We take major risks. We don’t talk down to our audiences. We respect their intelligence and capacity for adventurous art.

This month, the Wilma will produce and present the world premiere of Adapt!. What was your impetus for writing and presenting this story at this moment in time?

When Paula Vogel was working on [the Center-funded project] Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq, which the Wilma premiered in 2014, she offered six writing workshops to war veterans over 18 months. As a director of the piece, I was participating in all the developmental stages, and Paula insisted that during the playwriting workshops I write alongside the veterans. Early on, Paula asked us to remember a moment of alienation in our lives and to write about it. The veterans recalled their first days in Iraq or Afghanistan, or their returns back to the US from the war. I recalled my emigration. Paula asked us to write a scene. I ended up writing a play.

As I started to write Adapt!, I was noticing how the public discourse here had changed after September 11. It became painfully obvious how the language of some pundits and politicians had become uncannily similar to the propaganda language of the communist ideologues of ‘normalized’ Czechoslovakia. Their intention was to stir up fear. This strange echo chamber might have been one of my early impetuses for writing.

How has Adapt! influenced your way of thinking and working?

The institutional culture of nonprofit organizations has set up systems to create products instead of supporting the process of creating art. As with most organizations in capitalist systems, cultural organizations’ focus is on making the bottom line. But we must ask ourselves: Are these the conditions that give birth to powerful work? If not, how do we create those conditions?

I have been thinking about how the process of writing a play and conceiving a production are almost always separated from each other. It’s because mostly our playwrights are not part of theaters; they write in isolation, separated from the craft. Working on Adapt! has made me curious to see if there are more directors in the field who wish to write their own texts. We see this phenomenon in experimental theater, but very seldom in larger nonprofit theaters. When I consider the theater makers from the past who influenced me, or the productions that have remained imprinted in my mind, most of the time these were created by auteur artists with a strong vision reflected in the text, visual world, choice of music or sound, and acting style. All these elements composed together created a cohesive production.

One theatrical tool that I have been able to explore more deeply through the process of Adapt! is music. As I mentioned earlier, the Wilma is committed to producing plays with language deeply connected to human emotions. When an actor finds that connection between language and emotion through performance, the language becomes rhythmic, musical. There is always a musicality to the theatrical language we explore. Working with Mariana Sadovska to compose the music for Adapt! has allowed me to explore the musicality and emotionality of music further, through song. In Adapt!, there is a fluidity between the spoken text and moments of songs, perhaps because the old European traditions of music that Mariana is drawing from are deeply connected to storytelling. It becomes hard to tell where the spoken word stops and the music begins, and vice versa. The music deepens our connection to those emotions. It is interesting to consider how we might incorporate this technique into other productions in the future.

With Adapt!, we created new artistic organizational pathways in order to create the proper conditions for its success. Hiring Mariana, a wildly talented European composer with a focus on the sounds of Europe’s all-but-lost past, was essential in developing the world of the Old Woman character: the last survivor of a lost Slavic tribe, mourning the past. Mariana’s music makes the Old Woman’s loss knowable on some deep emotional level. Aneta Kernová and Aneza Papadopoulou, who play young Lenka and the Old Woman, are from the Czech Republic and Greece, respectively. They each bring a set of experiences that add a degree of depth and authenticity to the story. All other cast members are part of HotHouse. Combining Mariana, Aneta, and Aneza’s unique backgrounds and experiences with the HotHouse’s deep physical theater training, skills, and a sense of fearlessness has resulted in the ideal conditions for this production.

Can you tell us more about the HotHouse resident company, and the Wilma’s investment in innovative vocal and physical training for local actors? What sparked this organizational shift towards a more collaborative approach to experimentation?

I had come to the point where I felt utterly uninspired by the auditioning system that had become the norm for regional and New York theaters. We meet strangers and cast them based on our idea of how the character should look. It is reductive. Further, it results in a rehearsal process where I don’t know the actors I am working with, and they don’t know each other, and yet we are all expected to bare our souls to one another on day two of rehearsal. I believe that the art of acting rests in actors’ ability to transform. As a director who wants to push boundaries and experiment, I need to work with actors who are not afraid, who are willing to keep learning and experimenting. I need a group of actors who trust each other, who are ready to get on their feet and try out unconventional ideas, without worrying that they are being judged. I need fearless and imaginative actors, who through improvisation and experimentation become authors of their own individual performances. In order to experiment, there needs to be a continuity and, to a degree, a history of developing a body of work.

Seven years ago, the Wilma started to organize workshops for local actors with international theater master teachers and directors. The common thread among these teachers was the fact that they had developed their own companies, and subsequently their methods of working, which they shared with us. We have adapted some of these methods and are creating a cohesive training system that has become the hallmark of the Wilma HotHouse. We meet every Monday for five hours, experiment with our method, and explore texts. I also invite other directors to lead sessions, so that HotHouse actors and directors get to know each other before starting to work on a production. From the HotHouse, we cast our shows.

We are discovering many benefits to the HotHouse, in addition to the deep relationships and common theater vocabulary we now share. In the HotHouse, we are able to explore together plays we plan to produce up to a year in advance, granting time and space for exploration and discovery, for ideas to stew and intensify over time. The HotHouse actors are true collaborators in this process: with this regular training and comfort with the other members comes an openness, a willingness to listen that result in amazing creativity and play. Guest directors who work with the HotHouse actors are often impressed with their creativity and intelligence. Ultimately, this all results in more honest, powerful work onstage. Rehearsals for Adapt! have been amazingly productive as a result.

What is your organization doing to meet and address the challenges facing cultural organizations today when demographics and cultural consumption patterns are changing so significantly?

I recently heard a statistic that 400 hours of YouTube video content is downloaded every minute. I find that staggering. We talk about our ability to be better connected than ever before through the internet, and yet it plays an ever greater role in dividing society into various echo chambers. The internet seems to embolden many to spew angry vitriol towards those with whom they disagree. We are living in a moment of excess and division. At the Wilma, we believe that theater can be an alternative to all of this. Theater is about a community of people experiencing ideas and emotions in a room together. In today’s climate of division, of horrible ‘othering,’ theater explores the ways in which we are similar: the ways in which we are all human. It invites audiences to empathize with someone whose life looks very different from one’s own. We must insist that this part of humanity prevail. Theater must be an alternative to the mediated world.

The Wilma chooses to stay the course with the work we produce, rather than change it in the hopes that it will become more appealing to today’s audiences. We seek to attract audiences by finding new ways to invite people in, to encourage people to experience something they may not know they would enjoy. Through our Wyntix program, we have significantly lowered our ticket prices. Our HotHouse and teaching artists share their knowledge with high school students throughout Philadelphia. Later this spring, we will be completely renovating our lobby and reopening it as a café and bar, which will be regularly open to the public. Through this, we will literally be keeping our doors open almost all the time, inviting people to create a relationship with our building and, hopefully, our work as well.

How do you envision the Wilma in 5 or 10 years? How do you imagine that it might be different than today?

The Wilma is in the middle of a process of evolving, in all the ways I have mentioned. We plan to continue to evolve in this direction. Our HotHouse actors will be a recognized artistic force, nationally and internationally. We will be touring our productions around the country and the world. We will have developed a school around the methods that have become unique to the HotHouse. We will share our findings and artistic philosophy with local schools and community centers, building and expanding the audiences of today and tomorrow. We will have amassed a group of playwrights, directors, designers and composers who collaborate regularly with the HotHouse actors. We will continue to examine and refine our administrative, board, venue, and resource structures and models towards fulfilling the Wilma’s goals of being artist-centered and mission-driven. We, along with theaters throughout Philadelphia and beyond, will be the place people go to commune, to be together and practice empathy.


Collaborators & Colleagues

Silvana Cardell is a choreographer, dancer and, educator, whose choreographic impulses are defined by her experience as an Argentine expatriate living, working, and raising a family in the United States.

Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble released a video trailer for its Center-funded performance, Steppes: A Crossover, featuring the premiere of a piece by Mark Morris.

A Fierce Kind of Love, a new play about the fight for disability rights, will be part of a series of public programs meant to generate public discussion beyond the disability community.

Collaborators & Colleagues

Music critic Tom Moon has written about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and world music for more than three decades.

Dove encourages artists to dance in unusual places. Why? Out of necessity, he says.

This interactive panel discussion, part of Swarthmore’s Chopin Without Music, reveals new possibilities for contemporary theater and classical music to intersect in performance.

The Institute of Contemporary Art presents a performance of Pew Fellow Jumatatu Poe’s Let ‘im Move You, organized by Danielle Goldman.

A number of Center-funded projects are New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer fall arts picks.

Grants & Grantees

Playwright and 2008 Pew Fellow J. Rufus Caleb strives to create theater experiences that are “as visceral as they are intellectual.”

Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design presents acclaimed French choreographer Boris Charmatz’s experimental performance piece Levée des conflits, as part of the 2016 Fringe Festival.

Collaborators & Colleagues

John Corbett is a writer, musician, radio host, teacher, record producer, concert promoter, and, with co-owner Jim Dempsey, of Corbett vs. Dempsey art gallery in Chicago.

The Community Education Center produced the 25th New Edge Artists Service Program and Performance Series, connecting emerging and established artists with resources to rehearse and showcase their work.