Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Blanka Zizka | Co-Artistic Director of the Wilma Theater

Interview :: Blanka Zizka
by Ruth Weisberg, 1 Jun 2007

This month's Creative Personality is Blanka Zizka, Co-Artistic Director of the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street. She can be reached at (215) 546-7824.

For more information about the Wilma Theater, programming and ticket purchases:

PCG: Many 'creative personality' types knew at an early age that they were destined for a life in the creative and performing arts. Was there a particular or defining moment when you knew you had theater in your blood?

BZ: At the age of ten, I created my own puppet theater, dragged it around the small town where I was living, knocked on doors of kindergarten schools and tried to persuade teachers to let me entertain the little kids with my made-up stories.

PCG: Speaking of theater, your own life experience is rather dramatic. How on earth did you wind up in Philadelphia?

BZ: I emigrated from the former Czechoslovakia with my then-partner Jiri Zizka. We applied for political asylum in Germany and had to wait in refugee camps for our permit to move to the United States. I stayed in Germany for about 18 months where our son Krystof was born. Jiri left for the USA six months earlier to find a job and place to live. After a few months in New York, he was invited by Czech animator Paul Fierlinger to visit his studio in Media. Jiri went and stayed there working for Paul as a cameraman for the next four years. He rented a small apartment in Drexelbrook, and I joined him there with six month old Krystof. We both have lived in Philadelphia ever since.

"Theater, in my view, is an act of engagement with an audience in which we explore different aspects of our humanity that emerge under different circumstances."

PCG: The Wilma Theater, much like the cultural landscape of Philadelphia, has certainly grown and morphed through the years. What's your take on how Philly audiences have responded to the kinds of cutting-edge theater you've presented?

BZ: I believe that theater can not only actively engage the audience into thinking about many relevant issues, but that it can also stir up deep emotions and compassion by presenting stories from different points of view and experiences. I'm not interested in creating theater that is only interested in its own experimentation. Theater, in my view, is an act of engagement with an audience in which we explore different aspects of our humanity that emerge under different circumstances. And those aspects can be good or bad.

Blanka Zizka, Co-Artistic Director of the Wilma Theater

PCG: You certainly touched a cultural nerve. Look how Philadelphia audiences have found and embraced the Wilma Theater.

BZ: I admit there were times at the very beginning in the early 80's when we sometimes had more people on stage than in the audience, but as our reputation has grown, our audiences have grown. Now most of the performances are sold out. Over the years, Philadelphia has also turned into a different city. Philadelphia audiences used to have no confidence. Living in the shadow of New York, many theatergoers thought that to see good theater one had to go to New York. This has profoundly changed in the last ten years. There are now numerous performing arts groups here. The cultural scene is very exciting and audiences are realizing that. We now have artists coming from New York to live and create their work in Philadelphia. I only wish there was more funding so that we could make theater affordable and available to all audiences.

PCG: A noted Philadelphia business entrepreneur once told me that the word 'no' is only 'yes' that hasn't happened yet. I so love that credo! What fuels you to push the artistic envelope the way you do, and to accomplish the kinds of projects you've taken on?

BZ: I love that line, too. If Jiri and I had stopped our efforts when we heard the first 'no', The Wilma Theater wouldn't exist. I'd say what fuels me are encounters with great new writings, and also the fact that theater is a collaborative art and I'm in constant discussion with other artists. I look at art and new art technologies when I'm discussing the visual aspects of each production with my designers. I love rehearsals in which actors and I search for the meaning hidden behind the text and for the form that will give a shape to our search. I love the fact that with every play I encounter a new world. I must get to know the playwrights and their sensibilities. I need to research the world of the play. I'm in a stage of constant learning. That's exciting.

PCG: And probably scary, too. Kinda gives added new meaning to 'stage fright,' eh?

BZ: Of course, there are moments when I feel that nothing works; when I'm completely desperate and have sleepless nights. But I have realized that those are the moments when I have to start asking hard questions, and not be afraid to make changes or to throw out ideas that may have informed the staging in the first place. Even if those ideas might have been my favorite.

"All great writers have their own specific pulse or music in
their language."

PCG: In addition to funding issues, what other factors do you take into consideration when exploring and launching a theater project?

BZ: In order to consider a project, I have to find that the ideas explored in the play are worthwhile. I also look for unexpected, surprising and original moments in the plays. I like poetic writing as well. All great writers have their own specific pulse or music in their language. I'm looking for signs of that. Unfortunately, many times the budget and finances must play a strong part in my consideration as well.

PCG: Sounds as if you thrive on challenges.

BZ: I used to play competitive tennis. I played Martina Navratilova at the age of fourteen and lost. That was it! Theater was going to be my future from then on.

Blanka Zizka, Co-Artistic Director of the Wilma Theater

PCG: Speaking of the future, what's coming up at the Wilma?

BZ: From May 31 through June 17 we present "DanceBoom! 2007", our annual festival celebrating contemporary dance. This is the sixth year of the three-week festival which features interactive street events and mainstage performances from eleven dance companies and the Motion Picture Series dance film screenings. The programming features Wilma artists-in-residence BalletX, Group Motion Dance Company/Akiko Kitamura & Silvana Cardell, Chosen Dance Company, danceTactics, Tommie-Waheed Evans, Lionel Popkin, Bridgman/Packer Dance, Kingsessing Morris Men, Raices Culturales Latinoamericanas, N.E. Frankford Boys and Girls Club, American Legion Post 224 Drill Team, and Nicetown Stars Dance Team.

PCG: And for your upcoming 2007-2008 season?

BZ: What a line-up! It includes Amadeus By Peter Shaffer (Sept. 19-Oct. 21, 2007), Age of Arousal by Linda Griffiths (Dec. 5, 2007 – Jan. 6, 2008), Ying Tong A Walk With The Goons by Roy Smiles (Feb. 13-Mar. 16, 2008), and Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl (Apr. 30 – Jun. 1, 2008).

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