After 40 Years, a Luminary of Theater’s Avant-Garde Departs
When Blanka Zizka retired from her position as artistic director of the Wilma Theater at the end of July, it was truly the end of an era.
“I’ve been working there for 40 years,” Zizka said in a video interview from Philadelphia, where the company is based. “It’s a long time.”
Zizka and her husband, Jiri, were born in Czechoslovakia, where they immersed themselves in the underground scene of the late 60s and early 70s, including the work of innovative titans like Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor. The couple eventually emigrated to the United States and then landed at the Wilma Project in 1979, becoming artistic director in 1981. They divorced in 1995 and she became the sole artistic director of the renowned Wilma Theater in 2010.
And now, at 66, she will be its artistic director emeritus.
Throughout Wilma’s history, the Zizkas have championed the demanding work of directors and playwrights. The theater has had a successful association with Tom Stoppard, for example, who described Blanka in an email as “an intellectual steeped in theatrical language; a “director of writers” but free to think what she wants the audience to see.
The Wilma also often featured visually bold productions that stood out from the relatively naturalistic fare of many regional companies. In recent years, Blanka has also encouraged resident acting company HotHouse to explore experimental techniques and pushed artists to exceed their ambitions. (She will continue to work 20 hours per month for the next two years, which she said she would likely spend with the HotHouse).
“She taught me, as a young queer black artist in the theater, that I could write black queer stories at the scale she was directing,” said James Ijames, who is now one of the directors. artistic works of Wilma, with Yury Urnov. and Morgan Green. “She really blew up what I thought was possible.”
In the video interview, Zizka shared the joys and frustrations of her years as the head of an American regional theater company. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why leave Wilma now?
I started to think about it very strongly last August. Suddenly I was spending time with my son, who is now 44 and lives in Bellport, NY. the theater has always been my first priority. It’s hard to say, but it was reality. So it was kind of a reunion, in a nice way. I also spent two or three hours a day biking in the wetlands and realized: Oh my God, I have lived all my life in a space without windows. I started to feel something that I hadn’t felt since I was 15 or 16, this feeling of freedom and loving the beauty and colors of nature. And I felt I needed to do more before I kicked the bucket [laughs].
And yet, in a 2015 interview, you said, “I feel like, professionally, if I’m lucky I’m like 10 years old. There is no story of old women running theaters. Did you defiantly intend to stay for another decade at the time?
I said it exactly from those feelings, but I don’t feel it anymore. I have the impression that if I had wanted to stay at Wilma, I could have. I have the energy, I have the interest. I haven’t lost the love for the theater, that’s for sure. But I have to take another path. And there is also the danger of becoming one’s own prison for anyone who has worked in an institution for a long time.
What were your earliest memories of American theater, growing up behind the Iron Curtain?
I never went to college. I worked as a cleaning lady in the library during the day and did underground theater at night. We used to go to Poland for a weekend just to see shows and I got to see the Living Theater and the Bread and Puppet Theater, the experimental-happen scene, Joseph Chaikin – these are my heroes. But that period was over when I arrived here.
How were your early years in Philadelphia?
We were moving step by step. We spoke very poor English – couldn’t ask for a cup of coffee, basically. For us, it was about how do we survive? How do we meet our needs and those of our child? How do you learn English? I met people and offered to teach them what I knew about Grotowski. When you are young you are daring to teach and you know nothing [laughs].
Stoppard played a big role at Wilma, but who are the other artists who have marked you?
Athol Fugard was very important to me at the start. In 1988, I produced “Statements After Immorality Law Arrest,” which tells the story of a white librarian and a black teacher falling in love. And the play is performed 90 percent naked. It was very daring at the time.
Do you think it could be done now?
I do not know. It’s a question. I want to mention Paula Vogel. She is an extraordinary and generous artist who takes care of her colleagues.
How? ‘Or’ What?
I had ordered a play from her, and she was doing a workshop, and I had to participate. I was terrified because my English is so bad. She said, “You can just write characters as you speak. Easy, right? [Laughs] She was constantly on top of me and said, “You have to keep writing.” So I did. Another person who was very helpful was Stew [of the musical “Passing Strange”]. He was my boyfriend for a while, about six years ago. Like Paula, he encourages people to try things and not to be afraid.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing American theater?
In American theater, the people who actually create the work are the only people who are freelance writers. How do you run theaters when you are surrounded only by administrative staff? Once the foundations are off the stage, you start pushing towards wealthy individuals. They can be great people, they can really love you, but something can happen in their life and they move on. Because of this need to get money from so many different sources, you have to make people feel good; you must have beautiful parties. Thus, your administrative staff grows and you invest money there rather than in art.
You grew up with avant-garde theater, and at Wilma you never stopped pushing the intellectual and aesthetic envelope. It’s not the easiest sale.
Wilma was pretty progressive in terms of programming, but it was very difficult for us to retain audiences. In America we are now in the throes of consumerism, where an audience wants the theater to be exactly ‘how I feel it, how I want it, and if it’s not that I don’t like it and I won’t be back. Never again. . “It’s a very difficult situation to go through. The only reason I want to do theater is to explore life. Entertainment is part of life, but I don’t want theater to be an escape from reality. The reality is beautiful, and there is a plethora of possibilities, but this consumerism and narcissism that I find in American audiences at this time is really damaging to theatrical culture.
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