Blanka Zizka: Philadelphia’s Drama Queen

As Philly’s theater scene grows more and more vibrant, no one garners greater acclaim and admiration than the longtime Wilma artistic director. But the works she presents onstage are no more powerful than the story of her own life.

The Wilma Theater Artistic Director Blank Zizka in Philadelphia.

As the train rumbled toward the border crossing, the young woman was terrified.

It was a June day in the midst of the Cold War. She was carrying with her a secret, one she dared not share with any of her family or friends. She had left Czechoslovakia before, mostly for Poland, to explore her fascination with theater, which the authorities in that Soviet satellite found less threatening than did the leaders of her own. She’d gone into the woods near Wroclaw to train with famous avant-garde Polish director Jerzy Grotowski.

Blanka Vanickova was 21 years old, tall and lithe and pretty, with brown hair and a radiant smile.

She seemed destined to be on the stage. She’d studied dance since she was a child and had a dancer’s stature and grace, but also a comedienne’s timing. She’d even—and this would make her laugh in later years—studied mime.

It was at a mime workshop that she’d met the young man who sat beside her on the train. Jiri Zizka was handsome and charismatic. He was also brooding and aloof; inside, there were demons lurking. He was very talented, and she was attracted to talent. For the past few years, they’d spent nearly every day together in Prague. Two days before this trip, she’d found out she was pregnant with his child.

As the train neared Germany, Blanka worried that the Czech border guards would search her belongings. She’d packed lightly, because her story for the officials was that she was only leaving for a two-week vacation. Years later, she would come to realize how sharply her life became divided in two by this night. She and Jiri were not coming back. That was their secret.

She’d taken two family heirlooms, a gold pocket watch and a gold Art Nouveau necklace, to sell if they needed money to scrape by. Now, fearing the discovery of those two pieces might give away their plan, Blanka hurried to the bathroom and stashed them behind a toilet, then went back to Jiri’s side to wait and hope they would make the crossing to the other side.

“I still have those pieces,” Blanka Zizka tells me. “I never wear them. Gold is not really my thing.”

I suggest to her that if someone were writing the screenplay of her life, it might well open with that scene in 1976 of hiding the jewelry on the night train into West Germany. She gives me a direct and serious look, pausing a moment to make the latest in a vast accumulation of artistic decisions over more than three decades as a theater director.

“Yes, that might be good,” she says, sounding less than convinced. It’s late afternoon, and we’re sitting alone in two of the 296 seats of the neon-draped Wilma Theater, which Blanka and Jiri Zizka grew from a ragtag start as a feminist experimental troupe into one of Philly’s most respected cultural institutions. Starting in 1979 with a $600 production of Animal Farm in what was probably an illegal loft, the émigré couple transformed the Wilma, with minimal artistic compromise, into a $3 mi­llion-a-year company headquartered
on this symbolically important piece of real estate—the first new theater built in Philadelphia in decades, and an early linchpin in what was then a fledgling Avenue of the Arts project.

Along with a handful of other theater companies (Arden, Walnut Street, Philadelphia Theatre Company), Wilma is a flagship leading a growing armada of local professional theaters. (There were 51 at last count.) “They’re sprouting like mushrooms,” Zizka says.

“For a lot of actors in town,” says one relative newcomer, “the Wilma is a coveted place to work.” Edgy and fearless from the start, the Zizkas’ Wilma has had influence in the theater world beyond Philadelphia and has produced works from a long list of premier contemporary playwrights, ranging from Tom Stoppard and Doug Wright to Romulus Linney and Amy Freed. “You get a good feeling going into the Wilma,” Stoppard told me. “Working there, or even just being there—it just seems to be a very shipshape operation.”

“I arrived from a country where politicians considered theater so important, dangerous and subversive that it had to be censored, controlled, and perhaps suppressed altogether,” Blanka Zizka said recently while accepting one of the top awards in the world of regional theaters, named for regional pioneer Zelda Fichandler. These days, she’s more concerned that Pennsylvania politicians will ignore her theater come budget time, and about changing audience behavior that threatens her business model: the prepaid annual subscription. Though the Wilma is firmly established, she says, “I always feel on the edge of a cliff financially.”

She is 58 now. She still radiates that dancer’s poise. Recently, Zizka emerged as sole artistic director of the Wilma, after enduring some backstage drama with Jiri that played like Kiss Me, Kate rewritten by Eugene O’Neill. She is moving into an uncertain future by going back to some of the inspiration that led her to make the risky journey from her homeland in the first place, and trying to refashion the way her actors approach their craft.

Blanka Zizka arrived in this country filled with certainty that theater could subvert ideological agendas and summon shared fundamental human emotions. “For me,” she told her peers 30 years later, as she received her award, “the big question is, how do we return to creating art?”

“I know a lot of artists, musicians, painters, filmmakers,” says public-interest attorney and early Wilma board member Jonathan Stein. “Blanka is one of the most extraordinary. She may not get the recognition she should as an artist, because theater directors are not very well understood. Rarely do you see the process, all the judgments and creativity that go into a production—choosing actors, developing actors, choosing texts, working with scenic designers and production people. There’s an extraordinary range of artistry there.”

Sitting in the nearly dark theater that afternoon, talking about her life and career with an open but somewhat skittish seriousness, Zizka suddenly stopped and became quiet. It’s a habit she has, I learned—pausing to think and allowing silence to seep in.

“We call it the Central European Pause,” says Kate Czajkowski, a Seattle native with an MFA in acting from Temple who has worked on several recent Wilma productions. “All of a sudden there’ll just be a silence. It may go on for minutes. She’s working some things out in her head. She’ll come back, and often with something astute that you haven’t considered. For some actors, or for people who don’t know her, it can be scary.”

I was beginning to get uncomfortable when Zizka finally started talking again. “I didn’t have the plan of this kind of grandiosity,” she said, directing her gaze down the rows of empty seats toward the dimly lit stage, where the set for an upcoming show was half built. “I just wanted to work on material that was something to be discussed and experienced. And what is kind of interesting is that I actually learned it all by doing it. I don’t have an MFA behind me, or some great professors who directed me the right way. So it’s all through making try and error.”

Thirty-five years after moving to America, Zizka still speaks English with a fairly strong Czech accent, and because she couldn’t study the language formally when she arrived here (“We didn’t have the money”), her idioms and pronunciation are occasionally quirky. Her actors spend downtime backstage trying to nail her accent and phrasing. “It’s the Holy Grail,” one told me. Some people think it adds to her charm.

“Even building the organization,” Zizka continued, “I had no idea about building boards and fund-raising. I just wanted to do theater. I was very lucky to have Jiri. Because Jiri was very determined, and more about making it grow and wanting to build this building. If I had been alone doing it, I would maybe have a company that is just using tents.”

Jiri Zizka arrived in America first, having left his wife and son in a flat in Munich, where they had settled after spending time in various political refugee camps. (At one point, a pregnant Blanka shared camp quarters with a Romanian acrobat and a Hungarian lion tamer, a situation she describes as “something out of a Fellini movie.”) When he found work with Philadelphia-based animator Paul Fierlinger—another Czech émigré, who contributed to Sesame Street—he sent for his wife and son. They found an apartment in Drexel Hill, and their American story began.

“The myth in the theater community—the story of them running across a wheat field to their freedom—is the stuff of Philadelphia legend,” says Benjamin Lloyd, an actor and teacher who came from New York to act in a Wilma production and never left. The new reality was substantially less dramatic for the Zizkas. Jiri had an intermittent day job. Blanka ended up as a waitress at a popular restaurant near Penn called La Terrasse, where she proved so inept that she was solely given lunch duty. “I think they only kept me because of my accent,” she says.

Looking for any opportunity to get into theater, she volunteered to teach a movement class for a fledgling theater group then called the Wilma Project, named in a convoluted reference to the imaginary oppressed sister of William Shakespeare created by Virginia Woolf in the famous essay “A Room of One’s Own.” Blanka introduced techniques she’d learned from Grotowski in Poland. Her students had to drive her to and from the workshops because she didn’t have a car.

By 1981, she and Jiri were running the organization.

They found a former industrial space on the 2000 block of Sansom Street, constructed everything from the stage to the box office, and called it the Wilma Theater. The Zizkas were a blast of new air in the stuffy Philadelphia theater world. They’d come from a place where virtually nothing was allowed—making expression important—and arrived in a land where nearly any expression was allowed, so little was important.

“I mean,” Blanka says, “the first theater piece I saw in Philadelphia was Let My People Come.” That mid-’70s phenomenon has been described as “one of the most sexually explicit musicals ever.”

“It was shocking,” she adds with a sarcastic chuckle. “It was total escapism—so frivolous.”

In contrast, the Zizkas offered up challenging and meaty productions, often with themes of oppression and dislocation. Several, like The Insect Comedy (on the life cycle and the futility of war) and The Hairy Ape (unbridgeable divisions of class), were adapted by Jiri himself.

“They had cultural capital,” says Marcia Ferguson, a theater teacher and director at Penn who acted at the Wilma in the mid-’80s and later wrote a PhD dissertation about the theater that was published as “Blanka and Jiri Zizka at the Wilma Theater, 1979-2000: From the Underground to the Avenue.” “The skills they learned living in Czechoslovakia, where they had to struggle so hard to produce something, made them incredibly passionate,” she adds. “It translated into energy and focus and drive that American theater artists didn’t necessarily have so much of.”

Reports of a new theater presenting intense work spread quickly among Philadelphia theatergoers. The Wilma’s audience and budget grew quickly. When Ken Wesler joined the organization as an 18-year-old in 1982, the annual budget was $80,000. When he left seven years later, it was $1.7 million. Wesler remembers the Zizkas working to improve every detail of a production until the last minute, and often beyond.

“Everything always had to be absolutely perfect,” he said, “or as close as we could get before some external pressure stopped us from working on it. And that’s how you create great things.”

The Zizkas’ son, Krystof, now 36, remembers, “I pretty much lived and slept in that theater. Maybe not slept, but there were many late nights. I don’t think it was normal.” While his parents didn’t want him to watch television or play video games, he recalls being given Kafka to read when he was 10, and “having so much freedom at a young age that it was almost scary.” He is now a restaurateur in Brooklyn.

As the Wilma grew, the do-it-yourself “try and error” ethos became less of an imperative. A division of labor developed between the Zizkas, mostly prescribed by their personalities. Jiri was an auteur with a strong visual sense. He’d trained as a photographer and cinematographer. A number of people I spoke to used the same two words to describe him: brilliant and aloof. “He was just very, very quiet and not very demonstrative,” says Wesler. “One of his nicknames was ‘the Blank Czech.’”

Blanka was hardly a social butterfly, but she was more outgoing, a performer who might find herself climbing onto a table in the wee hours of a party and singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” in Czech. But early on, she gave up acting.

“The language was a barrier,” she admits. “I kind of made a joke out of it. I said that the only roles I would get was KGB agents. But I actually could not act because I was so responsible for the rest of the theater.”

Among the responsibilities usually left to Blanka were raising money and dealing with the board of directors, a necessary appurtenance in the world of nonprofits that the Wilma entered. For years, Wilma performances were preceded by Blanka appealing to the audience for support, an acting role she hated.

Though the couple shared the title of artistic director, it was one of Jiri’s productions that first brought the Wilma to the attention of the wider world beyond Sansom Street. In 1986 he mounted an adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 that was a technical and artistic tour de force. The show moved to the Kennedy Center in Washington, the first Wilma production to “go out.” Later, at the urging of noted director Peter Sellars, it was produced in New York. The cachet that came from moving a Philly production to Manhattan bolstered the Wilma’s reputation with cash-flush foundations and new patrons.

They would be needed, because continued success led Blanka and Jiri to decide it was time to leave their 100-seat do-it-yourself theater and move up to a larger and better-equipped facility. That decision would begin what Marcia Ferguson describes as a “decade-long marathon of fund-raising.”

How did an alternative theater company run by two immigrants—one that presented challenging, non-commercial plays—manage to scrounge up $8 million in penurious Philly?

“Everybody really believed in the Wilma from an artistic standpoint,” says Herman Fala, a real estate lawyer and longtime Wilma board member. “Some foundations and wealthy individuals and corporate donors came on, and we got pretty close to our goal. Then the mayor, Ed Rendell, got involved because the Avenue of the Arts was a big priority for him. He twisted some elbows.

“That was no magic. It was really because of the dynamic work and charisma of the Zizkas. Jiri certainly. But Blanka was more of the charmer in terms of the fund-raising. She was just an irresistible force.”

Even with the money in hand, the project was plagued by delays caused by the finances of the developer of the property. When construction finally began in 1995, the Zizkas staged a happening at which actors in clown garb rolled a giant prop boulder up Broad Street. “Building the theater was like the story of Sisyphus,” Zizka says. “Nobody believed it was going to happen. So we gave a different ending to the myth.”

The debut show in the new space was Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Jiri. It was a hit. Individual tickets sold out, and season subscriptions rose to more than 6,000. The Wilma was cited in national publications as proof of Philly’s cultural renaissance. By 2000, the theater was so established in the city’s mainstream arts community that it partnered with the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Co­rporation to offer special tourist packages to the latest Stoppard play, The Invention of Love, to be directed by Blanka. The show would prove to be a milestone in her career, and nearly changed her life.

Stoppard is a brilliant autodidact who likes to challenge an audience to come along on his intellectual excursions. In Invention, the focus is A.E. Housman, a late-
Vi­ctorian English poet and scholar of cl­assical Greek and Latin verse. As the story opens, a deceased Housman considers the life he led while underworld-bound on the River Styx. During the three-hour comic drama, the aged Housman has conversations about scholarship with another character playing his younger self. The dialogue is thick with references to Greek and Latin poets, and dotted with quotations in those languages.

Though the play had a successful run in London, no theater in New York took it up. “People kept thinking that Invention of Love was dry as toast,” says New York actor Martin Rayner, who portrayed the elder Houseman. “Nobody wanted to touch it in New York. Blanka took it and made it this vibrant thing.”

It would become the highest-grossing show in Wilma history, and it prompted Andre Bishop, the artistic director of ­Lincoln Center Theater—who had passed on the play because he thought it too difficult and
complicated—to drive to Philly to see it. Not long after the lights went down, Bishop remembers, “Suddenly the play, which had made no sense to me in London, made total sense to me now. I don’t honestly know how. The design was much simpler. The theater was smaller. It wasn’t that the actors were better than the British actors. They were clearer. They had an emotional life.

“This had never happened to me before,” Bishop adds. “I will be forever grateful to Blanka. Like any good artist, she showed us the way.”

Bishop immediately asked Stoppard to let him stage a new production of Invention at Lincoln Center. Blanka says that Stoppard wanted her production to move to New York and introduced her to producers there. What followed, Zizka says, “was kind of a thing that happened that was kind of tricky and painful to me.”

As it turned out, Stoppard eventually gave Invention to Andre Bishop at Lincoln Center. “What actually happened then,” the playwright says, “was, quite rightly, Blanka got cross with me for a while. I can’t remember for how long. Then, I guess, she forgave me.”

“I think she deserved to take it into New York,” says Martin Rayner, who joined the Lincoln Center cast, but in a much smaller role. “I think it was really sad—a lost opportunity for us in many ways. But that’s how the business runs.”

In the years after, Blanka got a chance to direct in New York, but not on Broadway. Now, she says, “I don’t feel that I’m gaining anything by going to New York.”

By the time of Invention of Love, Blanka and Jiri had been broken up as a couple for 10 years. (They divorced in 1995.) That they managed to run a company together for all that time amazes many of their colleagues. “It’s just one of the impossible things they were able to do,” says Ken Wesler.

From the beginning, Blanka says, her marriage “had its troubles, and the troubles were never quite solved. It was never the sweet marriage—no, no, no.” She adds, “The work was what kept us together more than our personalities.”

Their working routine continued as before: The Wilma produced four plays each year, two directed by Jiri, two by Blanka. There was a type of Jiri show—ironic, acerbic,
intellectual, always staged with striking design. Blanka’s productions were more emotional, more actor-driven. While many of her productions also had elaborate designs, she’d allow a practically bare set if it made the drama stronger.

Several years ago, people around the theater began to notice that Jiri’s constant and heavy drinking was starting to affect his health, and consequently his work and behavior.

“He had liver disease,” says his son. “A board member got to talk with my dad’s doctor. When your liver is in that much trouble and you’re still [drinking] on a day-to-day basis, it’s definitely affecting who you are and how you think.”

Krystof attended a group intervention with his father, arranged by a board member. After the confrontation, Jiri was given a sabbatical by the Wilma’s board, and several members offered money for his treatment to get sober. “There was a lot of goodwill,” Blanka says. “And Jiri tried.”

Coming back to work in 2010, he directed a new play, the first written in nearly 20 years by his compatriot Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic. Both the title, Leaving, and the plot—about a deposed leader confused by his fall in status—would take on nearly tragic ironic implications as the project progressed.

Jiri signed up A-list Broadway and Hollywood actor David Strathairn in the lead. Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham would record lines for a disembodied character known as “The Voice.” The set design was gorgeous and portentous, with doors everywhere.

“The theme of Leaving spoke to Jiri,” a Wilma insider says. “Plays that were dealing with the hollowness of existence—he could really feel an emotional connection and aesthetic response to it. The design metaphor and the way he was thinking about the play … it was really expressing the best of his aesthetic in a way that I had rarely seen.

“Then, in the last couple weeks, either his health just caught up with him or something else happened, and it felt like it was a complete collapse of this magnificent superstructure. And everyone was left out to dry.”

With Jiri missing preview performances, the actors rallied and pulled the show together for opening night, which was attended by Havel and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, another Czech émigré. While it was a glittering social event, artistically, it wasn’t exactly a triumph. New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood would give Leaving a barely tepid review, though he was complimentary to Jiri’s direction.

“Jiri and I probably had three separate phone conversations,” Ken Wesler told me, “that were nothing but Jiri expressing how upset he was that when the curtain came down and they went out into the lobby, no one came over to congratulate him. In his mind, it was too routine a vibe. I wasn’t there. For all I know, people were very enthusiastic and positive.”

Whatever he perceived—or misperceived—
Jiri disappeared for the next week, not returning emails or calls. A week after the opening, he showed up at the very last minute to participate in a public symposium about the play. That night, it was obvious that he’d been drinking.

Just before the 2010/2011 season, the Wilma announced that its co-founding artistic director would be leaving to “pursue other artistic opportunities”—just the kind of institutional phrase whose Orwellian truth-hi­ding qualities would have amused the younger Jiri. Now, he insisted on that wording.

“It was very hard,” Blanka told me, “because I was put into a position between two loyalties—the theater and someone I was very close to for so many years.” We talked several times about Jiri and his problems, and her demeanor ranged from near tears to a weary resignation. “Unfortunately the Wilma, with Jiri’s disease, was held down,” she says. “Because it was very difficult to make decisions, to make choices. Jiri would not come to a meeting. Or he would not want to make a decision. Or he would postpone it. We were very stagnant.”

Jiri Zizka died in January 2012. He was 58. At a memorial service that filled the t­heater on a Monday afternoon, Blanka took the stage. She told an abbreviated version of how they left Czechoslovakia, then read translations of some letters Jiri had sent after he arrived alone in America with $156. And she concluded: “Thank you, Jiri, for your artistry, for your vision, for your passion, for your tenacity, for your insistence on the highest standards, and for your support. You were my lover, my husband, my ex, my collaborator, my friend, my colleague, and my conspirator. You will be remembered. You died too soon.”

Before the Art Museum’s Perelman Building officially opened for visitors on one of the darkest days this December, Blanka Zizka met there with a few Wilma staff members and five actors who will appear in her latest production, which opens this month. It’s a modern seafaring drama, Under The Whaleback, by British playwright Richard Bean.

For over an hour, a curator guided the group on a private tour of a collection of paintings of shipwrecks, most by Winslow Homer. (A disaster at sea is a major plot point of Whaleback.) Then they sat in the gallery’s sleek modern cafe and discussed what they had seen and how they felt about it, like earnest high-schoolers on a field trip.

For each show she puts on, Zizka, the self-taught director, goes through a rigorous research regime. For Whaleback, she’d already traveled to the English coastal town of Hull, where the action is set; talked to real sailors; spent time with the playwright; and read different books on and slightly off the topic—all part of an iceberg-like mass of unseen directorial work that Zizka’s friend and fan Jonathan Stein had told me about.

Lately, this need for new knowledge and experience goes broader and deeper than any individual production. Several people close to Blanka believe that the death of Jiri and her assumption of sole leadership of the Wilma have prompted some sort of renewal in her. She has started to step back into the past, re-exploring ideas that Jerzy Grotowski was teaching when she was young—body and voice as the bedrock of the dramatic act, trying to imbue actors with the concentration and energy that emerge from human rituals.

Several times recently, she has brought in a French vocal coach named Jean-René Toussaint to lead her actors—and herself—through vigorous exercises that warm up the body and develop the voice, while simultaneously violating many normal standards of polite human interaction. I’ve watched video clips of the process, and they seem like outtakes from a documentary about bullying set in an insane asylum.

“She’s really, really daring,” says actress Kate Czajkowski. “These workshops with Jean-René are not easy ventures. They’re confronting, and she’s saying, ‘I’m about to be your director. But allow me to completely put myself in your hands.’”

Zizka says she is trying to develop a pool of local actors who share the same experience and training, so she can shift from the rather mercenary model of many regional theaters—where limited rehearsal time necessitates a lot of typecasting—and instead allow actors to transform themselves to fit roles.

Czajkowski told me about another exercise Zizka has introduced to her actors recently, an action—borrowed from a Greek director named Terzopoulos—that they’ve nicknamed “Humping the Air.” As Zizka and I sit in the Perelman Building coffee shop after all her actors have left that day, I ask her what it is.

“What is Humping the Air?” Blanka says, “What is Humping the Air?” She stops. I expect an extended Central European Pause. Finally, she allows a chuckle.

“It’s an exercise in which you get your circulation going,” she says. “It basically goes down to your triangle down here.” She gestures to her crotch. “Then you do a very short breath”—she starts panting—“and you start moving back and forth. Thrusting motions while you are breathing very hard. What it does is completely cleans you up. It gets rid of the pollution that is in your body. Thoughts. Moods.

“I watched rehearsal with Terzopoulos. It’s very much part of his whole technique. He has been working a lot with aboriginal tribes. So I was watching some of the YouTube and trying to make the connection, and I found pygmies in Africa doing exactly the same exercise. Except the women were singing and the men were doing it in front of them with their butts. It was hilarious. It was completely identical exercise.”

Then Blanka laughs for quite a while.

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