Blanka Zizka Is Ready for Anything

The Wilma Theater director talks Angels in America, the death of her ex and her plans for the future.

In 1976, pregnant Czechoslovakian actress Blanka Vinicova and her boyfriend, Jiri Zizka, defected from their Communist homeland, eventually landing in Philadelphia. It was here that they married, raised their son, and signed on as co-artistic directors of the Wilma Theater, in the infancy of the city’s live arts scene. More than 30 years on, the son is grown, living in New York, and Jiri is gone, having died of liver failure in January. But Blanka seems ready for anything.

“It’s a huge loss for me, and leaves me a bit more alone,” she says of Jiri’s death, adding that their relationship was “complex.” (The couple split in 1991 but remained close friends and colleagues.) “But at the same time, there is a sense of freedom and a door opening to a new world, a new way of working, new encounters, new dialogues.”

The Washington Square West resident just returned from a three-week trip to Europe. In Athens, she visited a Greek director she hopes to bring to Philadelphia, one whose work she describes as “very experimental, out there and unusual—nothing you’d see in American naturalistic theater.” Then it was on to London, where she hung out with playwright Richard Bean, whose One Man, Two Guvnors opened on Broadway in April. “He’s outrageously provocative,” Zizka says, smiling. Her last stop was Prague, to connect with Jiri’s family and her elderly mother.

Back in Philadelphia, she’s fully immersed in directing the Wilma’s season closer, Angels In America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, the 1993 Tony and Pulitzer winner about being gay in the United States. “This may be the most challenging play I have come across,” says Zizka. “Fifty-two different locations, eight actors playing I don’t know how many different characters, young playing old, women playing men. In some ways, it’s impossible to direct.”

And though the 57-year-old Zizka could clearly use a month or two at the Shore after Angels closes in July, instead she’s about to spend the summer working on her next big idea: a school for professional actors.

“We have schools for people who want to become actors,” she says. “But we don’t have schools for someone who has been an actor for 10 or 20 years. Learning is such an important part of this work. Otherwise, we become empty and just repeat what we know. We need to continue to be creative until the day we die.”

See Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches at the Wilma Theater, May 23rd to July 1st.

This piece originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Philadelphia magazine.