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?”