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.

“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.