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.

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.