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.

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.