Mission & History

Why the Name Wilma?

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagines Shakespeare’s sister Judith, as brilliant as her brother but beaten into silence – both literally and figuratively – by the age she lives in. To explain how the lives of two siblings could so dramatically diverge, Woolf recalls a bishop who explained to an inquiring parishioner that, just as cats don’t go to heaven, so cannot any woman possess the talent of Shakespeare: “How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.” It was simply a given.

The Wilma Theater inherited its name from the original Wilma Project, which began in 1973 as a feminist collective. They chose to name their theater after an invented sister of Shakespeare, but not after Woolf’s Judith. The founders created the fantastical Wilma, a talented sister with a room of her own, the means and freedom to express herself. When Blanka and Jiri Zizka took over The Wilma Project, they did not abandon its namesake. The Zizkas’ Wilma does not take the status quo as a given. Instead, it constantly strives for new ways of expression and revelation, social relevance and impact.

Mission

The Wilma Theater creates living, adventurous art. We engage artists and audiences in imaginative reflection on the complexities of contemporary life. We present bold, original, well-crafted productions that represent a range of voices, viewpoints, and styles.

Artistic Statement

As a young person I used to look up to Art believing that I was promised an answer to the question of how to live. But Art turns out to be a big deceiver when pressed to respond to these kind of demands; I’ve found that Art has no answers at all. Art probes, questions, explores, challenges, and invites us to new encounters.

When audience members enter the Wilma, they are invited to encounter somebody else’s story, perspective, or idea; they are invited into an act of collective reflection and imagination, to consider the lives, conflicts, circumstances, passions, and ideas of others.

We produce both contemporary and classical plays that offer the potential to reveal connections and analogies to current political, social, and cultural complexities and issues. We search for plays that are both emotionally and intellectually complex, and that may be ambiguous, with possible multiple meanings. Whether poetic, abstract, or vernacular, we look for language that is deeply connected to human emotions.

Even though the inspiration and foundation of artistic collaborations is text, the Wilma’s productions are a synthesis of many artistic disciplines, including the visual arts, musical composition, sound and lighting designs, choreography, and of course acting.

The scope and form we look for in plays demands design choices that are bold and original. Drawing on poetic images and metaphors, the artists create a theatrical world that resonates with the underlying themes of the play. Each play receives unique consideration and treatment; there is no recipe and no routine to the collaborative process of designing the physical world of the play.

In a rehearsal room the text becomes the spoken word. The actors breathe into it meaning, music, sound and rhythm. They make the text physical, immediate, and present. The physical presence of actors, their craft, their flexibility, their readiness to take and be taken, their total commitment to the present moment – these all are the necessary ingredients needed to make the text come alive.

The Wilma has an ambition to become a true artistic home, where all the artists involved in creating theater can experiment, learn, engage, collaborate, strive to get better, and where they are even allowed to fail. Francisco Goya’s pencil drawing of an old man leaning on a cane has a caption that says “I’m still learning.” It is a powerful image recognizing learning as a potent and ongoing force in life and work.

I am a US citizen, who speaks English with an accent. I lived my formative years in Czechoslovakia, a state that no longer exists. As a person whose life can be easily divided into two, before and after leaving my native country, I’m attracted to plays that explore themes of identity and belonging, dramatic transformations of human beings, losses, searches for meaning in life, beliefs and passions, betrayal and seduction, the role of time in our lives, memories, and the limitations of language.

Blanka Zizka
Artistic Director

History

Established in 1973 as The Wilma Project, the Wilma challenged the Philadelphia cultural community to create theatrical productions of original material and to develop local artists. From 1973 through 1979, the Wilma dazzled the Philadelphia public by presenting work with renowned avante garde theater artists, including the Bread & Puppet Theatre, Mabou Mines, Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, The Wooster Group, Ping Chong & the Fiji Company and Spalding Gray.

In 1979, Blanka and Jiri Zizka, natives of Czechoslovakia, forged a creative relationship with the Wilma as artists-in-residence, and gained acclaim for their bold, innovative productions. With a dynamic, physical production style and original music accompaniment, the Zizka’s original adaptation of George Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM focused a new spotlight of attention on the Wilma. The Zizkas assumed artistic leadership of the organization in 1981, and moved the Wilma to a 100-seat theater on Sansom Street. Within five years, the Wilma’s audience had grown dramatically and the Theater was operating at nearly 100% capacity. A decision was made to expand the theater to a new 296-seat home; and in 1989, a location was identified at the corner of Broad and Spruce Streets.

In 1996, the Wilma opened its new facility on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts. Designed by renowned theater architect Hugh Hardy, the new 296-seat theater retains the Wilma’s intimate flavor while enhancing and expanding its performance space, establishing an ideal home for the Zizkas’ artistic vision.

During the Zizkas’ tenure, The Wilma Theater has established a national reputation for provocative work ranging from the international drama of Bertolt Brecht, Athol Fugard, Eugene Ionesco, Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard to new American plays by Tina Howe, Romulus Linney, Quincy Long, Doug Wright, Amy Freed and many others, as well as premiering Jiri Zizka’s original adaptations of classic novels. In 1995, Blanka Zizka’s Barrymore Award-winning production of Jim Cartwright’s ROAD was presented at the International Theater Festival in the Czech Republic, the first American company to be invited. CBS News called the Wilma “one playhouse that has emerged from the shadow of the Great White Way to make history on its own.”

At the Wilma, a great theater experience does not end at curtain call. With each production, the Wilma offers free or low-cost discussions which address topics and themes relevant to the play.  Our Student Sunday Program exposes students to live theater, providing tickets for as little as $10. Our Fellowship and Internship Programs provide valuable training to students and recent graduates in all aspects of professional theater.

Founding Artistic Directors