Mission & Artistic Statement

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.

To find out more about how we have been engaging with our artistic mission, read our annual report.

Shared Artistic Statement

The Wilma produces contemporary theater. We create visceral art that expands individual and communal identities. We lead with our hearts to create evocative, imperfect, awe-inspiring experiences.

To speak the language of theater, we embrace a cohesive world of elements that share equal importance: urgent text, embodied performance, visionary directing, bold design, and an authentic connection with the audience. We embrace the social contract between performers and audience, built on the vital need for active dialogue, and the acceptance and anticipation of the unknown.

Curiosity drives our artistic evolution. We embrace the vibrant interplay of cultures, languages, and ideas, recognizing the potency of divergent perspectives. 

Collaboration is a superpower and the best friend of process. Our resident acting company, the HotHouse, rigorously trains to develop intimacy, openness, and expressiveness which has been a hallmark of the Wilma stage.

Our work is a catalyst for catharsis, a catalyst for conversation, and a catalyst for change.  

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 avant-garde theater artists. In 1979, Blanka and Jiri Zizka, political refugees from 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 Zizkas’ original adaptation of George Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM focused a new spotlight 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, driving a decision to expand the theater to a new home. As Philadelphia launched a plan to create an arts corridor in the early 1990s, the Wilma Theater was chosen for a new 300-seat theater located on Broad and Spruce Streets in Center City. Opening in 1996, the Wilma was the first new theater built in Philadelphia in 40 years, and a cornerstone of the new Avenue of the Arts. Designed by renowned theater architect Hugh Hardy, the theater maintained an intimate flavor with an expanded performance space and established an ideal home for the Zizkas’ artistic vision. 

During the Zizkas’ tenure, the Wilma Theater established a national reputation for provocative theater. Over the years, we produced unforgettable works by Tom Stoppard, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and HotHouse member James Ijames, Pulitzer Prize and Obie Award-winner Paula Vogel, and Obie Award-winner Danai Gurira. In addition to hundreds of Philadelphia artists, we have worked with Oscar Nominee David Strathairn, Obie Award-winner Zainab Jah, and Tony Award-winning actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Our productions of THE HARD PROBLEM (Tom Stoppard, US Premiere), OUR CLASS (Tadeusz Słobodzianek), ANGELS IN AMERICA (Tony Kushner), YELLOWMAN (Dael Orlandersmith, World Premiere, Pulitzer Prize finalist), and LEAVING (Vaclav Havel, U.S. Premiere) solidified the Wilma’s position in regional theater as bold, adventurous, and groundbreaking.  

In 2000, we launched our educational programs. Through our suite of youth programs we strive to cultivate the artists and audiences of tomorrow through meaningful engagement with the art of today. Wilmagination, our fully subsidized in school residency program, has served over 10,000 Philadelphia high school students. In addition to the award-winning Wilmagination, our AllStars after-school program provides students with an opportunity to become more involved in the Wilma’s programming and artistic work. Through our adult theater programs, we have partnered with local organizations such as Broad Street Love, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and Philly House to facilitate spaces to invite community groups to create, workshop, or perform work. 

In 2010, Jiri Zizka stepped down from his work at the Wilma before his passing in 2012. Blanka assumed sole artistic leadership, and her production of OUR CLASS became a catalyst for her next daring step. She began formulating the Wilma HotHouse as a diverse ensemble of Philadelphia-based actors who would meet regularly to train their voices, bodies and breath in pursuit of emotional richness, physical freedom, deep trust, and shared theatrical language. In 2016, the official Wilma HotHouse Company was formed, and opened the doors for the Wilma to become an incubator for artistic experimentation. Now after close to a decade of training, the ensemble has developed a unique methodology, and their distinctive performance style has become synonymous with the Wilma Theater. The continued development of the HotHouse Acting Company allows for boundless curiosity through the creation process and limitless possibilities for the work that appears on stage. 

Emboldened by the creative gains made under Zizka’s leadership, the Wilma was poised to launch an artistic leadership model merging artistic collaboration with a new operating structure. In February 2020, the Wilma unveiled the Next Chapter initiative, our iterative leadership model where a cohort of Co-Artistic Directors alongside Managing Director Leigh Goldenberg foster shared governance and artistic vision with diverse voices. James Ijames, Morgan Green, and Yury Urnov joined Zizka in this leadership. Following Zizka’s retirement in 2021, we solidified the model with three co-artistic directors. Lindsay Smiling, a founding member of HotHouse, assumed a leadership role vacated by Ijames in 2023.  

Due to our strong collaborative leadership team, our board, and our pivot to making high-quality digital theater, the Wilma was able to stay fully staffed and operational through the shutdown of performance venues across the country in 2020 and 2021. Our digital work garnered local, national, and international audiences, including our production of HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING named the best of the year in 2020 by The Wall Street Journal and nominated for a Drama League Award. The Wilma’s 2021 digital production of FAT HAM was named one of the best virtual productions in 2021 by The New York Times, which stated that “The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia perfected beautiful film-stage hybrids,” and the play won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama following its digital world premiere. In 2023, FAT HAM went on to Broadway, with Wilma Theater as co-producer, and received five Tony Award nominations, including Best Play. We recognized that our digital theater work created an opportunity for the Wilma to expand points of access to our productions, inspiring us to make a strategic commitment to continue this work. In 2024, with support from the Knight Foundation, we launched our Digital Theater Lab to imagine and expand the possibilities of streaming theater. 

As the Wilma looks towards the future, we continue our commitment to collaborative, bold art. Our 2024-25 season features productions led by each Co-Artistic Director, and the return of Co-Founder Zizka, and includes THE COMEUPPANCE (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins), THE HALF-GOD OF RAINFALL (Inua Ellams), ARCHDUKE (Rajiv Joseph), and A SUMMER DAY (Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse). We aim for our work to continue to be a catalyst for catharsis, a catalyst for conversation, and a catalyst for change. Subscriptions are now available, and single tickets go on sale August 1. We hope you will join us. 

Founding Artistic Directors
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 did not take the status quo as a given. Instead, it constantly strived for new ways of expression and revelation, social relevance and impact.