Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater To Receive 2024 Regional Theatre Tony Award

May 22, 2024

by Greg Evans

Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia
Wilma Theatre Courtesy

The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia will be the recipient of the 2024 Regional Theatre Tony Award, an annual honor recognizing a regional theatre company that has displayed “a continuous level of artistic achievement contributing to the growth of theatre nationally.”

The award is accompanied by a grant of $25,000.

“We are delighted to announce The Wilma Theater as the recipient of the 2024 Regional Theatre Tony Award,” said Heather Hitchens, president and CEO of the American Theatre Wing and Jason Laks, interim president of the Broadway League. “The Wilma has made outstanding contributions to the world of theatre over the course of 45 years, maintaining an unwavering dedication to contemporary theatre and a commitment to the arts that began with its visionary introduction of avant-garde theatre to Philadelphia in 1979.”

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 presented 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.

During the Zizkas’ tenure, the Wilma Theater established a national reputation for provocative theater. Over the years, the theater produced unforgettable works by Tom Stoppard, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright James Ijames, Pulitzer Prize and Obie Award-winner Paula Vogel, and Obie Award-winner Danai Gurira. In addition to hundreds of Philadelphia artists, Wilma has worked with Oscar Nominee David Strathairn, Obie Award-winner Zainab Jah, and Tony Award-winning actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

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.

Following Zizka’s retirement in 2021, Wilma solidified its model with three co-artistic directors. Lindsay Smiling, a founding member of HotHouse, assumed a leadership role in 2023.

Wilma’s 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).