The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia Receives 2024 Regional Theatre Tony Award

May 22, 2024

The theater will receive a grant of $25,000.

By: Stephi Wild

The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has been announced as the recipient of the 2024 Regional Theatre Tony Award. The honor recognizes a regional theatre company that has displayed a continuous level of artistic achievement contributing to the growth of theatre nationally. The theater will receive 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.”

About The Wilma Theater

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, 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. Their 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, Wilma Theater launched its educational programs. Through their suite of youth programs, they strive to cultivate the artists and audiences of tomorrow through meaningful engagement with the art of today. Wilmagination has served over 10,000 Philadelphia high school students. In addition to the award-winning Wilmagination, the AllStars after-school program provides students with an opportunity to become more involved in the Wilma’s programming and artistic work. Through their adult theater programs, the Wilma Theater 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, its 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, Wilma 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 their strong collaborative leadership team and 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. The digital work garnered local, national, and international audiences, including productions 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. The team recognized that their digital theater work created an opportunity for the Wilma to expand points of access to their productions, inspiring us to make a strategic commitment to continue this work. In 2024, with support from the Knight Foundation, Wilma launched the Digital Theater Lab to imagine and expand the possibilities of streaming theater.

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). The Wilma aims to have their work continue to be a catalyst for catharsis, a catalyst for conversation, and a catalyst for change.