Global Conversation with Blanka Zizka

Blanka Zizka, Artistic Director of The Wilma Theater.

By Will Becker, Global Philadelphia Ambassador.

What is your role as artistic director for the Wilma theater?
I came from Czechoslovakia, a country that doesn’t exist anymore, and that was a long time ago, in 1977. I left because I wanted to do theater in Czechoslovakia, but the theater I was working in was closed down by the government. It was kind of an underground theater at the time, and I thought I would do theater somewhere else, kind of naively. I went through refugee camps and ended up in the US in Philadelphia and started to work towards getting into theater here, and basically building the Wilma from scratch. There was a Wilma project that was started in 1973 and I met the artists who were running it, it was a $19,000 budget, which you can imagine at the time was just the cost of running the rehearsal space. The first production we did was an adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and everybody volunteered, and we built the theater from project to project into what it is now.
So as artistic director what I do is I basically create the season, work and develop a company of actors, and work with playwrights and develop new projects – so I’m setting up the artistic direction of the theater and I have administrative help to fundraise money and help market it and create budgets, because now it is getting too big for one person to do it alone. I feel like I’ve learned it by doing it basically.

What prepared you for this role, what did you do before this?

It was my husband Yiri and myself; he died about 4 or 5 years ago, and we basically started the Wilma together and the first project we did together was in ’79. I was very idealistic and put myself into it, I didn’t know anything about non-profits or Boards of Directors and so I forced myself to learn as I was doing it. There was a lot of people, especially coming from Eastern Europe at the time, so there was a lot of interest in helping out, so I had friends and people in businesses who were trying to teach us how to run a theater business. It was all by doing it through practice, basically.
I was very young when I left Czechoslovakia and I could not study theater because of the political situation, so there was basically no future that I wanted for me and that was basically the reason I left, like others. The politics divided the country with the Soviet Invasion in 1968, and I left in 1976 eight years later and there was a huge load of oppression and censorship and nothing was really possible until 1989 when everything changed.

What has been the largest obstacle that has faced the theater in the last ten years and how have you overcome that obstacle?

I think the largest obstacle is the amount of entertainment that is now available through technology, because it is very easy now to just stay at home and watch videos and spend time on the internet. So to actually bring people in and persuade them the benefit of going out and leaving the house and mixing with other people is not that easy as it used to be. I think the technology is taking our audiences away.

Do you feel that “millennials” have changed the theater experience and how Wilma works?
I work a lot with young people and I feel there is interest in theater, but in the past with older generations there was this idea of subscriptions which I feel was a help because people would buy the whole season ahead, because they knew what they were going to do 3 months or 6 months from now, and they were planning their lives. It allowed us to make some risks and do new plays because there was a sense of loyalty, but now with this excess of possibilities for everyone there is no loyalty. I think millennials are culturally very adventurous but there are many possibilities. 90% of single ticket buyers do not come back, and this is not just theater this is opera and other things. There are so many possibilities, so they taste it and go to something else, which the previous generation kind of lacked.
There was much more of a connection with and loyalty to the organization, which for us was easier because as you can imagine the marketing for subscriptions was just one marketing campaign, but now you have to do a marketing campaign for each single performance, so its very expensive for many theaters. Recently we had these performances for high-school students for Adapt!, and the discussions we had with the kids were so exciting and intellectually stimulating in a way more so than an older audience, who are sometimes set in the way they perceive the world.  
I think theaters and institutions like us need to figure out how to invite millenials and younger audiences in. I feel like there is even tension sometimes because we are doing plays by younger writers many times, so the experiences are of the younger generation but the theater audience are sometimes older, or if the audience is both millennials or older people I feel it brings an interesting tension. I feel like theater can provoke these kind of mixes and cause someone to sit next to a person who has a completely different experience from me, and experience the same thing together.

What international initiatives are you involved with? I noticed one of the plays running in your season is Seuls, written by a Lebanese-Canadian artist.

I’ve invested a lot into Philadelphia and New York actors in the past, but I’ve also challenged our audience by bringing artists into Philadelphia who are internationally known, to challenge their skills and perception of what theater can be. Sometimes I feel we can be very localized and create our own safe environment and I think its good to disrupt that and bring people who have channeled the world and can challenge us with ideas in their work and how they can be presented. Before Wajdi (Mouawad) we brought in a Greek director who has been traveling around the world with his company, and now we are bringing in a Hungarian director too.

What do you think of Philadelphia as a global center, or an international city?
I think the city is becoming more and more of an international city. I think what Wilma, Fringe Arts, PMA, and Philadelphia Opera are doing is great, in terms of bringing international artists here. I think we are all working towards that, but I think what we have to do is get our audiences excited about that as well. I think there is still a bit of a lag in terms of what our audiences are ready to be challenged with or embrace.
I love this James Baldwin quote about art in which he says “art exists to uncover questions that are hidden by answers,” and so many times we are just making answers for everything and sometimes art is there to question the results of answering the question. I think being on the east coast we have an advantage over other cities, Philadelphia might not be as open as D.C. or New York but I think the city has been changing quite a lot.

Why did you join GPA?
Because of the relationship we have with the artists and the work we are doing. One of the things we want to do every year for sure is to introduce work from artists who are coming from circumstances and life experiences so we can actually learn from each other. Humanity learns from considering other people’s stories and putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, to understand how to navigate in a world that is now global and we are all connected. When we talk about the real problems that are out there, like the environment for instance, it is all global and we need to talk about that as a global effort.  

Adapt! An original play written and directed by Blanka Zizka, is showing March 22nd – April 22nd, 2017 at the Wilma Theater.
This interview has been edited and condensed from its original version.