Considering Wilma’s Next Chapter: Blanka Zizka is joined by three co-directors

Changes are afoot at the Wilma Theater, with Blanka Zizka moving on from her role as sole artistic director after forty years in charge of the company.

Wilma theater
Photo courtesy Wide Eyed Studios.

At a celebratory announcement this afternoon, the theater announced a three-year transition period, the “Next Chapter,” with three co-artistic directors taking turns as “lead artistic director.” Yury Urnov (2020/21), James Ijames (2021/22), and Morgan Green (2022/23) will work with Zizka to plan and execute the coming seasons, while the founding director remains on overseeing the artistic practice of the resident Wilma HotHouse Company of actors.

Named after Virginia Woolf’s imaginary oppressed sister of Shakespeare, the Wilma began in 1973 and saw recent Czech émigrés Jiri and Blanka Zizka join the project in 1979. By 1981, the husband-wife team were leading the company. The 1980s marked a reawakening of local theater, as the area went from having one theater with a contract with the actors union in 1979 to fifteen in 1989. The Wilma was part of the vanguard of the early Philly theater renaissance. The Zizkas were involved in rehabbing the Adrienne Theater on Sansom Street and joined a host of Philly companies making their home there.

At today’s announcement, former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell highlighted the company’s role in establishing South Broad Street as the rebranded Avenue of the Arts. The Wilma’s move to its current home in the late 1990s marked the first in a series of additions to the one-mile stretch, an occasion which was marked by the rolling of a giant stone down the street in the style of Sisyphus. (I’ll let readers make their own metaphors about Philly’s arts scene, urban renewal projects in general, or human existence.)

Blanka took sole direction of the Wilma in 2012, after Jiri’s death. Reminiscing about his lost “voice, wit, and artistry,” she introduced the announced Next Chapter as a continuation of the theater’s radical artistic vision.

The years since Jiri’s death have seen the Wilma’s endowment grow from around $800,000 to at least $3.4 million (as of July 2018). Coordinated with a $10 million capital campaign announced in 2016 ($5 million of which came from the Wyncote Foundation), this has allowed the company to forge new artistic paths of Blanka’s choosing. Subscriber turnover is rumored to have been high and the theater has posted operating losses for three of the last four years on file at non-profit reporting clearinghouse Guidestar, but the formation of the HotHouse Company of actors has seen the Wilma establish an artistic model relatively unique among major American regional theaters.

The five-year-old resident artistic company maintains a collaborative group of around fifteen performers who meet each week to train together, incubate new work, and develop the Wilma’s movement-based theatrical aesthetic. The HotHouse Company forms the core cast of the Wilma’s five major productions each year. All members are compensated annually by the theater, in addition to receiving union-scale salaries (around $825/week) for each show in which they perform.

James Ijames, Blanka Zizka, Yury Urnov, and Morgan Green outside the Wilma. Photo courtesy Wide Eyed Studios.

According to the press release which accompanied the Wilma’s announcement, the idea for and values of the Next Chapter were shaped by Zizka’s work with the HotHouse and its principles of risk, rigor, vulnerability, and collaboration. Under this plan, three new artistic co-directors have been selected by Zizka and hired by the board of directors to work alongside her over the next three years. Beginning in 2020, Zizka will share the artistic leadership with three acclaimed directors and artists who come to the Wilma with their own unique artistic voice, viewpoint, and style, yet have an understanding of the theater’s past artistic practices and values.

Concurrently, the theater’s board announced the appointment of a new managing director, Leigh Goldenberg. Formerly marketing and public relations manager at the Arden Theatre and currently the executive director of Theatre Philadelphia (the umbrella organization of regional theaters), Goldenberg will oversee the operations, marketing, fundraising, and finances of the Wilma.

As another immigrant from Eastern Europe, the first “lead director,” Russian-born Yury Urnov, fits with the aesthetic established by Jiri and Blanka. Praising the anti-hierarchical nature of the Wilma’s Next Chapter period, he recalled getting the invitation by phone call from a Russian hotel room eleven time zones away. A company member of acclaimed DC playhouse Woolly Mammoth Theater, he directed the Wilma’s 2018 production of Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, evidencing a willingness to imprint his mark on a script in a style familiar to Wilma audiences.

Celebrated local playwright James Ijames is no stranger to the Wilma stage. He won one of his two acting Barrymores (Philly’s theater awards) for a role in the theater’s 2012 production of Angels in America (he also has two Barrymores for directing) and his award-winning play Kill Move Paradise had its local premiere at the Wilma in 2018. His original work forefronts race, with perhaps his best work, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, reexamining the legacy of the first first family while Kill Move Paradise considers the after-life of police killings of young black men. His writing and history of play choice as a director fits with the Wilma’s commitment to diversity onstage and in the audience and commitment to radical new work. This was something Ijames called out in his announcement speech, saying he likes theater to “push the limits of how plays meet people.”

A scene from Ijames’s KILL MOVE PARADISE at the Wilma, 2018. Photo by Joanna Austin,

Morgan Green’s tenure as lead artistic director will conclude the Next Chapter transition. Barely 30-years-old, Green is a co-founder of New Saloon, a Brooklyn-based experimental theater company. In producing new plays which bend and twist theatrical form, unexpected musical revivals, and classic works deconstructed through a feminist lens, she seeks to “answer why anyone would go to the theater when there’s so much good stuff on TV.”

The three new members of the Wilma’s cohort of artistic co-directors are contracted for a multi-year term. The four-member team (including Zizka) will collaborate on the next three Wilma seasons and share the responsibilities of running the Wilma, along with Goldenberg and the administrative staff. For the season in which they serve as lead artistic director, Urnov, Ijames, and Green will take the lead in selecting the shows and the productions’ artistic teams, in collaboration with the other artistic directors. In the other years of their tenure, they will plan and prepare their own upcoming season; advise that season’s lead artistic director; develop new work and other artistic ventures; and support the Wilma’s fundraising and marketing.

“The Wilma Next Chapter is an exciting, bold rethinking of how to run a major regional theater,” Wilma board chair John Rollins said. “We are creating a new artistic leadership model based in collaboration, trust, and multiplicity of voices. I am excited for our audiences and supporters to embrace this new vision and to see it impact the national scene.”

With Nell Bang-Jensen replacing founder Matthew Decker as artistic head of Norristown’s Theatre Horizon and Paige Price succeeding the longtime head of Philadelphia Theatre Company Sara Garonzik, recent years have seen the beginning of an inevitable changing of the guard in Philly theater. As many of the city’s companies were founded several decades ago, we’re likely to see a new generation of artistic directors in the coming years.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Wilma’s unusual vision for its Next Chapter manifests onstage. See you at the theater.

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