The Wilma Theater Transformation Fund

Transforming in plain sight

“I wanted to create theater that matters,” says Blanka Zizka, founding artistic director of the Wilma Theater. A plan for a new way of making theater in Philadelphia has come from that statement.

Kristen Robinson’s proposed redesign of the Wilma Theater’s facade.

The Wilma Theater is transforming itself. With the help of a Wyncote Foundation naming grant of $5 million toward a $10 million Transformation Fund campaign, the theater hopes to not only spruce up its exterior, but also become a center for artistic development and a hub for community interaction.

The campaign was announced by Zizka, along with managing director James Haskins and playwright Tom Stoppard, whose Arcadia was the first play produced at the theater in 1996. His new play, The Hard Problem, currently playing at the Wilma, is the 12th Stoppard play produced at the Wilma. Stoppard reminisced about the opening of the theater, describing Zizka as someone who creates theater “the way I want theater to be.”

Creating a common sense of purpose

The impetus for change was Zizka’s dissatisfaction with how things were being done in regional theater. It had become an “assembly line production,” in which everything was done in isolation with too much focus on the bottom line. “There was no common sense of purpose,” she said. Instead Zizka, who had been part of an actors collective in Prague, wanted to duplicate that experience here.

One result is the HotHouse resident acting company, which began as a pilot this past fall. The HotHouse consists of about 10 members, all local actors, who have been meeting weekly to work on technique with Zizka and master trainers, and another 10 associates who are involved but not always available to participate in the rigorous training schedule. Members include several performers familiar to Philadelphia audiences: Ross Beschler, Sarah Gliko, and Ed Swidey.

An embodied approach

The journey to the formation of this company began with the 2011 production of Our Class by Polish playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek, a challenging play that follows 10 classmates throughout their lives. To get the performances she wanted, Zizka brought in Jean-René Toussaint to do a workshop in Stemwerk, his technique for working with the actor’s voice. This began a process that has been used in several productions, most notably last year’s Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Paula Vogel’s Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq in 2014. For this season’s Antigone, Zizka worked with Greek director Theodoros Terzopoulos and his Attis Theatre. This embodied approach to working with actors is even being applied to Stoppard’s cerebral new play about ethics and consciousness.

Creation of the HotHouse means that new works can be developed specifically for the company, including the early involvement of all those who will be involved in the final production. With support from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation’s Women Playwrights Commissioning Program, Kate Tarker, a recent graduate of Yale School of Drama, has been brought in as resident playwright to do just that.

Step by step

Transformation is a slow process, and all these innovations will take time. In the meantime, theatergoers will see changes in small increments. Some, such as offering subsidized WynTix tickets at $10 or $25 and the pilot program for the HotHouse company, have already begun.

Others, such as plans to convert the lobby into a café that will be open to the public, will take several years to implement: Construction will take place over the summer of 2017, with opening planned for that fall. (In the meantime, a performance venue liquor license has been applied for to allow for changes in the concession offerings.) Upstairs, offices will be moved and a studio space created for rehearsal and training — the latter will eventually allow the Wilma to offer studio classes.

The dawn of a new era

In honor of the support of the Wyncote Foundation, the theater is changing its name to “Wilma at Aurora.” The “Aurora” is Chara Aurora Cooper Haas, mother of the Haas brothers who are the foundation’s board of directors. Kristen Robinson, set designer for Rapture, Blister, Burn in 2014, has redesigned the façade of the theater, which hides a parking garage, to reflect the name change — but the familiar neon swirl remains.

The Wilma Theater, which began in 1973 as the Wilma Project, a feminist arts collective named for an imagined sister of Shakespeare, performed out of several locations, including the Adrienne Theater on Sansom Street, in its first two decades. In 1996, it moved to its present home on Broad Street as part of Mayor Ed Rendell’s Avenue of the Arts initiative. Blanka and Jiri Zizka joined the theater in 1979 as artists in residence and became artistic directors in 1981; Blanka took on that role herself in 2010. Now the theater is undergoing another reincarnation as it strives to remain relevant in a world that is constantly evolving.


Author’s note: Click here for American Theatre’s recent profile of Blanka.

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