The future is collaborative

The Wilma’s Tony reminds us to keep fighting for Philly’s arts community

5 minute read
View from the audience of a standing ovation at the Wilma, with the cast and stage manager lined up joyfully under the lights
At the curtain call for Yury Urnov's 2023 production of 'Twelth Night,' the artists and the audience honored longtime resident stage manager Patreshettarlini Adams. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

Broad Street Review doesn’t usually break news like last week’s announcement of a 2024 Regional Theatre Tony Award for the Wilma Theater. Other outlets do a fine job of bringing you those facts quickly. What we offer is consistent coverage of the Wilma’s work—along with that of dozens of other Philly-area companies—for the last 19 years.

The Wilma’s Tony (along with a $25,000 grant) honors “a continuous level of artistic achievement contributing to the growth of theater nationally.” Arts reviews are a rarity in today’s local media. If you want to visit an independent public record of the Wilma’s work in recent years through the eyes of diverse professional critics, you’ll have to read BSR. Quality arts coverage is never a one-and-done story. It’s a layered community conversation that lasts for years.

The Wilma team says its Tony celebrates its whole community, including artists, volunteers, staffers, peer institutions, government officials, and audiences: “You are part of the Wilma and all that we do.” The company is proving that the modern arts world needs a collaborative model.

The Next Chapter

In 2020, in a bold move launched just before the pandemic would strangle life as we knew it in the cultural sector for years (perhaps forever?), the Wilma announced that artistic director Blanka Zizka was handing the reins not just to a new generation, but a whole new model. The theater would have four artistic directors: Yury Urnov, James Ijames, and Morgan Green joined Zizka at the helm, in partnership with managing director Leigh Goldenberg. Zizka retired in 2021 and, in 2023, following Ijames’s 2022 Pulitzer for Fat Ham, HotHouse Company member Lindsay Smiling replaced him.

“It needed all these people to survive,” Urnov told me a year ago via Zoom when I sat down with all three artistic directors and Goldenberg to ask them about their joint leadership model and how they stayed afloat in the early years of the pandemic.

The Wilma is a large and many-faceted institution, they explained: it’s combining stage productions and its own distinctive acting company with education and community outreach programs.

“We are individual artists with our own set of interests and aesthetics and tastes,” Green said of the three co-directors, and together, they form a Venn diagram: “It’s not one person’s vision, but a dense overlap of people’s interests,” and an intensive “give and take” outside the “core density” which requires a lot of trust and communication. “The result is a much more expansive offering,” she said.

Smiling, speaking before he officially assumed his co-artistic director role in fall 2023, noted that his prime interest is developing the acting company; Green’s is new play development; and Urnov is focused on international artists. With a collaborative leadership model, they can pursue all of these.

“People thought Blanka’s name was Wilma,” Green added about the perceptions of the artistic director role, and how entwined that work can become with one person’s identity and drive. But that’s the road to burnout. The work should be collaborative, and “no individual person is an institution.”

Continue collective advocacy

Artists work together, and the community should, too. Moments like this, when we’re proud of Philly artists on a national stage, are a good time to remember that our arts scene needs our collective advocacy throughout the year. In 2022, Ijames’s Pulitzer win coincided with that year’s attempt by the Kenney Administration to gut the Philadelphia Cultural Fund (PCF) after trying to eliminate the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy in 2020.

At the time, I pointed out how short-sighted it is to axe arts and culture while police budgets balloon, especially in a city like Philly. Ijames honed his voice and vision for years with the support of many local companies. Azuka Theatre, which hosted the first public reading of Fat Ham in 2020, and the Wilma, where it premiered in 2021, have each received PCF grants. As the Kenney Administration slumped to its finish, it looked at Philly’s arts infrastructure and its signature cultural institutions, already hammered by the pandemic, and somehow got up the energy to put us on the chopping block. Philly’s pandemic-era arts advocates (including BSR, a proud recipient of PCF grants) rallied annually to fend off the worst of the proposed cuts.

Our artists are tired. But apparently not too tired to draw some of the nation’s top cultural honors (also see Philly-native stars like Quinta Brunson and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Sapphira Cristál, and new-music chamber choir, The Crossing). Let’s keep our pride and our excellence front and center during the Parker Administration. Last week, Smiling and Goldenberg spoke at City Hall as councilmembers introduced a joint resolution to honor the Tony win.

We are here today

At BSR, we wish we weren’t the only publication in town consistently documenting work like the Wilma’s throughout the season. It’s exciting for us to wonder which of the artists we’re covering this week will make national news over the next decade. But we’re here to connect you to their work today, whether or not they ever win a Pulitzer, or an Oscar, or an Emmy, or a Grammy, or a Tony, or a Barrymore, or any award at all. Because Philly artists deserve that coverage. And our readers want to discover them now.

Congrats to the Wilma team for continuing to prove on a national stage what locals already know about Philly: our city is full of world-class artists.

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