Pioneer of Philadelphia theater makes playwriting debut

 Blanka Zizka goes over notes with her actors before rehearsal for ''Adapt!'' at Wilma Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Blanka Zizka goes over notes with her actors before rehearsal for ''Adapt!'' at Wilma Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A longtime trailblazer of Philadelphia theater has written her first play.

Blanka Zizka co-founded the Wilma Theater more than 30 years ago and has directed over 70 plays. She has spent her career championing the avant-garde and pushing theatrical productions to new levels of creativity.

In that time, the Wilma has contributed to the revitalization of the Avenue of the Arts corridor along South Broad Street, and won 39 Barrymore Awards — more than any theater company in the region.

Zizka had never written a script. She never wanted to. As a director, her job is to interpret other people’s scripts.

In 2014 she hired playwright Paula Vogel to run a writing workshop for war veterans, as part of the Wilma’s production of Vogel’s “Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq.”

“I was in the room, so she made me write,” said Zizka, remembering being roped into a writing exercise about feeling alienated in a strange land.

Zizka is not a veteran; she’s an immigrant. In 1973 she defected from Czechoslovakia, pregnant and with her partner — Wilma co-founder Jiri Zizka — to make a life in art in America.

“I thought I could not write because of my English,” she said. “I never went to school here. I always had a handicap of not being a native speaker.”

Zizka overcame that handicap by writing a play about what she knows: “Adapt!” is about a young woman who immigrates from Prague to New York. It’s a dreamy, surreal production of a young woman caught between two worlds: excited about the vibrancy of the West, and anxious about losing everything she has known.

Unlike Zizka, this fictional character is traveling alone. The plot is invented, but the emotions are true to her experience.

“The point of the play was to explore this moment when you are going through a profound change. This moment of dislocation,” said Zizka. “In that moment, you lose your identity of who you were. You left it behind and what comes next, you don’t know. This is the moment of total vulnerability when dreams and reality can have the same meaning — floating into each other.”

Zizka wrote this play while working directly with her company of actors for a year and a half, so the language and movement would be natural to these performers and their bodies. She wanted the cadence of language to sound true on the stage, more so than look correct on the page.

During that time , the anti-immigrantion movement has gained wider support int he U.S. Zizka said she made changes to her work after Donald Trump was elected president. 

“After Trump’s election, and his decision to build a wall, I decided the set should be a wall,” she said. “The play deals with the Berlin Wall, and we were so happy to tear the wall down in 1989. Now we are talking about building a wall.”

“Adapt!” is now in previews, and opens next week.

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