Wilma Theater’s Blanka Zizka wins $100,000 Vilcek Prize

 (Photograph courtesy of The Vilcek Foundation.)

(Photograph courtesy of The Vilcek Foundation.)

One afternoon several weeks ago Blanka Zizka was — where else? — in a rehearsal. The artistic director and co-founder (along with her then-husband, Jiri) of Wilma Theater, one of the city’s flagship theaters, did not want to be interrupted by a phone call she’d received. She was focusing on stage work.

“I got this phone call on my cell phone and there was some man talking to me in an accent,” said Zizka, who left Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia in 1976. She’s never lost her own accent, even surrounded by Philadelphians.

The man explained about a foundation and said, “Will you please call me back? I think I have some goods news for you,” Zizka recounted. That would be enough for most people to demand, “Tell me now,” but Zizka went back to rehearsal.

Around 5:30 she called the man. Always looking to fundraise, Zizka thought that good news from a foundation meant money for the theater.

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“There is a little bit of money,” the man told her. “‘But it’s for you, it’s not going to be for the theater.’ And then he says $100,000,” she said. “I was completely shocked.”

Zizka had won the Vilcek Foundation award, a prize for an immigrant artist or scientist with a major record of achievement. It was established by two immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia — a scientist named Jan Vilcek and his artist wife, Marica.

Zizka had not heard of them, and they later told her that a committee they established to award the prize chose Zizka this year, independent of their Czech connection. Three more theater artists each won $50,000 awards for achievements in the early stages of their careers. The prizes, noted Marica Vilcek, “recognize a bold group of immigrant artists whose vision is as original as it is unflinching.”

That’s an appropriate definition of Zizka, a rigorous director whom actors praise for the expectations  she sets and the way she invites them to expand their craft. She’s been at the forefront of the expanding theater scene that, over the decades, has blossomed into a vibrant community of professional theater artists, as well as a minor industry here (with lots of donated support, as always for the arts).

Her first play in Philadelphia was before the Wilma was established as a theater company — an adaptation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” that she wrote not long after acquiring a basic facility in English. Her most recent directing was last month, with the American premiere of Tom Stoppard’s rich and challenging play about consciousness, “The Hard Problem.”

In between there have been hits and some misses and, always, a sense of commitment and artistry.

To listen to part of a conversation between NewsWorks theater critic Howard Shapiro and Blanka Zizka, click on the audio box at the top of this Web page.

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