One Wilma Theater artistic director becomes four, in a new leadership model

Wilma Theater's four co-artistic directors pose in the middle of South Broad Street, across from the theater. From left: James Ijames, Blanka Zizka, Yury Urnov and Morgan Green. (Photo courtesy of Wide Eyed Studio)

Wilma Theater's four co-artistic directors pose in the middle of South Broad Street, across from the theater. From left: James Ijames, Blanka Zizka, Yury Urnov and Morgan Green. (Photo courtesy of Wide Eyed Studio)

Starting this fall, the Wilma Theater will no longer have an artistic director. Instead, it will have four. The Center City theater, among Philadelphia’s major professional stages — and a company that doesn’t push the envelope as much as redesign it — is adopting a leadership model all its own.

Wilma officials announced Tuesday that the current season will be the last full season for artistic director Blanka Zizka, a major force in the increasingly robust Philadelphia theater community over the past 40 years. An artistic vision called “The Next Chapter” — the Wilma tends to brand all its new projects — will bring in three new artistic directors to collaborate with Zizka during the next three seasons.

Each will spend one upcoming season as the lead artistic director, selecting the shows, the casts and the design teams with advice from the others, including Zizka. During off-years for the three other directors, there’ll be plenty to do: develop new work, raise funds for the Wilma, and find ways to market the Wilma’s projects.

Zizka said the Wilma is trying to topple “the pyramid we’ve created in most arts organizations, the pyramid we are all functioning on” — a top-down model that she said is not inclusive and doesn’t fully consider the ideas or visions of other artists at a stage company. Two people sometimes share leadership at other arts institutions around the nation, but typically one person bears responsibility for an overall artistic vision. No major stage company appears to have four people at the helm.

The idea for Zizka was to gather a group of directors whose work she knew and who know the Wilma’s work, then pass on the names to the company’s board of directors for review and approval. As of last week, the board had approved all three.

One of the new artistic directors, James Ijames, has grown on several Philadelphia stages as a busy and versatile theater artist, first as an actor and then as a playwright and director. Ijames, 39, was an original member of the Wilma’s acting troupe, called the HotHouse, and has worked closely with the theater on stage and off.

Zizka initially approached Ijames with her idea about multiple artistic directors two years ago, “and about eight months ago she said, ‘this is actually a thing we’re going to do and I’d like to talk to you in earnest.’” At first, Ijames was “quite intimidated about the idea of even helping to run the Wilma,” but he came to see Zizka’s reasoning about the need for fresh perspectives.

“I not only thought, ‘I can do this. I want to do this,’” he said.

Another of the new artistic directors, Yury Urnov, is a director for Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., and has also directed for the Wilma. Urnov came to the United States in 2012 from a theater background in Russia, and two years ago directed the challenging post-apocalyptic play “Mr. Burns” for the Wilma.

Urnov was directing in Siberia when Zizka, not knowing where he was, called at 3 a.m. his time to discuss the job. He had been energized by the Wilma and its HotHouse troupe. “There were so many things happening on both human and artistic levels, and the group and the chemistry was so wonderful,” he said.

Urnov and the others “are planning the next season right now, and it’s so liberating. I’m wondering if it’s because not all the responsibility falls on one person. There is something healthy about that.”

Morgan Green, the third new artistic director, is among three theater artists who help devise work presented by New Saloon, a company she co-founded in New York City.

“I was very interested in having a young woman present,” Zizka said of Green, who is 30 and has worked with the New Saloon company over the last dozen years. About the Wilma, Green said: “It’s a dream to have a company of actors who work together regularly and vigorously and build trust.”

Green was referring to the HotHouse, the core resident acting group Zizka launched four years ago. Zizka, a rigorous director praised by actors for her expectations and the way she invites them to expand their craft, launched the HotHouse as an advanced training program and an incubator for new work. Its actors meet regularly in sessions that include physical, voice and intellectual exercises, and have become a solid part of the company, collaborating on artistic planning.

Blanka Zizka, co-founder and longtime leader of Wilma Theater, which will now have four artistic leaders. (Photo courtesy of Wide Eyed Studio)

Watching that dynamic, Zizka began to think about the way theaters generally operate without it. “I started to think of what we have achieved for the HotHouse actors, and that sense of collaboration. How do we extend it and bring it to the administration side of theater and to the leadership?” she said.

“In the HotHouse, I had to start to share my institutional power with the actors, because now we had to discuss our season with the company in mind,” Zizka said. “I also learned that by listening to others and by trusting and learning from them, you create an environment in which generosity becomes possible. I hadn’t planned it — that generosity would ultimately come out of that — but that’s what happened. That’s quite an art. Especially in today’s society, it’s almost radical. And I learned that listening and learning from each other was more important than imposing my own views on the organization.”

Zizka, 65, has been at the forefront of the city’s theater scene as it burgeoned into one of Philadelphia’s mini-industries. She and her then-husband Jiri defected from Soviet Czechoslovakia and ended up becoming artists in residence with what was called The Wilma Project, founded in 1979, a year before the Zizkas came to the United States.

The Zizkas assumed artistic leadership in 1981, and the company began performing at the Adrienne on Sansom Street, before expanding in 1996 to its current 296-seat house on Broad Street between Locust and Spruce. The façade of the Wilma’s building carries a signature art-neon piece that identifies it.

Ten years ago, Jiri Zizka, by then separated from Blanka, bowed out of the Wilma. He died in 2012, and Blanka Zizka became the sole face of the company. But she understood the process of collaborating with a second co-director, a particular skill set whose arc led her to Tuesday’s announcement.

Zizka said she would work with the company 50% of the time over the next three years, leading the HotHouse and, she hopes, directing a play a season. She also wants to “put down methodology on paper — a book and possibly teaching. I feel I’d like to begin sharing what I know.”

She’ll soon be teaching a workshop in Prague for a week. “It’s the beginning of something,” Zizka said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal