Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater wins a Tony Award

The Regional Theater Award recognizes the company’s unique creative structure and risk-taking productions over the last 45 years.

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Managing Director Leigh Goldenberg and Co-Artistic Directors Lindsay Smiling, Morgan Green and Yury Umov.

The leadership of Wilma Theater delight in the win of a Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. They are (from left) Managing Director Leigh Goldenberg and Co-Artistic Directors Lindsay Smiling, Morgan Green and Yury Umov. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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The Tony Awards ceremony for Broadway theater will be held next month, but today they announced the Best Regional Theater.

And the award goes to: Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater.

The surprise call came last Thursday to managing director Leigh Goldenberg.

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“The phone said ‘Broadway LE,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Lindsay’ — he was sitting in my office — ‘Broadway’s calling.’”

“I think you should probably get that,” said Lindsay Smiling, one of Wilma’s co-artistic directors.

After being told they won, the first call they made was to company founder Blanka Zizka, who established the Wilma’s unique organizational structure of three artist directors sharing leadership, and a permanent troupe of in-house actors called the Hothouse. She retired in 2021.

Players rehearse for Wilma Theater's world premiere of ''Hilma,'' a contemporary opera about Swedish mystic and artist Hilma af Klint.
Players rehearse for Wilma Theater’s world premiere of ”Hilma,” a contemporary opera about Swedish mystic and artist Hilma af Klint. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“The reason for this all is the Hothouse. The Hothouse has become the soul of the Wilma,” Zizka said. “It was all about learning, experimenting, and really investing into the development of the company. Now we have 16 actors who are not just great actors, but they are becoming great artists.”

Since leaving the company, Zizka has kept tabs on the Wilma, giving an occasional word of wisdom to individual artistic directors, but has largely kept her distance. She said the leaders and actors have shaped the company she created in their own vision.

“This mixture of great energy and ideas and tastes,” she said, “it’s much easier to have four people together to make this energy than when you are alone.”

The Tony Awards are given to productions that have played on Broadway, and since the 1970s they’ve reserved a special Regional Theater Award for outstanding companies across the country. The Wilma is distinctive not only for the excellence of its original productions, but for its unique approach to running a theater company.

“The Wilma has made outstanding contributions to the world of theatre over the course of 45 years,” said Heather Hitchens, president and CEO of the American Theatre Wing and Jason Laks, interim president of the Broadway League, who administer the Tonys. “Maintaining an unwavering dedication to contemporary theatre and a commitment to the arts that began with its visionary introduction of avant-garde theatre to Philadelphia in 1979.”

Smiling said the award means a lot because, instead of recognizing a single production or artist, it acknowledges an entire approach to making theater.

“It is a testament to what we’re doing in this institution,” said Smiling. “We’ve been trying to create this shared leadership model and also having an acting company over the last decade or so, changing the format of how the theater is produced in this country.”

The Wilma is the only theater company in Pennsylvania to win the award since it began in 1976, and only the second company in this region to win. In 1996 the McCarter Theater at Princeton University won the award.

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The Wilma regularly wins Philadelphia’s Barrymore Awards, and this week won two Washington, D.C. regional awards, the Helen Hayes Awards, for a co-production with Wooly Mammoth Theater, “My Mama and the Full Scale Invasion.”

Two years ago one of its former artistic directors, James Ijames, won the Pulitzer Prize for his play “Fat Ham,” which the Wilma gave its pandemic-era premiere in 2021 as an online streaming production. Later the Public Theater of New York gave “Fat Ham” its stage premiere, for which it won the Pulitzer.

The Hothouse company of actors are paid a regular stipend regardless of whether they are in a production, and participate in workshops year-round. The trust that built over time among them and the leadership cohort enables the Wilma to take risks that might be otherwise daunting.

“American culture, we should accept, is a very individualistic culture,” said Yury Urnov, one of the three artistic director who comes from Moscow. “Theater is a very communal work. It’s ensemble work.”

“This is a chemistry that we’ve been working on, over years and years and years and years,” Smiling said. “There’s an ease. There’s a grandeur. There is a danger and there’s a vulnerability that culminates in actors moving together in a way that is very courageous.”

The next production that will close out Wilma’s season is the premiere of an operatic play, “Hilma,” on June 4, about the early 20th-century mystical artist Hilma of Klint. The Wilma’s third co-artistic director Morgan Green is directing and says it is in line with the risk-taking the Wilma is known for. Just two weeks before opening, she is still trying to figure it out.

“The risk factor is we don’t totally know what we’re making until we’ve made it,” Green said. “That’s hard but exciting and full of potential. At the Wilma we have to approach the work with genuine curiosity and be open to discover what it wants to become.”

Like theaters everywhere, the Wilma is still suffering from the pandemic shutdowns. Audiences are not coming like they used to, and budgets are not what they were. Urnov hopes the high-profile award will trigger some people to re-discover theater.

“I hope it serves as an invitation, as an additional reason to come,” he said. “It’s harder after COVID to stand up from your couch and go anywhere, to a theater doing risky work specifically.”

The Wilma is applying its collective structure to theater more broadly, lending support to other Philadelphia theater companies and collaborating with companies afar, such as the Woolly Theater in D.C., for which it has won awards.

“We’re representative of Philadelphia, but there’s also theaters like the Wilma all over the country,” Godenberg said. “We really want people who are interested in seeing what’s happening on that stage to go to the theaters in their hometown. That’s what we need.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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