Blanka Zizka’s speech at the Zelda Fichandler Awards.

Hello dear SummerWorks friends.  Its Michael Rubenfeld writing from Philadelphia where I am working at a theatre called “The Wilma” on a production of “OUR CLASS” by Polish Writer, Tadeusz Slobodzianek.  The piece is directed by the Artistic Director of The Wilma, Blanka Zizka. Blanka, original from Czechoslovakia (now Czech-Republic) emigrated to the US over 30 years ago, and began what is now The Wilma Theater with her then husband, Jiri Zizka.  On Monday, Blanka received a prestigious directing award called the Zelda Fichandler award.  She made a speech that she has kindly allowed me to repost here, as it speaks to what I believe is a universal issue of how the theatre has adopted a business model that is dictating the kind of work we are making and how we are making it.  On another note: Blanka is a remarkable community engager here in Philadelphia, and the Wilma has done and continues to do some very interesting and interested work, including a number of Canadian productions.

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Blanka Zizka at the Zelda Fichandler awards. October 24th, 2012

I’m extremely honored, thrilled and humbled to receive the Zelda Fichandler Award and to find myself in the company of these distinguished finalists: Richard Garner, producing artistic director and co-founder of Georgia Shakespeare in Atlanta; Joseph Haj, artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, NC; and D. Lynn Meyers, producing artistic director of Ensemble Theatre in Cincinnati, as well as my good friend Howard Shalwitz of Washington DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre. I’m very grateful to be in their company.

In 1950, Zelda Fichandler left New York City for Washington, D.C, founded Arena Stage, and started the remarkable regional theatre movement that has grown into a myriad of voices, artistic missions and aesthetics that is exemplified in Philadelphia, the city where I have been working for over thirty years. Today, Philadelphia is experiencing an unprecedented birthing of small theaters. The artistic fermentation of new projects and the enterprising spirit of small companies – these are very exciting realities not only in Philadelphia, but across the United States.  I’m curious to find out if these energies can be sustained and if there is enough support for growth, learning, and maturing, so that these companies can grow and become extraordinary at their craft and yet not lose their initial idealism, energy, originality, and need to share ideas through art.

When my ex-husband Jiri Zizka and I arrived in Philadelphia from the former Czechoslovakia in 1977, we were young, idealistic, and full of the hope of creating a theater company.  After our first production, our adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which was created over six months with students from my physical theater class – the total budget was $600 and, of course, everyone working on the project volunteered – we learned that in order to be serious about creating theater pieces, we had to become a non-profit organization (What does that mean?), have a Board of Directors, be able to fundraise and start growing a subscription base. What an odd thing it is to include arts under the title non-profit, I thought. It doesn’t sound idealistic, artistic, or mission-driven; just the opposite, it suggests that theater, as everything else, is business; although business that doesn’t make a profit. I arrived from a country where politicians considered theater so important, dangerous, and subversive that it had to be censored, controlled, and perhaps suppressed all together. The idea that art should be a business was foreign to me.

During the 80’s and 90’s, the regional theater movement was very successful at building its institutions. Many theaters across the country, including The Wilma, raised capital funds to build new theaters, created administrative and production positions to run these institutions, and expanded their subscription bases. Danny Newman’s Subscribe Now!became the new bible.  As a norm, we all fell into a system of producing four to seven plays a year with four-week rehearsal schedules and five-week runs. This schedule was dictated by the subscription system. Subscription sales became the main source of income of regional theaters. The size of a subscription audience was a sign of a successful organization. Even the discussion at TCG national conferences during those two decades focused on subscriptions. “How many subscribers do you have?” Artistic Directors asked each other, beaming with pride when their numbers were higher than those of their colleagues.

If the subscription base dropped, something was wrong with the programming; Artistic Directors became responsible for the well-being of the institution and sometimes were fired by the Board of Directors if programs didn’t bring in a sufficient number of subscribers and the necessary box office income. They were not good for the institution. Is it possible that theaters started to program for their subscription audiences? Is it possible that we, the Artistic Directors of regional theaters, have lost our courage, spirit, idealism, and desire for experimentation in spite of the institutional growth of our theaters?… Or perhaps we have lost these qualities because of the institutional growth of our theaters?

What happened to the art? Theater, after all, is the most collaborative of all the art forms. But what happened to our collaborators, to our artists?

In the past regional theaters did not provide enough professional opportunities, so many actors moved first to NYC and then to LA to take care of their careers and to make money. Artistic Directors of regional theaters, including the Wilma, hired casting directors in New York and auditioned New York actors for productions in their hometowns. And so we found ourselves in an absurd situation – constantly searching for actors, casting for a role only by type, forcing actors to use the same skill over and over again, instead of helping them to develop their talents. Actors could do the same thing for film or TV, for much more money, and so the regional theaters ended up waiting for actors, who would choose to work in their theaters only if they didn’t get a movie, TV series, commercial, show on Broadway, off-Brodway, or even off-off Broadway. Only then, perhaps, their agents allowed them to take a job at a regional theater.

Freelance artists – directors and designers working in theater – have to take on many projects each year to make a living. They, like true nomads, go from city to city, from production to production. My director friends talk about directing five shows a year. My God, how does one do that? What kind of research and preparation can one do? How can one develop a unique and original interpretation of the text? My designer friends work on about 25 different shows a year. That seems completely insane! With this kind of schedule, how can these artists truly invest in one individual production? They don’t have the time.

And so we have arrived at a strange state of affairs: Theaters don’t invest in freelance artists and freelance artists don’t spend enough time developing productions in the regional theaters.  There’s no investment in continuity, learning, or experimentation.

Can we create art this way? I don’t believe we can. What we can do under these circumstances is only the best possible job. Theater has become a business, a not-for-profit business.

So, for me the big question is how do we return to creating art? I know that this has to be my focus and my effort in the next few years: How do we get back to creating art on stage? How do we create theater that is stunning, meaningful, beautiful, that shakes our audiences to their core and shows us what it means to be human?

I have more questions about making art in the regional theater: How do we create and support artistic communities in our cities?  How do we take advantage of what’s happening in our cities and support new artistic energies that are coming to life? How do we give support not only to playwrights, but also to experimentation in rehearsals and workshops to help us develop strong theater aesthetics? How do we change today’s practice of artists working in isolation?

Actors can’t work alone. They need to be in a rehearsal room, in workshops, they need to be challenged by new possibilities, they need to work within a collective. Playwrights, too, so often write in isolation from theaters, without the chance to observe actors experimenting with breath and vocal resonators, with language, silence, movement, ritual, and improvisation. Might these kinds of experiences give writers an impulse to experiment with a new style of writing? Wouldn’t it be great to have at least a week of rehearsals before we try to design our productions? How do we create a unified vision when we work on new projects in such a short amount of time?

Theatre is a collective art form. We cannot do it alone. We cannot do it in isolation.

I believe that we will find our audiences if our theaters produce work that takes on the complexities and issues of our lives in a courageous, bold, unexpected, and original way. We must not be afraid.

As the artistic leader of the Wilma I want to help create a culture in Philadelphia that is generous to its local artists, that helps them grow and learn, that challenges them but also supports and connects them to the community. Theater doesn’t need to happen only in the safety of our theaters. If we have a company we can go and perform in unexpected places; we can go to schools and to different communities. We can travel.  We need to be courageous, generous and giving. We need to listen to each other, be open, and learn. As artists we need to strive to get better in our work. We have to be able to create a memorable theater, one that matters.  Fear of failure makes us stagnate. Generosity and investment in people make us grow.

Thank you, once again. I’m very moved to be awarded the Zelda Fichandler Award. I want to thank the selection committee for this great honor.  I also wish to express my deep gratitude to Jamie Haskins, the Managing Director of the Wilma, for his commitment to the art of theater, for his passion, wisdom, and for his trust and support. I’m very lucky to work with Jamie as well with the rest of the Wilma staff and the generous Wilma Board.

Thank you all.

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Blanka Zizka has been the Artistic Director of The Wilma Theater since 1981. Her most recent productions at the Wilma were In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (winner of 8 Barrymore awards) and Macbeth, the theater’s first-ever Shakespeare production. Blanka also directed the World Premiere production of Yussef El Guindi’s Language Rooms; her productions of Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched and Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll garnered 17 Barrymore nominations in 2009. She recently directed Leoš Janáček’s opera Kát’a Kabanová for the Academy of Vocal Arts, as well as Ariel Dorfman’s The Other Side, starring Rosemary Harris and John Cullum at Manhattan Theatre Club. At the Wilma, her credits include the U.S. Premiere of Linda Griffiths’s Age of Arousal, Althol Fugard’s Coming Home and My Children! My Africa!, Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, the World Premiere of Raw Boys by Dael Orlandersmith, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis (Barrymore Winner, Best Overall Production and Best Director), the World Premiere o fEmbarrassments by Laurence Klavan and Polly Pen, and the Philadelphia Premieres of Lillian Groag’s The Magic Fire and Chay Yew’s Red. In 2002 she directed the World Premiere of Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman at Manhattan Theatre Club, McCarter Theatre Center, Long Wharf Theatre, ACT in Seattle, and at The Wilma Theater. She was awarded the first Barrymore Award for Best Direction of a Play for Cartwright’s Road.

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2 thoughts on “Blanka Zizka’s speech at the Zelda Fichandler Awards.

  1. Great speech. Is it going too far to call this the Mike Daisey Doctrine he outlined in How Theatre Failed America? When I did my MFA at the ART in Boston it went from a rep model to one that hires freelancers out of NYC. It has gone from one of the most groundbreaking to one of the safest and conventional in the US. Not a coincidence.

    • I think there are many echoes of what Mike Daisey had to say — but it is interesting hearing if from someone who is running a theatre that uses and highly relies on a subscription model — and is looking for ways to make personal changes in her own theatre … and there are some really interesting things in the works over there. Great, also, that she made the speech when accepting an important award for her colleagues to hear.

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