The Avenue of the Arts in Philadelphia is exactly what its name suggests: a home to the arts. From theater and film to music and dance to museums and galleries, some of the city's and state’s finest art organizations call Broad Street home. Included in these organizations is the Wilma Theater, a non-profit theater with the mission to create living, adventurous art.
The Wilma Theater began 1973 as the Wilma Project, a feminist collective named after an invented sister of William Shakespeare, inspired by Virginia Wolf’s In a Room of One’s Own. While the Wilma Project, the Wilma presented numerous works with renowned avante garde theater artists such as the Bread & Puppet Theater, The Wooster Group, and Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Blanka and Jiri Zizka began working with the Wilma Project in 1979, and in 1981, the Czechoslovakian-born couple assumed artistic leadership.
Under the Zizkas, the Wilma Theater continued to grow and expanded. The Zizkas moved the Wilma Theater to a small, converted theater space in 1981 but they quickly outgrew this space. To support their growing audience, the Wilma Theater created their current facility at Broad and Spruce Streets, designed by renowned theater architect Hugh Hardy. In this space, the Zizkas further expanded the Wilma, establishing a national reputation for the provocative works they created and the unique theater experience they cultivated. Productions by the Wilma include works by both national and international writers, including Bertolt Brecht (Mother Courage), Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), Stephen Sondheim (Passion), Paula Vogel (Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq), Tony Kushner (Angels in America), and Athol Fugard (My Children! My Africa!). Their success is illustrated by the multiple Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theater (also known as Philadelphia’s equivalent of the Tony).
A selection of playbills from Wilma Theater productions.
The Wilma Theater's archives are a magnificent place to experience the exceptional nature of the Wilma, through playbills, photographs, production notes, and various other materials. One of the more fascinating aspects of the Wilma’s records are the production binders, the active working files kept by the director during a production. While surveying, we explored the contents of one set of production binders from 1986 for the Wilma’s production of 1984. The Wilma presented 1984 not only in Philadelphia, but also at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. for the American National Theater. Based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel, the plot was adapted by Czech playwright Pavel Kohot, translated by Jiri Zizka and Michael Ladenson, and directed by Jiri Zizka. The production binders associated with 1984 (of which there are many!) provide a record of Jiri’s process of bringing the play from the paper to the stage. There are notes, design sketches, casting information, lighting cues, photographs, and staging information, among other things. It is a fascinating look at the artistic process of bringing 1984 to the stage.
If you’re looking to learn more about theater in Philadelphia, the Wilma Theater is a great place to start. Check out their archives to learn more about the works they’ve brought to the Philadelphia stage!