PHILADELPHIA — Blanka Zizka, the artistic director of the Wilma Theater here, had reached a breaking point.
About seven years ago, she was putting on a new play featuring actors from New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and “the room was filled with egos and fears,” Ms. Zizka said. It felt all too familiar: “starting a production trying to get the fear out of people.”
“It takes a long time to build trust,” explained Ms. Zizka, who defected from Czechoslovakia in 1976 with her husband, Jiri, and joined the fledgling Wilma three years later. “That sense of discontinuity was really painful. I thought, if that’s what theater means in the United States, I don’t want to do it. One possibility was to retire, and the other was to change things.”
Ms. Zizka did not retire — she went rogue.
The Wilma now has a three-year-old resident acting company and welcomes shows whose daring aesthetics depart from the factory-setting naturalism of most American stages, especially regional ones.
In November, for instance, the Hungarian director Csaba Horvath’s adventurous production of Federico García Lorca’s “Blood Wedding,” from 1932, started with high-energy Eastern European folk dancing. The rest of the show was similarly devoid of stereotypical Spanish signposts, betting instead on visceral physicality and complex tableaux. It looked like the kind of stylish Euro import one would see at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or the Park Avenue Armory.
When a theater company drastically changes course, it’s usually because a new leader has taken the reins, emboldened by ambitious dreams and the willingness to ruffle a few feathers. But Ms. Zizka, 63, has been at the head of the Wilma since 1981, first as co-artistic director with her husband, and on her own since 2010. (Mr. Zizka died in 2012.)
The Zizkas turned the Philadelphia theater, which started in 1973 as a feminist and avant-garde project, into a local institution, with a modern 296-seat auditorium on the city’s bustling Avenue of the Arts. The fellow Czech émigré Tom Stoppard is the Wilma’s signature playwright.
Ms. Zizka could easily have stayed on cruise control; instead, she decided to “bring fresh air into the city,” as she put it.
Frustrated by her experience on that play a few years back, she put on her scouting hat. “I started to reconnect with my European origins and went back to Berlin, to festivals in Amsterdam and Antwerp,” she said. “I admired the fearlessness of some of the European company actors, which I did not — do not — see in productions in the United States.”
Among her first moves was to organize acting workshops led by Jean-René Toussaint, a French coach and actor who emphasizes a vocal training he dubs “primitive voice.”
Ms. Zizka also trawled YouTube for inspiration and in 2011 discovered a video of the Greek director Theodoros Terzopoulos, from the Attis Theater in Athens, teaching an acting class in Poland. A few years later, she brought him over to present his production of “Ajax, the Madness” at Philadelphia’s FringeArts festival. He also conducted a four-day workshop that would plant the seed of HotHouse, the Wilma’s “artistic incubator” and acting company, and a key element in Ms. Zizka’s plan.
While many regional theaters once had resident companies, that model has evaporated over the past two decades or so. Trinity Repertory Company, in Providence, R.I., has a 16-member troupe and is one of the few theaters left to guarantee its group between 30 and 40 weeks’ worth of work a year.
Yet Curt Columbus, Trinity’s artistic director, is optimistic — perhaps overly so, considering long-term trends — that change may be on the horizon. He uses the locavore food movement for comparison.
“What you’re seeing is a little bit of a return to the land, where people look around and go, ‘What are we doing for our local community?’” Mr. Columbus said by telephone. “If I’m bringing in actors from New York or Los Angeles, they don’t have any investment in the people who are here.”
Of course, with seven productions per season and an annual budget just over $9 million, Trinity Rep has more breathing room than the Wilma, which usually puts on four shows on an annual budget of $3.7 million. (There were only three in 2017-18 because the Wilma presented Opera Philadelphia’s “We Shall Not Be Moved” in the fall slot, and also worked on a new lobby cafe around that time.)
The Wilma must also be aware of the ominous shadow cast by the neighboring Philadelphia Theater Company, which had to repurchase its own venue after the bank foreclosed and severely curtailed its 2017-18 season to pay off debt.
So for now, at least, the Wilma’s effort remains financially modest: The HotHouse actors get paid when they are cast in a show, and they receive a stipend for attending the communal training Ms. Zizka has instituted to build esprit de corps.
Three Mondays out of the month between September and June, the 12 company members participate in five-hour sessions filled with exercises drawn from Mr. Terzopoulos’s techniques.
They did not go down easily at first.
“There is a rigorous collectivity to this work that is strenuously un-American in a way that is both exciting and disturbing,” said Ross Beschler, a HotHouse member. At first, he questioned the idea. “It pushed my ideas of myself and what I could do in terms of my flexibility, my depth, my strength. But after a day thinking about that, I was, ‘Oh that’s a good thing!’ ”
Training takes place at the Wilma’s studio, in a slightly grungier neighborhood a half-hour walk from the theater. Before entering the space, the participants leave their shoes at the door, along with their inhibitions and self-consciousness. Mr. Terzopoulos’s approach emphasizes breathing, with the diaphragm the gateway to feeling, and it starts with an extended vocal and physical warm-up.
“This is the idea of the vertical voice, in which you find emotions inside your body,” the wiry, soft-spoken Ms. Zizka said. “People are blocked in their bodies, so this is a way to generate emotions by opening up the back of the bodies. You want to have emotion, body, voice, all in a fluid expression.”
The process then moves on to a “deconstruction” stage.
“It’s about, How do I take apart the function of the breath, and how do I look at different parts of the body?” said Justin Jain, among the handful of HotHouse actors who have traveled to Greece to train at Attis. “It’s all in service of excavating what Terzopoulos calls the capital-B Body. That includes not only your physicality but your memory, your history, your imagination — everything about the human experience.”
That phase can last three or four hours, according to Mr. Jain. Next comes “the infinite improvisation,” he said, when “you start to marry a text or a concept or an idea to that form.”
This requires the actors to be comfortable with themselves and with one another — at a November session, some cried, others got into a trance-like state. “It’s better than therapy,” Ms. Zizka said, chuckling.
As her experiment evolves, Ms. Zizka must balance artistic daring with pragmatic considerations that American nonprofit institutions inevitably face.
One question mark is the future of WynTix, which keeps tickets for a show’s initial run at an affordable $30 ($10 for students). A grant from the Wyncote Foundation in Philadelphia funded the initiative, which was extended by one year and is now slated to conclude at the end of the season; the Wilma is exploring ways to continue it.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 10, the Wilma begins five-week run of the Stew and Heidi Rodewald musical “Passing Strange,” which will mix HotHouse members and others. The Wilma had to partner with a commercial producer to bring the Tony-nominated show’s revival to fruition.
“They have a warm-up ritual that they do on Mondays where it’s like they’re excavating this sadness from their bones,” Ms. Tarker reported. “So I wrote them a piece that’s a tragedy but also kind of a comedy about tragedy. I was interested in bringing them a challenge.”
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