Blanka Zizka of Wilma Theater Wins $100,000 Vilcek Prize

Source: The New York Times / Art Beat / By Joshua Barone

Blanka Zizka, a Czech émigré who co-founded the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia in the 1980s, has received this year’s Vilcek Prize for immigrant artists — an honor that comes with $100,000.

“It was kind of shocking and unexpected, and at the same time it was sort of satisfying,” Ms. Zizka said in an interview, adding that the money couldn’t have come at a better time. Her son, Krystof, is opening a follow-up restaurant to his Brooklyn hot spot Maison Premiere, and he asked her for help. “I just lent my son $100,000,” she said, “and it came back.”

The Vilcek Foundation, founded in 2000 by the Czech immigrants Jan and Marica Vilcek, awards biomedical scientists and artists from specific disciplines each year. Theater was chosen for its 2016 arts award, designed to recognize lifetime achievement.
Ms. Zizka moved to the United States in 1977, and four years later founded the Wilma Theater with her husband, Jiri, who died in 2013. (Before the Zizkas arrived, the Wilma had existed in a smaller form as the Wilma Project.) In the past three decades, she has collaborated with artists like the Czech playwright and former president Vaclav Havel, as well as Tom Stoppard and Paula Vogel. She remains the Wilma’s artistic director, and recently directed Mr. Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem,” which runs through Saturday.

Throughout the Wilma’s history, Ms. Zizka said, she has fought against the trend of regional theaters falling into corporate structures in which “the life of the institution is more important than creating the art.” For her, she said, “the work is the center of everything.”

Separately, the Vilcek Foundation chose three winners of its $50,000 Prize for Creative Promise in Theater, awarded to immigrant artists younger than 38. They are: Sarah Benson, the British artistic director of Soho Rep.; Desdemona Chiang, a Taiwanese stage director who co-founded the company Azeotrope in Seattle; and Yi Zhao, a Chinese lighting designer who has worked with Ms. Zizka at the Wilma Theater. “He is just one of the most imaginative visual artists,” she said of Mr. Zhao. “Very patient and quick at the same time.”