June 1999 marks the twentieth anniversary of the first production collaborated on by Jiri and Blanka Zizka, co- artistic directors of the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia. The Czechoslovakian emigrees arrived in 1979, six years after the "Wilma Project" had already been designed by local artists to showcase avant garde works and visiting troupes, such as Wooster Group and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Animal Farm was the first Zizka staging, and by 1981, the Zizkas moved from being artists in residence to taking control of the Wilma, which moved to a hundred seat theatre on Sansom Street.
There they stayed for 16 seasons, mounting such works as Incommunicado, 1984 and Road. By fall 1996, it was time for another major move, this one -- bolstered by an $8 million capital campaign -- to a 300-seat house on the Avenue of the Arts. Production manager Neil Kutner told a gathering of the American Theatre Critics Association, holding their annual convention in Philadelphia, that the Wilma doesn't actually own its new building, but they rent it for $1 a year for the next 198 years.
Kutner added that the current Wilma space is actually owned by the nearby Doubletree Hotel, which was not allowed to build on the space -- though they are permitted to run the parking garage above the theatre. The stage and seating are 12 feet below street level, with the sound designers having taken special pains to keep street noise out of the theatre. "We'd literally park a car above the stage, squeal the tires, honk the horn -- and you couldn't hear a thing in the house."
Sound design is extremely important to the Wilma, as evidenced by the 45 hanging speakers and the complex sound design of their current show, Orpheus Descending, which utilizes everything from calliope music to crackling fire -- and no microphones for the actors. "We can put sound in 21 different places in the theatre," said Kutner, "with the auditorium designed for the sound to outward toward the audience, and not so much back the other way, cutting distraction to the actors." Kutner is also proud of the sound booth, which is a room bigger than the green room and the dressing rooms.
The sprung stage, which is often used for dance performances, is 48 feet deep -- actually a foot deeper than the Walnut Street Theatre nearby. Fly space, however, is severely limited. "We'll never do Oklahoma! or a classic `drop' show," Kutner said, "but those wouldn't really be part of our mission anyway. The company's next season, beginning Sept. 8, will offer a visit from Minneapolis' Theatre de la Jeune Lune troupe (The 3 Musketeers), the Scott Joplin-Irving Berlin revue, The Tin Pan Alley Rag, the East Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, and a "Wild Card" production of a new play.
Scenery for all shows is jobbed out to local shops, and the use of non-union crews also saves money for, and adds flexibility to, the company. "The crew are as important as the actors," says Kutner. "And they like to do a lot of different things, which we encouraged. No one wants to do just lighting design, so on one show they can do that, then they can stage manage for the season, or learn another discipline."
If unionized operating crews elsewhere might grumble at this arrangement, no one is likely to carp about the Wilma's rehearsal format. The cast get to spend 3-4 weeks on the actual set, and then do six previews before opening night -- giving them an almost unheard of amount of familiarity with the actual set-up of the play. "The director and designers will come in at 7-8 in the morning, rearrange what needs to be changed on the set, then the actors will arrive at one and start working," said Kutner. "After they're done, we go over changes and work till about midnight."
Like most producing theatres, the one thing even the Wilma can't build into its budget or mission statement is sleep, but as long as the audiences stay wide awake, no one's complaining.
-- by David Lefkowitz