Speaking softly over the phone earlier this month, Blanka Zizka’s voice was sporadically interrupted by a series of sudden, sharp noises in the background. Finishing a thought about “Adapt!,” the new play that will conclude the Wilma Theater’s 2016-17 season, she offhandedly explains, “What you’re hearing right now are the sounds of a whip.”
It turns out that one of the play’s characters enters the stage on a wheelchairlike chariot being pulled by eight men, requiring the actress playing her to practice her whip-cracking skills. It sounds like a complicated bit of stagecraft, but for the first time in her nearly four-decade career, Zizka has only herself to blame: “Adapt!” marks the longtime Wilma artistic director’s debut as a playwright.
Tracing the flight of a 22-year-old refugee fleeing socialist Czechoslovakia in 1977, “Adapt!” echoes Zizka’s own biography. Just as the playwright ended up finding her way to the Philadelphia theater community, her lead character, Lenka, is escorted into a dream world that mingles past and future, real and imagined. “I made up a lot of facts,” Zizka said, “but there’s emotional authenticity in the play.”
Zizka never intended to try her hand at writing for the stage, but in 2011 playwright Paula Vogel invited her to participate in a “playwriting boot camp” for young writers that she was leading in Philadelphia. The idea was to include directors and actors in order to help stage the work that was being created. But Vogel required everyone involved to join in the writing exercises — much to Zizka’s chagrin.
“I was afraid at first,” Zizka admits. “I had this barrier of never going to school here and only learning English from speaking it. I was trying to excuse myself from the exercises, but Paula told me, ‘Blanka, people who have an MFA in English don’t have the experiences that you have, so find a way to write about it in your own cadence.’ That idea opened up something inside me.”
As she continued to write, the play expanded, flashing forward to the fall of the Berlin Wall and incorporating Balkan folk songs and 20th century pop to reflect the Czech authorities’ notorious repression of musicians. When the time came to produce the play, though, echoes of that period began to appear in the day’s headlines: desperate refugees, the push to build another wall, the press being branded “enemies of the people.” Zizka says grimly, “That’s the language that I grew up with, so it’s really unsettling to hear that language again now.”
Despite having lived with the material during the yearslong process of writing “Adapt!,” Zizka insists that translating it to the stage has come with as many surprises as any other writer’s work. “When you write a play, you don’t really analyze the images and where they’re coming from,” she explains. “You’re just happy they’re coming at all. Then as a director you actually have to analyze it and start to understand the layers that are hidden underneath the language. I’m in the process of doing that, and it’s like being my own psychologist.”
March 22-April 22
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