Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Blanka Zizka
On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we depart from our usual watering hole (the FringeArts office and join the founder and President of FringeArts, Nick Stuccio, to toast The Wilma Theater‘s Artistic Director, Blanka Zizka, on her newest production, There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and the Other, adapted from the poem by Lebanese-American poet Etel Adnan, with visual art by renown artist Rosa Barba. There is one of the curated shows premiering in the 2019 Fringe Festival and performed by Wilma’s Hothouse Company. There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and the Other will be at The Wilma this September 11–22.
Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.
Conversation with Blanka Zizka
Nick Stuccio: Welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe, I’m Nick Stuccio, I’m the President and Producing Director of FringeArts. I’m here with Blanka Zizka, the Artistic Director of the Wilma Theater, the amazing Wilma Theater, and we’re gonna talk about There, help me Blanka, There… colon…
Blanka Zizka: So it’s There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and of the Other.
Nick: In the light and the darkness of the self and the other. Awesome. Before we start talking about There, of course this is Happy Hour on the Fringe, we gonna talk about what we’re drinking, and we’re at the Wilma, above Good Karma Cafe, right? Well, we’re above…
Blanka: We are above Good Karma Cafe.
Nick: Awesome. We’re looking down upon Good Karma Cafe in your awesome new office…your now windowed office…and we both happen to be both drinking the same thing. We’re drinking a couple of martinis, they’re fantastic, and we’re actually….
Blanka: Do you remember those like, those martini lunches? It used to be like in [the] 1980’s. I’m really old….
Nick: I’m close…I’m close.
Blanka: But, you know there was like, people who always had…not me, but…
Nick: I was gpomg to say….
Blanka: People, people. Those people out there used to have martini lunches….
Nick: In the other world; the for-profit world.
Blanka: Yes. Yes.
Nick: Here in the nonprofit world, we did not, except when we went to Europe on trips, I would have a beer with colleagues, which is awesome. I never actually had a martini for lunch, but dammit, it’s a tradition we should try. Anyway, so that’s what we’re drinking, we’re drinking a delicious San Pellegrino, today. So, Blanka, we’re very excited to have There in the festival this year. Very interesting…I’m very excited to hear about it…how it’s going. But, before we talk about There, I wanted to get some context from you. You and I have talked about this a lot, and I am your number one fan in this endeavor with the Hothouse Company. So, I want you to talk about the Hothouse…give us some context, it’s very, very cool…this company of actors that you’re holding, that is getting particular training, and you’re building this kind of unique, theatrical aesthetic. I actually read that on your website about the theatrical aesthetic you’re building, but what I didn’t read was what kind of particular aesthetic, if you can characterize that. Talk about Hothouse and talk about where you’re headed with it.
Blanka: So, I started Hothouse, maybe like five years ago…four or five years ago, and it came out of, really a crisis; and things do happen out of crisis, right? But the crisis was simply that in the theater world, we just kind of hire artists for a job, and then we let them go. So, actually you don’t solve any problems that occur, which could be whatever, it could be about us being in the room as people, as artists, as colleagues, as having confrontations about having different histories, and there are not getting solved; they are kind of left, you know, you have a conflict or something, and then you go. And it all kind of remains on a very superficial level. You don’t solve anything; you don’t dig deep or you don’t learn anything. And then also, I felt that living in this world when actors are doing nothing but waiting for a job, they actually do not practice in between. But you learned, or what you find out is that they don’t have a sense when they come back into the rehearsal of a collective; and that they are very much on their own, and they feel that they have to carry the world weight on their shoulders, and they have to come up with all the solutions on their own. So in the rehearsals, I would get a situation and ask for something and the actor would tell me “Okay, let me think about it, I will go home…I’ll work on it and I’ll show you tomorrow,” because they needed to show themselves only in their best possible light. They did not dare to take a risk to experiment in front of the others. And that has become kind of credo of the company: this daring and this need to be able to go far and deeply into unknown and not to be afraid to show your research and your exploration.
Nick: So, you’re really gaining a real intimacy with them, in a way that you weren’t…wouldn’t have…
Blanka: You wouldn’t never get that because when you get people [together] for the first time, everything is about fear, and it takes about ten days for people to actually start trusting the situation in the room, and so you are losing ten days of rehearsals. So I felt very strongly that I needed a continuity in order to build this trust and also to build a sense of company, having a feeling or a kind of understanding…having some kind of a meaning, right? So that we choose a play to work on, and then we explore it, so everybody’s working on everything. So that means all that all the actors are interested in why we are doing the play, what are the themes of the play…what we want to say with the play. And, they are not interested [in] only “How do I look in the part? What is my part about?”
Nick: You keep using the word, “play.” This, as you describe this process…as you know, I’m from the dance world; the physical theater world…it’s sounds more like the devising world, because…it’s a two-way street. You’re giving [the actors] the opportunity to bring themselves or their ideas, or am I wrong?
Blanka: No, no, absolutely. What I am doing through these improvisations, they are becoming authors of their performance. Even in spite of the fact that there is already a text, you know, the text is there. So they are not completely devising, because devising theater is mostly, you are actually generating text into the devising theater most of the time.
Nick: Yeah, most of the time.
Blanka: Some text, at least. Here, we do have a text already, so the methodology we developed is that we believe, or I believe that [the] body has all the information it needs, and all that you need to do through the methodology is open up and listen to your body, and we don’t learn that at school. We are actually being taught constantly how to [talk] instead of listening. If you talk to musicians, they will tell you the same things; the most important thing for creativity is to be able to listen.
Nick: Right. But the body…it comes from the body.
Blanka: It comes from the body, yes.
Nick: That’s interesting. Yeah, boy, that’s…where does that come from, that idea? Where’d you learn that from?
Blanka: I think that, you know, if you go back all the way to Grotowski, you know, it’s there already, Peter Brook, it’s in there. So, I think from Artaud and on, there are two directions in [the] twentieth century that theaters went, one was Antonin Artaud, and the other one as Stanislavski. Stanislavski is about psychology, and Artaud is more about [the] ritual. And so for [the] ritual, you have to actually be in your body. For psychology, you can be in your head.
Nick: Right. That’s interesting. So, where are you in this path, in these two, this fork?
Blanka: It’s interesting because I’m working with both. So, what we do a lot in the work…we don’t, for instance, read the text any longer. You know, [a] long time ago, I would be sitting the actors around the table, it’s the traditional way of working, and you are analyzing for seven days, a text, and make all of the decisions about it, and then you get on your feet and you have no idea what to do because all of the information that you gathered in your head is not helping you at all, to move your body around, and so you have to start again. So, I realized as we are working was that there is something about oral poetry and the fact that even during the time of Shakespeare, actors did not read the scripts because nobody could write, basically. Everybody learned it just from listening.
Nick: So, you read it?
Blanka: We are working with an idea of each actor having a ghost behind them. And that actor, the ghost actor, is whispering the text. But according to the way the text is structured – using punctuation so they are making pause[s], whenever a punctuation comes in. So, you are learning about [the] structure of the sentences by doing that as well.
Blanka: When you have a ghost, an actor who is playing the ghost, and he’s whispering behind you, the lines, and you then as an actor you have your body available to explore…listening through your back. It’s important that it comes through your back, not through the front….through the back, and you are now available because you are not looking at actors…your ghost’s face, only thinks he [is] not getting any signals…facial signals or body signals. You are getting just a whisper into your back; and there is something really powerful and amazing about it.
Nick: Wow. That’s great. I wanna ask you about…you have a very interesting group of Hothouse actors, tremendous people, but what are you looking for? Once you got this group, that’s who you got. I’m sure over time, some will come and go but, who…what kind of actor are you looking for in this group, that populates this group?
Blanka: Well, I think I was talking about the fact already that the need to be not afraid, and they need to be able to share, and they need to be willing to fail in front of each other. I am looking for actors who are open to…sometimes you create such in your head about what you can do or what you cannot do or how you should do it. You create these obstacles, and your brain is telling is telling you something it doesn’t allow you to actually connect to something; some information that is in your body…if it comes through memory that is in your body.
Blanka: Or, an idea that has taken root in your body, and it prevents you from actually connecting. So, I need actors…and that’s also the part of the practice is opening ourselves to this free kind of vibration inside of your body so that the mind and the body, and the emotions, and the history, and memories are all connected as one, you know, stream of consciousness.
Nick: This is very interesting, and again, being from the dance world…watching a choreographer work with a group of dancers he or she knows intimately is often very important for that choreographer; they can get things; they can extract things out of that group because of that intimacy, that’s hard. However, I’m wondering in the world of acting, if you bring in a new text or you bring in a new project, there’s a converse to that, then you sort of have to use these same people, are you all also stimulated by a new actor with a new project that’s gonna bring their own new set of experiences. Maybe this is a little existential, but, I mean, are you gonna miss that?
Blanka: No. I could be, you know, I would love to bring back our Zaynab Jah who played our Hamlet – there are people out there that I would love to bring. But they do through their own practice, there are all [on] kind of [a] similar level that the members of the company are as well, you know?
Nick: Absolutely. I see what your saying. I want to ask you this, and you and I talked about this…
Blanka: But what I want to say…
Blanka: But it’s different every time that comes, not so much an actor, it’s the author. Because with [the] author come completely new rhythms, new melodies. Every author has their own music in the language. And that is what you have to encounter now; that is the new encounter between the company and the author.
Nick: I see.
Blanka: And that changes, and creates completely new dynamics in the room.
Nick: Of course, that’s definitely a big input. The text, basically, the author, by you mean…the originator of the text.
Blanka: Yeah…the text, yeah.
Nick: Because I know the devising process, and that’s at the heart of our presenting practice, have you thought, or have you done this…I’m thinking maybe of Addis; this was kind of…it was a completely devised process where, you’re actually gonna ask…you might have writer in the room, but that writer would be no more an author of the end result than whoever else is in the room. Have you done that, or are you thinking about going there entirely?
Blanka: Yeah, no, but with Addis Theater that’s completely…like different. There is almost like a code that he has in his choreography that the actors have to learn. And there is a tremendous amount of drill that you don’t see really in a devised theatre as much.
Nick: Right. And there’s also that you didn’t lead…
Blanka: No, I didn’t lead that, I was watching it…yeah…yeah.
Nick: You’re right, that was not a good example, but is that something that’s you’re interested in, or you’re still really…the writing is key… the writing is king….
Blanka: Yeah, it’s still…it’s still probably as that – maybe Adapt was a little bit more of a…what you talk about because it was my own piece.
Nick: That’s right.
Blanka: And I have been working with the actors on it, so I was adjusting a lot because I was able to hear it in the rehearsals, so that…but that’s kind of normal practice for any author if you are working with a company or workshopping it, you want to hear it. That’s, I think the…big…I won’t say big…misunderstanding about theater is that people consider it literature; many people do, and it’s not.
Nick: And what is it?
Blanka: And that’s the thing: it’s a performance, and you know that a play, even a good play, can end up being a terrible production.
Nick: Right. Right. Yeah. I wanna ask you…and I’m not sure what I’m gonna ask you, because you and I talked about this, maybe this so deeply off the record…I’m gonna see what you say about it. Doing the Hothouse, adding the Hothouse, again, which I think has…added a great layer of richness to the work at the Wilma…in my small opinion – how has that institutionally been for the Wilma? What is the result? How is this work different from what typically you’ve been producing over these many years here? Is there a difference?
Blanka: You know, I think for people who are in the theater involved, you know, who are experts on theater, for them, there is a huge difference because they see the company working together. I don’t know for [the] audience that comes on a regular basis how much…I would hope that they would see the difference, but I’m not quite sure that they necessarily do. Because I think that we don’t really talk publicly about what acting and directing is. That’s why I’m going back to that theater is so many times…even the critics here, consider it [a] piece of literature, and it’s criticized by the writing, most of the time; and the work about actors is very…there is not [a] vocabulary for it, there is not [an] understanding for it.
Nick: So what kind of vehicles are…you’re picking authors; you’re picking material that’s different from this group. You’re not gonna pick the next interesting work from Off Broadway or that’s surfaced the next interesting writer. You’re more interested in a more considered process.
Blanka: So, one of the things that I, you know, why I [also] started the Hothouse was because I wanted to bring together people from different histories, and different life experiences together and work together because I think that is [a] very challenging thing to do. And with that, it’s very idealistic because I would love to also at the Wilma have audiences that are coming from different parts of Philadelphia; different ages, different races and all that stuff. So, in order to do that, you have to start with a company. But it obviously brings challenges [right away], because, nowadays, a lot of people just…authors are writing out of identity. So, you have a black actor, black writer…you want black characters. Same thing with Italian, you know and bla, bla, bla, you can just go on, and it’s just that identity is very much present right now in our society. And so, the question of the company is suddenly, you cannot really do those plays or you can do those plays with part of the company. So that now, one of the reasons why “There” became such an important text for us was it was the first text that I chose to work on because I was not completely clear [at the very beginning] what is the method we’ll be working. Of course, we can do classics, that’s always fine, but we don’t want to classics only. So, how do we do contemporary material with a company that are just…and smiling and stay shy. You know, people really…different people; and how do we create a repertoire for the company.
Nick: And so I was gonna ask you about how you have been picking this material. And so There is a very interesting idea, Blanka. It is this deeply ontological work asking the biggest, deepest questions about existence. I think that’s awesome. You described your vision to me on an awesome phone call a couple of weeks ago. Can you describe how you’re envisioning bringing this to the stage?
Blanka: Well, we are now a bit further maybe because we had the workshop with Rosa Barba, who is the visual artist who is collaborating with me on the poem. But the way I’m imagining that the poem is…the poem is basically about a process of thinking, you know. And when I read it, I imagine “Ok, this somebody who had some traumatic experience clearly.” Atel Ednan was born in Lebanon, in a country, in 1925, only a few years after [the] Ottoman Empire expired. So, her father was Syrian, who was working for [the] Turkish…he was in [the] Turkish military, and her mother was Greek Orthodox from Smyrna, and they end up living in Lebanon because Turkey in 1920s was too nationalistic for mixed marriages to be safe there. So, they move to Lebanon, a country that has been around just maybe seven years. So, the question of where do you belong, who are you, are you a person if you don’t have a nation, are very basic questions that she has been dealing with right away; already as a child. She was born in a family that spoke Turkish [and Greek] at home, but she went to French Catholic school and her language became French, and at the same time she was learning English. Now you have a person like, you know, like what is your identity, who are you? So those questions are becoming very…coming at you at [a] very early age, when you are born into this kind of situation.
Nick: And she…did I read that she…Etel Adnan, by the way, is the writer of “There,” who’s still living….
Blanka: She’s ninety-four years old.
Nick: Ninety-four years old, still living and working…
Blanka: In Paris.
Nick: In Paris, studied in the United States.
Blanka: So, she studied in Sorbonne Philosophy when she came to Berkeley in California, and she finished at Harvard; so she has two Philosophy doctorate[s] from France and from here. And then she was teaching in San Francisco, outside of San Francisco for many, many years. Then in [the] 70’s, she went back to Lebanon, but because of the Civil War, and that seen too many deaths of her friends, she came back to San Francisco and she lived here for about thirty years.
Nick: And she moved back to Paris. As you describe her life, as I read a little bit about her, she’s seen a lot of difficult things in her life. Yet, would you describe her in reading about her work, there’s a lot of optimism in her work.
Blanka: She has so much beautiful energy inside of her. I met her in Paris in her apartment; [the] first time I was there alone, the second time with Rosa. And, both times, I came out of the meeting so inspired. You know, she is so social. She is so bright and she remembers everything at her age, which is amazing; she can talk about anything. But, she loves living; she loves every moment of it. It’s the beauty of the poem is that there is the search for love, and that’s what she told me at our first meeting. The play…the poem is [actually] about love, and how do we learn to love our enemies, and if we learn to love our enemies, maybe we find some answers to our life on this earth.
Nick: You talk about identity, a lot of contemporary plays are about identity politics…
Blanka: That divide us…
Nick: But this is about the original identity about who we are. You describe her…she’s a Muslim? Is she a Muslim?
Blanka: No, she is not, but her father was a Muslim and her mother was Orthodox Greek. But she is very influenced by Sufism and by Sufi poetry.
Nick: Describe Sufism…I read a little bit about it, but it’s a beautiful…and I really enjoyed it, it’s ultimately…describe it.
Blanka: I don’t really that much about Sufi religion. All I know is that a Sufi is seeking God through love and self-knowledge. There is this Sufi philosopher, al-Gazali, who believes that in search for self-knowledge, you have to be able to able to answer some of these questions. Who are you? Where did you come from? Where are you going, and for what purpose? What does your misery or happiness consists of? In [a] similar way, Etel Adnan is seeking her own self-knowledge by posing many of these questions in the poem. So, through the poem, she wants to find out who she is and who we are.
But, I think this kind of search of spirituality is very much present in her, in spite of the fact that you would kind of say there is also Hegel, there is Neitzche reflected in the poem, very, very clearly. When you talk about the march of the history and whose history, on which side of history are you going to be…are WE going to be. That’s all the questions [that] are in the poem, but in spite of these questions about…are we going to be or are we going the way the dinosaurs did…there is this whole sense of, but we are here now and we have to connect, we have to love each other. You know, it’s said much more beautifully than what I’m saying right now. You know, how can you possess the smell of the myrtle tree? How can you possess [the] shimmering of the brook?
Nick: It’s just absolutely beautiful writing.
Blanka: Yeah, it really is.
Nick: In fact, you were attracted to it, you likened it to the Hamlet speech, “To be, or not to be…”
Blanka: Yes. I was thinking that this poem and the whole thing is basically “To be, or not to be…,” but it’s not coming out of the kind [of] depression that Hamlet is speaking in the moment. It’s actually coming out of this thrust of living, as she calls it.
Nick: And…not really narrative, it’s more spiritual…it’s more of a philosophical…process.
Blanka: It’s basically a thinking process, which is, you have in your head, many different voices that are in dialogue with each other. So, you can come with one thought and with the next thought may be defining [the first thought] further, or it can be a contradiction that the thought…or it can be an association to the thought.
Nick: How interesting.
Blanka: And that’s how it’s built. So, in my staging, I’m thinking about having one actress who is older, so who is closer to the age when the poem was written, I think…
Blanka: Etel Adnan could have been in her sixties when she wrote it. So there is a mature voice, you know, and have this basic voice there, but, and all the other actors, the seven other actors, are all these other voices. There are five women, three men all together. And then the singing is that, so that the voices of the actors are connected to the life experience and to thought, and then, the singing is almost like what the thought can turn into, which is words can change the temperature of the room. Words can turn…you know, make you do things…make you open up to me. So there is the idea of those words can change into singing which is kind of the higher forum, let’s say, art. So you go from [an] experience of something that then remains in the world, which is through the music. So that’s why I want to [also] have the music as part of the poem.
Nick: You said the singing…so, the actors will be singing?
Blanka: I will have…the actors will be speaking, and in addition to that, four singers, who will be working with Alex Dowling, the composer. And they will be kind of adding another quality to, and maybe sometimes singing directly over…whisper over the text; repeating some of the words that are the defining words of the thought.
Nick: This sounds pretty awesome. As you’re talking, I’m thinking of the works, the many works that I’ve seen you make. This one feels like…your work’s been evolving since the Hothouse. But this one seems like even a bigger leap to…I don’t know to what…but away from what you have been doing.
Blanka: There are no characters, you know, there is no plot for sure.
Nick: Sure. And then we should talk about the stenography too. I wanted to ask about Rosa Barba. I’ve been looking at her work as well; very interesting artist. But I also want to say Etel Adnan, also a prolific visual artist, and I was gonna ask you why didn’t you ask her to make stenography, but she’s 94, stuck in her chair in Paris.
Blanka: Yes. She’s not traveling anymore.
Nick: And also her work is very two-dimensional…beautiful.
Blanka: You know, it’s so beautiful too, she has this studio, and in the studio in her apartment, she has two desks. One desk is for painting and one desk is for writing. She actually doesn’t bring those two forms of art together. It’s really interesting. She just said about the connection between poetry and the visual arts is that her paintings are [small in size] on purpose because that intimacy is present in her paintings as it is in the poetry.
Nick: Interesting. She may not have wanted to bring them together in a piece.
Blanka: Yeah, maybe not. No.
Nick: So, Rosa Barba, Italian artist, now living in Berlin. You met a very interesting artist and she’s gonna make this scenography, or even as you describe it, it’s almost an installation on the stage. Tell me about how you met her…why you chose Rosa.
Blanka: So, I actually met her here in Philadelphia because there was one collection I know that brought up together here. It was Mary Shaw. And we had a dinner together; it was about three years ago. I was working on this poem in Hothouse rehearsals, and so, it was in my head as I talk about it. She got so excited because of course, in Europe, everybody knows Etel Adnan. She is [a] very well known personality. Strangely enough, even though she’s lived most of her adult life in the United States, here, nobody knows her. It’s so weird; I don’t know why. But there, she’s very well known. So when Rosa heard that I was going to be doing something she said “Could I somehow be involved with it? I really would like to work on this.” So, that’s how it’s started, then about a year ago, when I was considering about the Pew [Charitable Trust] proposal…going to the Pew with this, she again, just out of nowhere wrote me a long email about a long email about how much she wants to be [a] part of that, if I’m going to be working on this, that I should talk to her. So, we talked afterwards, and also the people of the Pew Foundation knew her work, so they got very excited about the project.
Blanka: They’re weren’t so excited when I was doing it (laughter).
Nick: Well, it’s good to bring this great artist to work with you.
Blanka: It is. No, it’s great…it’s wonderful. She’s terrific, and she’s working hard with projections, but she [always] using objects always as part of the…the objects become sculptures in her work most of the time. So, if she’s using…she loves working with 16 mm projectors, and we’ll be [for sure] using hand-held mics with cables. And so, some of the choreography and movement will be dealing with some of these objects and using maybe the small projectors to light up actors. I’m not yet clear about all this; we will have four weeks to work on this.
Nick: Is she not here yet? I thought she was working with you now.
Blanka: She was here for a week for the workshop, and then she’s coming back for the rehearsals.
Nick: I see. And so she’ll create some kind of installation, besides these sort of objects.
Blanka: Yeah, she’s creating this kind of huge platform that is going from the back of the wall all the way into the audience. We are seating audience on stage, so they will be like tennis seating. And so, they will be facing each other, and there will be some people also sitting in some of the audience seats; the old Wilma audience seats. But I think some of the actors will be there at the very beginning as well, we’ll see. That’s still not completely clear.
Nick: Interesting. That’s great, and the workshop with the actors; you learn something in the week with them?
Blanka: Yes. It was very clear to me that I needed Melanye Finister to become the central figure, so that it clarifies the situation, you know. And so, what happened is that I divided…actually I was starting to find [a] scriptical voice, and a more hopeful voice. The actors started to [kind of] have personalities through the voices. So with people sometimes talking in choruses, and sometimes two people and sometimes solo, you know. But not singing, just suddenly, two voices are on the same thought.
Nick: Right. The text sounds enormously powerful.
Blanka: It really is.
Nick: I’m sure it’s so lovely, you want to sort of get out of the way of the text…it’s probably a tricky thing for you.
Blanka: I think if Etel Adnan would not be Lebanese and would not be a woman, I think she would be by now as known as T.S. Elliot.
Nick: Really? You think that’s….
Blanka: I think she’s totally on that level.
Nick: I want to again, I started off this way, to congratulate you and thank you for the path that you’re on. I think that’s very interesting to me; it is on this…again, this path that I know around…more devising, and it’s the power of more minds pushing your work is very interesting.
Blanka: What I love is that a lot of my actors are becoming really strong personalities, they [now] have such confidence in the way they can speak about the work is really amazing. So, I feel like there is also…I’m also bringing up [a] new generation of artist[s], and that’s very exciting to me. Also, I started to teach at the University of the Arts, and being connected with these young people and seeing what kind of doors you can open up for them is really exciting. So, I feel that work is something that is very interesting to me, to work with giving [the] younger generation…sharing some of the experiences that I have gained over the years.
Nick: It’s interesting, and I see their ownership and authorship on stage in this capacity, so it’s great. We’re very excited to have There as part of the 2019 Fringe Festival. Thank you for letting us be part of it.
Blanka: Yeah, thank you for it.
Blanka: It’s very exciting.
Nick: Thank you Blanka, very much.