Jiri Zizka, 58, a force in Philadelphia theater

By Howard Shapiro

Jiri Zizka defected from Czechoslovakia, joined a small Philadelphia theater company, and, with his then-wife Blanka Zizka, transformed it into the Wilma Theater — one of the city’s largest stage companies. On Tuesday, Mr. Zizka, 58, died of liver complications at his Philadelphia home.

Jiri Zizka

The first news of his death appeared in a banner with his picture across the Wilma’s website late Wednesday, offering only his years of birth and death. That was all that remained on the site Thursday as his former wife, the Wilma’s artistic director, began to make plans that will eventually include a memorial service in Philadelphia, a theater spokesman said.

Jiri Zizka had not been active at the Wilma since 2010, when he said he was moving into a consulting relationship to pursue other artistic endeavors. During his tenure — the Zizkas became co-artistic directors three decades ago — he directed more than 70 productions and was a visible force in the emergence of Philadelphia as a theater town.

The company’s spokesman announced Thursday that out of respect for Mr. Zizka’s passing, the Wilma’s annual fund-raiser, scheduled for Feb. 11, would be postponed. Blanka Zizka issued no statement and was not available for comment. She had been with their son, Krystof, who lives in New York, and returned “completely exhausted,” the spokesman said.

Mr. Zizka had recently been in the Czech Republic on the occasion of his father’s death, the spokesman said.

He grew up in Prague and was educated at Charles University. He went on to become director of Prague’s largest underground theater, where, under communist rule, harassment and imprisonment for some artists followed the theater’s popularity. On the summer day in 1976 that he and his girlfriend, the actress Blanka Vinicova, planned to defect, she learned she was pregnant. After putting themselves in danger by bribing an official, they fled to West Germany, spent time traveling, and arrived in the United States in 1978.

The next year they became artists-in-residence at the six-year-old Wilma Project. The avant-garde company was a good fit for them, and it has continued to specialize in edgy plays. Such theater is now part of the mainstream in part because of the Wilma’s influence.

At first, the couple wrote, directed, and acted. Mr. Zizka coauthored an animated film, It’s So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House, nominated for an Oscar in 1980, and also directed television commercials.

An early milestone in the Zizkas’ work was their 1979 adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm, which they directed. The second scene opened with two characters walking through the audience on yard-high stilts, and the Zizkas’ interpretation had actors speaking in singsong, dancing, banging drums, and swinging ropes.

The Zizkas had established themselves as working on the edge. The production was also a sign of their freedom; in Czechoslovakia, they would read Orwell’s work as samizdat — clandestinely passed typed pages of banned books.

Mr. Zizka said he turned to theater after a crackdown on filmmaking in Czechoslovakia, when the Soviet invasion in 1968 ended a time of great creativity. He had been one of six students chosen to attend the film institute that educated the director Milos Forman, but he saw a future of making only government-censored movies.

He said he realized the popularity of a defiant theater, hidden in a basement and attracting large audiences. “There were many talented people in the arts,” he told The Inquirer in 1980. “They were bound together by a desire for artistic freedom. There was a real sense of community. In the 1960s the artist … had the support of the people. They came to performances like crazy. … It was kind of a spiritual hygiene.”

In Philadelphia, the Zizkas moved the Wilma from a small studio space to a 100-seat theater in what is now the Adrienne on Sansom Street. Their audience grew and, in 1996, the current 296-seat Wilma opened at Broad and Spruce Streets. It has an Actors’ Equity contract.

The Zizkas forged relationships with Václav Havel, the late playwright and dissident who was the first president of postcommunist Czechoslovakia and then the first president of the Czech Republic, and the British playwright Tom Stoppard, who was born in Czechoslovakia. Both Zizkas have produced and directed much of their work.

When the Zizkas arrived, the city had virtually no professional theater. “Philadelphia stands in the shadow of New York,” Mr. Zizka told an Inquirer reporter in 1980, and said he would like to help change that. At his death this week, he was survived by the region’s 51 professional theater companies.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or @philastage on Twitter.