Monday, March 16, 2009

Being Wilma Before Wilma Was Wilma

The Wilma Theater, here in Philadelphia, is celebrating their 30th Anniversary Season.  I cannot help but be amused.

To be fair, yes, the Wilma-Theater-as-we-know-it-now began when Blanka and Jiri Zizka came to America from Czechoslovakia and assumed leadership of a struggling nonprofit, which they subsequently turned so successful that they were able to build a theater to house it on the priciest stretch of Broad Street, Philadelphia's "Avenue of the Arts."

There is no denying their extraordinary achievement.

But I remember Wilma back when it was housed in the social hall of a church on Spruce Street.  By the time I discovered it -- more than thirty years ago, children -- the theater's feminist origins had been lost.  All that remained of them were the name and an incident which later almost sank the enterprise entirely.  More on that later.

Back in the mid-Seventies, Wilma had devolved into a single employee (I'm guessing there was also a board of trustees, but I never saw any of them) who booked outside theater, dance, and Whatever into the church hall.  I saw a  lot of cutting-edge stuff back then and it was all great.  And I also picked up one of their flyers, which had a form you could send in if you wanted to volunteer to work with the organization.

What can you do? the form asked.  More than one of my friends wrote back that they could write the flyers, programs, and publicity in a more artistic manner.  They never heard back from Wilma.  "I can sweep the floor,"I wrote, and got a call the next day.

My contribution to the theater was to set up the chairs before each performance and take them down afterwards.  Beforehand and during intermission, I also sold apples and hot cider, heated up on an enormous church gas stove.  I knew that I'd proved myself when the head guy (whose name, and I feel terrible about this, I've forgotten long long ago) set me to collecting admission money from the patrons as they came in.

Eventually I drifted away from the Wilma -- I was engaged in learning how to be a writer, remember -- and sometime after that the theater lost its church sponsorship.  One of Wilma's founders had written a play (feminist, of course) involving nudity and she insisted on getting permission for this from the church's Board of Trustees.  On reflection they, predictably enough, said that this wouldn't really be appropriate, what with their being a church and all.

The playwright exploded.  She told the trustees they were being hypocrites.  The Wilma had, she pointed out, put on performances involving nudity before.

The trustees blinked.  "It has?" they asked.

Oh yeah.  It was artistic nudity, but a certain display of googlies was undeniable.  I remember vividly the time, right in the middle of some very funny mime, a performer abruptly doffed his trousers in search of a cheap laugh that never came.  "Jesus," I thought then.  "He's a natural redhead."

So they lost their performing space.

But the Wilma survived that and outlived me, and now it's doing just fine.

Still . . . thirty?  Oh my dear, please.  Forty if a day.


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