A small private foundation focusing on the contributions of artists and scientists who have moved to the U.S. from abroad announced today prizes totaling $250,000 to theater artists who also are immigrants. The Vilcek Foundation awards spotlight a different artistic discipline each year. The $100,000 2016 Vilcek Prize in Theatre, presented to an immigrant artist with a record of major achievement, is awarded to Blanka Zizka, artistic director of the Wilma Theatre, a resident company in Philadelphia.
The $50,000 2016 Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Theatre, presented to three immigrant artists 38 years of age or younger who have demonstrated outstanding achievements in the early stages of their careers, are awarded to Sarah Benson, Desdemona Chiang and Yi Zhao.
The prizes, among the richest in the arts, were awarded by a jury comprising Teresa Eyring, Executive Director of Theatre Communications Group; actress Bebe Neuwirth; costume designer Susan Hilferty; Jim Nicola, Artistic Director of the New York Theatre Workshop; playwrights David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) and Lynn Nottage (Ruined); and Mara Isaacs. Creative Producer at Octopus Theatricals.
“Theater is extraordinary in its ability to challenge the status quo,” said Marica Vilcek, VP of the Vilcek Foundation. “With the Vilcek Prizes in Theatre, we recognize a bold group of immigrant artists whose vision is as original as it is unflinching.”
Zizka, born in the former Czechoslovakia, emigrated in 1977 to the United States, where she co-founded the Wilma Theater with Jiri Zizka in 1981. She has championed and directed challenging stage works, including her stagings of dramas by South Africa’s Athol Fugard, British dramatist Richard Bean and Chile’s Ariel Dorfman, She also developed close working relationships with the dissident playwright (and later Czech president) Vaclav Havel and author Tom Stoppard, premiering Stoppard’s epic play The Invention of Love to critical acclaim. Her kinetic, committed collaborations with American dramatists such as Dael Orlandersmith (Raw Boys and Yellowman) and Paula Vogel (Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq) have received many honors, including the 2011 Zelda Fichandler Award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation. Under Jiri’s and her leadership, the Wilma Theater moved in 1996 to a new 296-seat facility on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts.
U.K-born Benson has served as artistic director of New York’s acclaimed Soho Repertory Theatre since 2006. A graduate of Kings College (London), Benson came to the U.S. in 2002 to pursue a master of fine arts in directing at Brooklyn College. Her bold and immersive stagings of challenging new dramas include Sarah Kane’s Blasted (2008), David Adjmi’s Elective Affinities (2011), Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney (2013), and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon (Soho Rep 2014; Theatre for a New Audience 2015). Her recent production of Futurity, a new musical by Cesar Alvarez and The Lisps, was presented at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and in New York as a co-presentation of Ars Nova and Soho Rep. She has also served as a curator of New York’s Prelude Festival, among many other programming and directing credits.
Chiang is a stage director born in Taipei, Taiwan, who came to the United States when she was three years old. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and her master of fine arts in directing from the University of Washington. She has worked with organizations including San Francisco’s Playwrights Foundation, Crowded Fire Theatre Company, and Magic Theatre. She was a directing fellow at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and New York’s Drama League, and was a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab. With Azeotrope, a Seattle-based company she co-founded in 2010, Chiang has directed bold and original productions about the invisible and marginalized. Her most recent Azeotrope production, Don Nguyen’s Sound, took place simultaneously in English and American Sign Language.
Zhao is a lighting designer born in Beijing, who came to the United States in 2003 to pursue an undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago. Since receiving a master of fine arts in lighting design from the Yale School of Drama, where he worked closely with the designer Jennifer Tipton, Yi has earned a reputation for his innovative approaches. His national credits include a staging of Plato’s Republic by the Brooklyn company Hoi Polloi, the world premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s War at Yale Repertory Theatre, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Hamlet at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater (directed by Blanka Zizka). He has also designed productions for Soho Rep/Ars Nova, the Huntington Theatre Company, LaMama ETC, the Bushwick Starr, New Georges, Ma-Yi Theater Company, and Performance Space 122, among many other venues. He is currently collaborating with fellow Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise recipient Desdemona Chiang on a project for Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016.
In addition to prizes in the arts, the Vilcek Foundation also awards prizes in the field of biomedical science. See vilcek.org.