Highlights From Artsphoria Media Group’s Workshop: “Women Trailblazers”

By Andrea Karen Hammer

To explore new forms of storytelling, Artsphoria Media Group recently launched a Workshop, Conference & Retreat Series.

The first workshop was titled “Women Trailblazers: Female Founders & CEOs Carving Their Own Paths.” Inspiring speakers shared their experiences, insights and tips for bridging arts and business needs.

Here are some of the highlights from this session:

Blanka Zizka, artistic director of the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia

Blanka Zizka, Artistic Director of The Wilma Theater

After working in an underground theater in Prague that was shut down, Blanka Zizka decided to leave her homeland of Czechoslovakia.

“There was no breathing ground,” she said.

Eventually, Blanka arrived in Philadelphia. Adjustments involved learning a different system for mailing letters, speaking a new language, dealing with pregnancy and coping with suburban life at that time.

“The biggest adjustment for me was that I came from a socialist country, and I didn’t understand the value of money,” she said. “I learned here–painfully–that a lot of relationships and art are based on money.”

Incubator for Artistic Investigation and Experimentation

Blanka’s work in experimental theater led her to the Wilma, where she has been artistic director since 1981. She is the founder of the Wilma HotHouse: a resident ensemble of theater artists, formally launched in 2016, that serves as an incubator for artistic investigation and experimentation. The 14-person core HotHouse Company of actors are enabled to dare and explore under the Wilma’s auspices as well as resident artists and affiliated artists of all theatrical disciplines.

“I’m trying to create a collective through HotHouse in which we are finding out what it means to be an individual within a collective,” Blanka said.

“How do you find the voices inside of you while listening to the collective and incorporating into that creative expression? It’s a constant fluidity between who you are and what that means to you, and who are the people around you and how they are influenced by who you are.”

To build trust and break through fear, the ensemble works on exercises connected to the voice. Actors use their palms to feel these vibrations and open up the voices of characters.

“The body knows–you don’t have to generate it because it exists in there. You just need to reconnect to these energies,” she said, referring to other techniques such as actors whispering phrases or lines of the script into another actor’s back.

“It is a very different technique from what people usually do. They usually sit around a table and analyze the text, which doesn’t help them create it.”

Dionysus Was Such A Nice Man by Kate Tarker. Photo of Leo Sweeney by Matt Saunders

Plays, Awards and More

At the Wilma, Blanka Zizka has directed more than 70 plays and musicals including Christopher Chen’s Passage, her play Adapt! and Andrew Bovell’s When The Rain Stops Falling. She was selected into the 2017 Class of the Innovators Walk of Fame by the University Science Center, which spotlights local innovators. Blanka, who was a fellow at the 2015 Sundance Institute/LUMA Foundation Theatre Directors Retreat, received the  Vilcek Prize in 2016 and the Zelda Fichandler Award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation in 2011.

The Wilma’s upcoming productions include Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man. For ticket information and more, see

Joan Myers Brown, Founder of The Philadelphia Dance Company (PHILADANCO) and The Philadelphia School of Dance Arts

Joan Myers Brown, founder of PHILADANCO and The Philadelphia  School of Dance Arts, discusses the value of dance.

Joan Myers Brown is the founder of The Philadelphia Dance Company (PHILADANCO) and The Philadelphia School of Dance Arts. She serves as honorary chairperson for the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD), an organization she established in 1991. She also founded the International Conference of Black Dance Companies in 1988.

“I think that I have founder’s disease. I’m always founding things. If there’s a need and someone doesn’t address it, then who is going to?” she asked.

Joan still feels an urgent need to provide opportunities for youngsters to study classical ballet and give black dancers jobs.

“I feel like I’m beating that old drum. It’s the same old conversation,” she said, referring to tokenism versus inclusion. “It’s America. We have to be equal all across the board.”

She is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which bestowed upon her an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts; is a member of the dance faculty at Howard University in Washington, DC; and has been awarded an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa.

In May 2015, she received an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from The University of Pennsylvania. Listed in Who’s Who in America and described as an “innovator and communicator,” Joan Myers Brown has made significant contributions to the national and international arts communities.

What motivates her to keep pushing forward despite the ongoing challenges?

“I don’t just love dance, I love dancers. I see that the opportunities that should be there for them aren’t always there,” she said. “I had a 4-year-old in my class who said, “I can’t wait to be in PHILADANCO! So I have to make sure that this is here for her.”

PHILADANCO: Dance Philly Style, April 12 to 14, 2019, at the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts features the work of acclaimed choreographers whose unique vision and style have shaped the “Philadelphia dance aesthetic” and influenced the art form worldwide. From the creative mind of Joan Myers Brown, these performances feature African-American traditions, socio-political issues and other culturally relevant themes. The program includes exciting premieres from Rennie Harris and Dawn Marie Bazemore.
Sarah Stolfa, founder and CEO of PPAC, modeled the center after successful organizations in New York City, Houston, Syracuse and Seattle to provide essential photography resources for a community of artists in Philadelphia.

Sarah Stolfa, President, CEO and Artistic Director Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC)

Sarah Stolfa is a working fine-art photographer and educator with more than 8 years of experience in photography, education, curatorial work and digital lab creation and management. She has an M.F.A. in photography from Yale University School of Art.

During Artsphoria’s “Women Trailblazers” Workshop, she talked about her book of photos titled The Regulars, which she completed while supporting herself as a bartender in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think that I could have made this work anywhere but here because the people didn’t know my name. They knew my face. There was instantly a level of trust because I had seen them so long,” she said.

“I became interested in this idea of a search for community…. I would only photograph people who were alone. It was interesting for me to see the dynamic between going into a space where normally you’re going with friends or someone else.”

In addition to teaching at PPAC, Sarah Stolfa has taught at the Yale University Art Gallery, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the University of Delaware and Drexel University. She currently teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.


Philadelphia Photo Arts Center

When working with students, Sarah never tells students what to see.

“We all have the ability to talk about the art. We’re just not encouraged to do so,” she said.

At a certain point as a photographer, Sarah told herself that she would no longer take a formal portrait. Instead, it needed to be a photo of someone doing something.

“Just that one little rule and changing cameras really started to change the way I was photographing.”

Now, Sarah views PPAC as her artistic practice, allowing expression of her photographic interests. Driven by the mission of providing arts access, the center focuses on contemporary photography in exhibits, educational outreach programs and a digital lab.

“We’re very innovative in the work that we do. We believe in taking the work outside the gallery walls as much as possible,” she said.

Additional Arts and Business Tips From Workshop Speakers

Would you like to learn more tips from these founders, who have bridged arts and business needs? Check out additional highlights from this “Women Trailblazers” workshop on Artsphoria: Arts, Business & Technology Center.







Andrea Hammer
About Andrea Hammer 280 Articles
Andrea Karen Hammer is the founder, director and owner of Artsphoria Events & Media Group ( Artsphoria International Magazine (; Artsphoria Movie Reviews & Film Forum (; Artsphoria: Arts, Business & Technology Center (; Artsphoria Event Planning, Management & Reporting (; Artsphoria: Food for the Soul (; and Artsphoria Animation & Imagination World ( She is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer who has published articles in international publications.

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