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Vilcek Foundation Awards $250k in Prizes to Immigrant Theatre Artists

Jacob Coakley • Theatre Buzz • February 3, 2016
The winners of the 2016 Vilcek Prizes in arts and sciences
The winners of the 2016 Vilcek Prizes in arts and sciences

The Vilcek Foundation honors immigrant contributions to the American arts and sciences. This year’s prize drew from the realms of theatre and the biosciences. For theatre, Blanka Zizka receive the $100,000 Vilcek Prize in Theatre, honoring her “record of major achievement.” Three $50,000 Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Theatre were awarded to Sarah Benson, Desdemona Chiang and Yi Zhao.


New York, NY (February 2, 2016) – The Vilcek Foundation is thrilled to announce the winners of the annual Vilcek Prizes, recognizing immigrant contributions to the American arts and sciences. The prizes focus on a different artistic discipline each year (past winners were drawn from the worlds of dance, design, contemporary music, literature, etc.); this year’s arts recipients have been selected from the field of theatre. The 2016 Vilcek Prize in Theatre, presented to an immigrant artist with a record of major achievement in his/her field, is awarded to Blanka Zizka, the recipient of a $100,000 prize. The 2016 Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Theatre, presented to three younger 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, each a recipient of a $50,000 prize.

“Theatre is extraordinary in its ability to challenge the status quo,” said Marica Vilcek, vice president 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.”

2016 Vilcek Prize recipient Blanka Zizka was born in the former Czechoslovakia and immigrated in 1977 to the United States, where she co-founded Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater with Jiri Zizka in 1981. A nationally recognized director and artistic director, 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 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.

Born in the United Kingdom, 2016 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise recipient Sarah Benson has served as artistic director of New York’s critically acclaimed theater company Soho Repertory Theatre since 2006. A graduate of Kings College (London), Benson came to the United States 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.

2016 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise recipient Desdemona Chiang is a stage director born in Taipei, Taiwan, who immigrated 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. Her many new play credits include regional premieres by Christopher Chen, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Rajiv Joseph, and Adam Rapp. She has also directed classics such as Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (Seattle Shakespeare Company) and The Winter’s Tale (scheduled for Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016).

2016 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise recipient Yi Zhao is a lighting designer born in Beijing, China, 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, Zhao 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 Vilcek Prize recipient 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.

The winners were selected by panels of independent experts in the field of theatre. All winners will be honored at a ceremony in New York City in April 2016.

The 2015 Vilcek Prize and Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in the Arts were presented in the field of Fashion. Andrew Bolton, the chief curator at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was honored with the $100,000 Vilcek Prize in Fashion. The Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Fashion, which include awards of $50,000, were granted to Siki Im, Natallia Pilipenka, and Tuyen Tran. To view video of Andrew Bolton, please click here.

In addition to prizes in the arts, the Vilcek Foundation also awards prizes in the field of biomedical science. For more information, please visit

The Vilcek Foundation was established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia. The mission of the foundation, to raise awareness of immigrant contributions and to foster appreciation of the arts and sciences, was inspired by the couple’s respective careers in biomedical science and art history, as well as their personal experiences and appreciation for the opportunities they received as newcomers to this country. The foundation awards annual prizes to immigrant biomedical scientists and artists, and sponsors cultural programs such as the Hawaii International Film Festival.

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