Watching Kate Whoriskey

All eyes are on the inventive young director with a penchant for the classics and a flair for dynamic visuals

by Tom Sellar

Kate Whoriskey is coming soon to a theatre near you.And the first thing you're likely to notice when she arrives is her extremely youthful appearance. "People think I'm about 12," the 30-year-old director says with a nervous laugh. But make no mistake—Whoriskey has the scrappy resolve and unflappable self-confidence of a veteran director.

She's also rapidly building a veteran director's résumé. This past season Whoriskey, just three years out of graduate school, has been working at some of the largest resident theatres in New York, Chicago, Seattle and San Diego. When not rehearsing or attending meetings, she's been traveling—to Paris to observe Pina Bausch and company, to Long Island to work with Robert Wilson at his Watermill Center, and to other European cities to see productions and meet with artistic directors. She's garnered several prestigious grants (including a 1998–2000 career development grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and Theatre Communications Group) and has one of New York's top theatrical agents.

Critics have largely been thrilled with her astute, playful and visually compelling renderings of modern classics, and artistic directors around the country have come a-courting. In March, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff appointed Whoriskey to a new position as the California theatre's associate director, giving her an artistic home and a producing role.

To top it all off, she was recently designated a "Woman to Watch" by Vogue magazine (a team of high-fashion stylists groomed her for the glitzy photo shoot), which called her "a woman on the verge of reshaping the theatre as we know it." (And let's face it—how often does Vogue find glamour in regional theatre?) There is even talk of screenplays and Hollywood in a not-so-distant future.

So what does it feel like to become so busy so quickly? "It feels good," Whoriskey jokes as she makes an exaggerated collapse into an armchair in the New York University office of her former mentor Kevin Kuhlke. "It's been a good year. It's been surprising." She laughs and relaxes; it is a rare contemplative moment for a woman who is mostly on the move and who generally values pragmatism over philosophy.

In some ways Whoriskey can be as enigmatic as her stage pictures. Though she is attracted to dense and difficult modern material, her approach to directing is more intuitive than cerebral. Her stagings are invariably full of fresh, incisive imagery and metaphors, but she doesn't have preconceived ideas or opinions about making theatre and doesn't think she has a single style or technique.

Whoriskey, who was raised in Massachusetts, says she acquired much of her directing sensibility from Kuhlke when she studied with him as an undergraduate at NYU's Experimental Theatre Wing. Kuhlke taught her to apply dance-theatre principles of space, shape and time to dramatic action. Whoriskey also learned to create narratives using visually dynamic, moving stage compositions. "I became fascinated with that. For four years I would just watch Kevin create these moments and scenes in awe, working with angles and forms and shapes. That was a lot of my education—looking at shapes and pictures."

Kuhlke noticed her abilities and steered her away from acting and toward directing. "What she's so good at is combining a strong concept that is rooted in the dramatic action of the play, rather than imposed upon it," he says. "She respects the play in the midst of all the concept."

Following her graduation in 1992, Whoriskey stayed in New York. "I spent three or four years downtown doing shows at various small places—HERE, Tribeca Lab, NYU. Then I decided to go to grad school, because I was frustrated with trying to self-produce all the time and not having money or resources. I thought school would give me two or three more years to work without worrying about that."

She proceeded to the American Repertory Theatre's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training in Cambridge, Mass., where she says she learned "to respect a text a lot more than I had in the past. I assisted [director] Robert Woodruff, who is really careful with the text and knows what every single moment is about before he stages it. People like [ART artistic director] Robert Brustein and others there also taught me about text analysis—how to really listen to the writer."

Impressed with her symbolic and visual imagination, Brustein invited Whoriskey to co-direct The Master Builder, Ibsen's elusive 1892 drama, on the ART main stage immediately after her graduation in 1998. Early in rehearsals, however, Brustein chose to bow out and entrusted his adaptation entirely to his former student. "I had wanted to co-direct because she was very young and right out of school," he recounts, "and I didn't know how our company would treat her. It turned out that she didn't need any protection at all—she was perfectly capable of doing it, and everybody adored her. Also, Ibsen is a particular favorite of mine, and I wanted to make sure she respected the thoughts of the play as well as the poetic and symbolic development, and she did. She's a very strong-minded director, and we disagreed a lot, so I thought, ‘What am I doing here? Let me just get out of here and let her do her own thing.'"

The irony of this turn of events was not lost on anyone, since Ibsen's play centers around a life-transforming encounter between the brash youth Hilde and the title character, Halvard Solness, who envies and fears "the younger generation...knocking at the door." Brustein recalls it with a laugh: "It had all kinds of meaning, you know, because it was about an aging artist who meets a young woman and it effectively results in his death!"

From the production's opening sequence, it was clear that a new directorial sensibility was emerging from within Ibsen's text. Solness's employees sat in glass booths poring over ledgers and speaking softly into microphones. Characters trapped in Ibsen's rigid world moved at right angles and one character, Aline Solness, made repeated entrances flying in a box that emphasized her gloomy detachment. For the final scene, Whoriskey and lighting designer Michael Chybowski used rear projections to conjure the vast looming tower (normally unseen) which the hero ascends and disappears from. The dimensions of the space seemed to transform in time and motion, as Solness (Christopher McCann) appeared to shrink and vanish. It was an unforgettable image, evoking the title character's psychological chasm and putting the play's Freudian crises into indelible pictures.

For Whoriskey, who had cut her teeth on contemporary plays and tiny budgets, this was an artistic turning point, as well as a major professional opportunity. The Boston Globe's chief theatre critic, Ed Siegel, called her "a major new talent" and said that the production affirmed "a young artist's dazzling potential to make theatrical history." Critic Elinor Fuchs (in the pages of American Theatre, May/June '99) commended Whoriskey's "expressionistic approach" and called her interpretation of Ibsen's notorious final scene "a stunning revelation."

Looking back on this success, Whoriskey reflects: "With Master Builder I learned that I could do classical work in a different way. It doesn't have to stay in a rigid container. I can explode it." Since then she has had steady offers for work and has chosen to focus primarily on modern classics—O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms (Perseverance Theatre of Alaska), a version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible (NYU) and Ionesco's The Chairs (the Intiman Theatre of Seattle)—though she has not neglected new plays (such as Diana Son's Stop Kiss at Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.).

After seeing The Master Builder twice, Intiman artistic director Bartlett Sher was one of several artistic directors who invited her to direct. He offered Whoriskey a slot in his first season with the Seattle company and selected Ionesco's The Chairs, knowing it was a tough assignment. "Ionesco and Kate seemed like a nice match because Kate does an extraordinary level of research, and she is capable of abstract, metaphoric and rich thinking. She puts it into her work in a way that is detailed and exceptional, and she is wonderful to collaborate with. It's safe to say she is absolutely one of our best young theatre artists."

The Chairs charmed Seattle audiences and critics with its blend of conceptual whimsy and human folly—as much Whoriskey's devising as the playwright's. With designer Christine Jones, the director set the play in a kind of studio apartment in the mind's eye, complete with a miniature puppet theatre and a jet-blue moat with little sailboats entering at key moments. Many directors today keep away from Ionesco, often out of fear his ideas will prove schematic and unsustainable. But Whoriskey located the play's human heart by approaching The Chairs (in part) as a love story about a couple who have lived together for so long that they want to die together, too. Like so much of her work, it was humorous, meticulous and slightly dangerous. (Enormous stacks of white books towered over the performers.) The Seattle Times praised the "unusually sensuous and whimsical texture" she brought to the thorny text and cited the "pockets of tenderness and wonder" she discovered in Ionesco's apocalypticism.

Sher has already invited her back to Seattle, this time to tackle Ibsen's Lady from the Sea, due to open in September. He hopes this will be a continuing relationship, allowing Whoriskey to grow and explore as an artist while contributing to Intiman's seasons. "I can't make a lot of these commitments, but when I do, I want to make it completely, and in Kate's case that is really worth it," he reflects.

Her work appeals to theatres in part because it's rare to find a director who integrates space and design so completely with language and gesture. Because of this uncanny unity and the precision of her imagery, those trying to describe her work often end up talking about painting—or Robert Wilson. In Vogue, James Oseland called Whoriskey's "controlled, concise stage wizardry...an uncanny meld of emptiness and rapture—a Contructivist painting with heart." Of The Master Builder Fuchs wrote: "This is no by-the-numbers Wilson production; rather the sculpted staging forms a rigid container around a molten core, a kind of—in the generic sense—abstract expressionism."

By now Whoriskey is used to the frequent comparisons to Wilson's work, and they don't necessarily bother her. "I have mixed responses," she sighs. "In one way, it's fabulous. Robert Wilson is a great director, so I don't take it as something shallow. But on the other hand, what I'm trying to do is completely different. One of the things that is so beautiful about his work is that he tries to create perfect forms. There is a perfection to it that the actors will never achieve, simply because they're human. It's like ballet: They're struggling for something that will never be done perfectly, which has a lot of beauty and humanity in it. In my work I find the humanity in other things—the story and the emotions—and try to work that way. I concentrate on the text enormously."

"Kate allows the design to be just as integral to the work as the acting, as the script," observes lighting designer Rob Perry. Perry (another emerging artist) is collaborating with her on three projects around the country this season and says it's a pleasure to work with such a visually minded director: "She has a whirlwind of ideas constantly streaming through her mind. It could drive some designers crazy, but I think it's great because if one idea's not going to work, it's not like she's bogged down—she's got another 15 in her mind she's ready to throw out at you. Everything's always evolving and changing, but she keeps true to a script. It's not like she has a signature style that she uses in every show."

Her veteran collaborators express similar enthusiasm for Whoriskey's approach. Set designer Derek McLane says: "She's willing to explore any idea, and she does that with a real openness, a complete lack of cynicism, which is great because I think that helps draw people out." Is that because she's so young? "It might be, but I don't think so," he responds. "I've certainly met people younger than she is who are more cynical. She's just not particularly worried about most conventional issues of realism and storytelling." Costume designer Catherine Zuber agrees: "Kate explores all options and culls from so many difference sources. Her range is unlimited in terms of how she sees possibilities for a piece."

Though she often begins working on a play by thinking in abstract terms about form and the production's plastic elements, Whoriskey says she is also careful to leave room for actors' discoveries in rehearsal. "I always come in with a game plan. I know where everything is—where the moments are going to take place, what happens. But it always changes. I work with different actors all the time, and so I spend a lot of time figuring out who they are and what their impulse is, and try to work that into what I'm doing. Rehearsals are absolutely a conversation among collaborators—everything is a conversation."

Once they adjust to the precision of Whoriskey's world, actors seem to enjoy it. "Once people work with me, they kind of get it," she speculates. "They start to recognize pieces of my vocabulary." Anne O'Sullivan, whose tour-de-force performance lit up The Chairs, finds Whoriskey's approach galvanizing. "I could see right away that this production was going to be gorgeous," she recalls. "But unlike some auteur directors who just create big pictures, Kate is not afraid of emotional depth and is very open to what the actor can bring to the work."

The offer from La Jolla came as a surprise, but Whoriskey has been quickly settling into her new role there. She says she will direct at least one production each year, plan the season with the staff and work on casting and design planning. She also hopes to produce small-scale mountings of work by some of the contemporary writers she admires: David Lindsay-Abaire, Regina Taylor, Lucy Thurber, Alice Tuan and Annie Weisman, among others. She will also play a role in programming for younger audiences and producing children's theatre—an area in which, she jokes, looking so young will finally come in handy.

Although they've mostly been brainstorming so far, McAnuff says he's thrilled with his new associate: "She's fearless and feisty and opinionated and questions virtually everything. She brings a vitality and vision and a good deal of initiative, and I expect she'll have more and more to say as time goes by."

McAnuff welcomes her interest in classics but hopes she'll also branch out into other areas at her new home. "I think writers should have access to her fine mind. And I would love to see her get interested in doing musicals. I think with her visual imagination she would be tremendous at that." Whoriskey clearly relishes these opportunities: "They want adventurous work—they're not asking me to do something more traditional." She and McAnuff are co-directing Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (with McAnuff's music), running through July.

McAnuff values her insights into texts above all: "Unlike a lot of younger directors, she's very interested in the text. She's very specific with actors on language, and it makes her visual work textually connected and well informed. It's not just flights of fancy." In their first conversation about Billy the Kid, for instance, Whoriskey suggested hanging slabs of beef around the stage, an image that particularly impressed McAnuff. "Because the war in Lincoln County is about cattle, this is a very resonant image. She was thinking more of Georgia O'Keefe and other abstractions, but it had real content."

This season, in addition to her slots at Intiman and La Jolla, Whoriskey will also take on a major new play: Regina Taylor's Drowning Crow, an adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull, premiering at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. For a director who has largely built her reputation doing canonical modernist dramas, Whoriskey seems remarkably at ease with having a living, breathing playwright working with her in rehearsal. "Regina has an extremely active, almost explosive imagination. She's really strong with imagery and she keeps working at things. What's new is suddenly I'm the person saying, ‘Wait a minute!' or ‘That might be too much!'"

Regional audiences will have several opportunities to see Whoriskey's work this year, and to date their responses to Whoriskey's bold productions have been strikingly open-minded. Intiman subscribers, for example, embraced The Chairs, a notoriously abstract, often bleak and unrelenting drama. "Most of them loved that show," Whoriskey remembers with a big grin. "I think audiences are very intelligent. People appreciate it when difficult material is done well." With that certainty in mind, the self-possessed Whoriskey is poised to establish herself firmly in America's theatrical mainstream. Expect a visit.

Tom Sellar is a 2000–01 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support by a grant from the Jerome Foundation.