Her name is Kate Whoriskey. She directed and helped develop this year's Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Ruined. And she seems every bit as bright, articulate, and feisty as her predecessor and forefather, the Tony Award magnet Bartlett Sher.
I went to Intiman yesterday to interview them both, and they were perfect foils, politely interrupting and disagreeing with each other as often as they complimented each other.
While it isn't polite to discuss lady's age, in this case it's germane. When Intiman announced it had found an exciting young artistic director, performer Mike Daisey wrote in Slog comments: "In the American theater, saying someone is an exciting young director is no guarantee that they're under 40."
True enough. In a limping, maimed industry with a graying audience, leaders falling into their dotage without heirs, and no small panic about where to find young blood and fresh ideas, it's worth noting that Whoriskey is 38.
Also worth noting: She directed at Intiman in Sher's first season—Eugene Ionesco's Chairs—before Sher had even directed at Intiman. A few years later at Intiman, she directed Blue/Orange—a play about two competitive, white psychiatrists trying to decide whether a poor black man really is the son of Idi Amin. It was a tight, burning little production (about race, about psychiatry, about ambition and aggression) and one of my favorites at Intiman.
Whoriskey is an intriguing and surprising choice. She's an artist, not an administrator. Seattle should be glad Intiman has made such a bold move. Exciting things are going to happen—for good or ill, none can say.
A few things you should know about Kate Whoriskey:
In an unusual arrangement, Sher will stick around to help her negotiate her first season and officially hand over the reins in 2011. "It's not a question of legacy, it's a question of perspective," Sher said. "Continuity—our audience strongly identifies with the artistic director and we want people to continue to identify with the theater."
This year's Pulitzer winner for drama was Ruined, by Lynn Nottage. Whoriskey, who frequently collaborates with Nottage, was its first director. Inspired by Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage, Ruined is set in a Congolese brothel where a madam struggles to keep the war and strife of the outside world away from her employees and patrons. Nottage and Whoriskey took a research trip to the Congo while developing the play, where they interviewed 15 rape survivors for the project. "We talked to women who were raped, went to a clinic for reconstructive surgery, and wound up back in the clinic for more reconstructive surgery," she said at a joint interview with Sher in Intiman's administrative offices.
Whoriskey graduated from NYU's Experimental Theatre Wing and the American Repertory Theater and has major stage credits in Chicago, New York, and San Diego. But this will be her first time around as artistic director.
"She's a great artist, and that's all you need to start with," Sher said. "You always get asked about your administrative burdens—a great artist doesn't do that stuff to begin with."
"I'm glad you said it," Whoriskey said, smiling.
"We come from a similar camp of directors," Whoriskey said.
"Text-based but very visual," Sher jumped in. "Not afraid of the conceptual and the abstract. Do you want to look at figurative artists or abstract artists? Some people only want to look at figurative artists, but we want to look at both."
Whoriskey's work—including Ruined—has played with music and contemporary dance, and she fantasizes about bringing international artists to Seattle to make interdisciplinary performance. "I'd like to bring [Israeli choreographer] Ohad Naharin to work on Brecht's Drums in the Night. To see if [Iranian artist] Shirin Neshat is interested in adapting The Scarlet Letter. But these are just ideas."
"It's great!" she said. "Someone made this analogy that I like: Regional theater is a new, ephemeral idea, like a sandcastle. Then the ocean came up and the sandcastle is gone and we're all out there saying 'Oh God, we need to rebuild the sandcastle!'" Maybe, she says, theaters need to turn themselves into something new.
It needs to be more epic. Whoriskey told a story: "I was really taken with this woman I met in the audience at Ruined. She'd been going to theater every week since she was a girl. 'I turned 74 this week and stopped going this year,' she said. I asked her why. 'Because it's not about big things any more.' We're not allowing for great, epic stories anymore, partially because of financial pressures."
Sher added: "The money follows the ideas. When we started the American Cycle [which typically has enormous casts by today's standards], we had no money and people showed up. When we do a small comedy, they don't care. When we did Anne Frank, people said, 'Oh God, not Anne Frank again,' and then it was huge."
She seems largely indifferent to it—she came for the theater, not for the city.
Why did she choose to come to Seattle and to Intiman?
"It has a lot to do with Bart," she said.
Does she see Intiman as a Seattle theater, playing to Seattle audiences, or as part of a larger ecology, a national or international network?
"Yes," Sher jumped in.
It's a delicate question—local artists, of course, want to work at Intiman and local audiences want to think their opinion comes first. But Sher's expansive career has made Intiman a theater of national and international interest. One cannot be all things to all people. Priorities matter.
She has Seattle-specific ideas: "Well, I'd love to work with the Seattle's ballet and symphony," Whoriskey said. "I'd love to play with the malaria research being done here."
But her gaze is expansive. "As Bart develops relationships in other places [such as Baden-Baden, where Sher recently directed an opera], it would be great to find relationships for Intiman, too."
She also wants to kick-start an International Cycle, to add to Intiman's American Cycle (Our Town, Native Son, All the King's Men). She wants to bring Ruined to Seattle, then send it to Africa. She wants to produce a Nilo Cruz play and send it to Cuba. Geography, she said, is not the most useful way to think about making theater. And what is a useful way?
"Who are the great artists," she said.
"She's planning it now," Sher said. "I have no idea what we're going to be doing."