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BWW Interview: A Women's History Month Special with Director Kate Whoriskey of HER REQUIEM and SWEAT

First in a series.

Last month the League of Professional Theatre Women announced it has begun issuing a Seal of Approval to New York's nonprofit theaters where at least half the plays produced in a season have female directors or at least half were written by women. Among the 12 inaugural Seal of Approval recipients was Lincoln Center Theater (LCT), which was recognized for achieving gender parity in playwrights and directors during the 2014-15 season.

Both plays that LCT is currently presenting off-Broadway are directed by women: Rachel Chavkin for The Royale, now in previews at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, and Kate Whoriskey on Her Requiem, running through March 20 at the Claire Tow Theater. Written by by Greg Pierce, Her Requiem stars Peter Friedman and Mare Winningham as the parents of a teenage girl who's dedicated herself to composing a requiem.

The play had already opened at LCT while Whoriskey's last show, Sweat--the newly minted Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winner by Lynn Nottage--was still running at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. (following its premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year). Whoriskey received Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel nominations in 2009 for directing Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined at Manhattan Theatre Club, and she's directed productions of it in Chicago and Seattle as well.

Mare Winningham and Peter Friedman in Her Requiem

Earlier this season Whoriskey directed Dear Elizabeth--which featured a rotating cast including Cherry Jones, Kathleen Chalfant, Peter Scolari, John Douglas Thompson and J. Smith-Cameron--at the Women's Project. Previous NYC credits include Nottage's Fabulation at Playwrights Horizons, Tales From Red Vienna, the Second Stage revival of How I Learned to Drive and Massacre (Sing to Your Children) at Labyrinth Theater, where she is a company member.

Whoriskey has also worked extensively in regional theaters--she's even been the associate director of La Jolla Playhouse and, briefly, artistic director of Seattle's Intiman--and her resumé contains plenty of classics to go along with the many new plays. She's helmed Ibsen at the Intiman (Lady From the Sea) and American Repertory Theater (The Master Builder), The Rose Tattoo and Heartbreak House at the Goodman in Chicago and Oroonoko, adapted from a 17th-century novel by Aphra Behn, at Theatre for a New Audience in New York. She also directed the 2010 Broadway revival of The Miracle Worker, starring Abigail Breslin.

A 1992 graduate of NYU, Whoriskey was lauded as a "Woman to Watch" in the August 2000 issue of Vogue. She is married to actor Daniel Breaker, whom she met while working on 2004's Fabulation and later directed in The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Life Is a Dream at southern California's South Coast Repertory and The Tempest at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington; they have two children, ages 7 and almost 2. In the first of BroadwayWorld's Women's History Month interviews with female directors, Whoriskey talks about her directing style, her work history and the female perspective in theater.

Jack Willis, Kimberly Scott and Johanna Day in Sweat at Arena Stage

Did you enter theater as a director, or were you rerouted somewhere along the way from acting?
My very first experience in theater was acting, but it was when I was in sixth grade or something. In high school I did a piece--I was interested in Vietnam veterans, particularly people who were having a hard time adjusting, even many, many years later. So I interviewed Vietnam vets and tried to structure a little piece about these interviews. I'm sure the piece was bad, but there was something really interesting to me about shaping meaning and trying to tell a story theatrically. Then in college a professor of mine said, "You are definitely a director." I was acting in a play and he was directing and he said, "All you ever do is fight me about interpretation."

You were in the Experimental Theatre Wing program as an NYU undergrad. How much did that shape you early on?
ETW has a real gift for helping people define what they want to do with theater...at recognizing that young people may not have a sense of what they want to do within the performing arts. They're very good at identifying what your interests are. I had gone into the program as an actor, and that was where I discovered I should be a director. Kevin Kuhlke [then the director of the ETW] was really great at teaching how physical life affects storytelling: What someone says versus what they're doing physically can shape the meaning of a moment.

Did your formal education continue after NYU?
I went to ART for graduate school. I was mentored [there] by Marcus Stern. His work was so deeply personal, he always--by example, really--was great at this idea of storytelling needing to come from a very personal place.

Tramell Tillman and Tara Mallen in Sweat

Would you say your directing has evolved over the years?
I was very interested in visual theater, design, and I was interested in movement, how actors moved on stage. At ART there was a professor, Robert Scanlan, he really stayed on me about story and figuring out the author's intent. So for years I was interested in the visual picture and story and the physical life. And then September 11th happened, and I had more of an interest in cultural dialogue--along with visual and physical life.

How did that manifest itself in your work?
I did an Antigone [at South Coast Rep], and I was just investigating questions about leadership and where leadership can fail, even with the best intentions, and also the notion of someone who is rebelling against society, and where that can fail.

In addition to Sweat, Ruined and Fabulation, you've directed Lynn Nottage's play Intimate Apparel at South Coast, and will soon be contributing to her Reading Project. Why are you so well suited as collaborators?
I feel like Lynn and I complement each other. What she focuses on and what I focus on are slightly different in the rehearsal room, but we are going for the same story. So often I've had moments with her where a moment isn't working and it's like a three-minute conversation just between the two of us: What does it need to be? What should we try? And then clarification on what both of us can do--so it's like: Oh, I can do this to help that story point, and she can address the line a little bit. And then we keep forward going forward. With Lynn it's really about defining what we want the story point to be, and then both of us supporting the story point.

What about your partnership with Julia Cho, whose plays you've directed multiple times off-Broadway?
With Julia--who I'm just beginning to work with again [on Aubergine, slated for next season at Playwrights Horizons]--Julia's strength is really in what is not said. There's a quality of listening that I see Julia have, whether I directed the piece or not. There's something about how an audience listens to her work that to me is really unique. It's a kind of minimalism with her, and trying to find the exact amount of information that an audience should have to encourage curiosity. If you don't give an audience enough information, they don't have enough to hang their hat on and they won't engage. But if you give them too much, the mystery is less interesting. So that, I think, is the work with Julia's material.

There must also be artists with whom you perhaps haven't had the best working relationship. What happens then?
It seems to be different with each person. We all, if you stay in the business long enough, have had conflicts with somebody. I had a conflict with one person, and it was just a complicated problem in which I could see the narrative for both of our arguments. We had done a piece with a section within the piece that had video choreography and song that were related to the group of words. We had worked on it for a very long time, and the writer had wanted to change the words in previews; I felt that we didn't have enough time to do that along with all of the other notes that were required to get the show in working order. She, as the writer, rightly felt that she should be able to make choices about what the language was right up until the very last moment. So that was a conflict, and it was a genuine one. I could really see both of our points of view. It turned out, just out of technical necessity, they couldn't actually make the changes. But it was very upsetting [to her], and I absolutely understood why.

Whoriskey with Greg Pierce at the February opening
of Her Requiem

You started out directing a lot of older plays but have done more new work in recent years. Do you like going back and forth between the two?
I love new work. The collaborations with Greg Pierce and Julia Cho and Lynn Nottage and Sarah Ruhl--those are remarkable people to be in the room with, and they're so facile at storytelling and it's wonderful to be able to turn to them and say, "This little section of text--what is it supposed to mean?" and then get the answer and be able to stage it quickly. That I love, and I also love refining and detailing new stories. For example, with Ruined, because it has so many reversals in that first scene, the first time Ruined was done in front of an audience was incredible because no one had a sense of where the story was going or even what the story was about. To me that's what's so exciting about new work: It is a genuinely new experience in front of an audience. With classics, there's something compelling about how a piece changes over time, even though the language doesn't: What is the meaning of this language in this moment? It feels like it gives me the opportunity to dialogue with 300 years ago, 500 years ago. That is a really exciting challenge...how you can make language work based on physical life.

You've worked internationally. What did you draw from those experiences?
I directed an opera in Paris at the Châtelet Theatre. At the time the ash cloud was happening. The set was being built in three different countries, and they were having a very hard time getting the set into Paris. But there was something thrilling in an international setting with people from around the world. And I did a piece in Australia, and that was interesting because of very small things that make a big difference. One of the things is they only rehearse five days a week, and we rehearse six. At [first] I thought that's not a smart move, but because the actors had two days off, whenever we returned to a scene it was significantly better. I think because they had one day to do their laundry and another day to actually think about the work that they were doing. They also do another thing to preserve actor energy, which is actors do not do the tech. You tech the show without actors, and then they come in for three hours a night. Tiny details like that help give you an outside eye in terms of what the American experience is--and actually where we could possibly do things differently.

You've also held administrative roles at theaters. What did that entail?
Season planning and reading new work, and I also did some casting. And figuring out a balance between what our board was interested in and what the artists who were working in the theater were interested in. Someone said there basically has to be one hit show a season, just for a theater to survive. So I learned some things about what is essential for a theater to financially survive.

What do you impress upon the fledgling directors whom you've taught or mentored?
For me, it's: What is the purpose of the play that you're directing? And they should have a sense of purpose that guides them through making multiple small choices that they need to make. Younger directors sometimes can get overwhelmed with the questions about [for example] the color of fabric for a dress, or any of those things. If they have a sense of what they're trying to say with the piece, they'll have a much stronger sense of how to make those smaller decisions. But it's how to look at a text so that you can guide the storytelling.

Whoriskey with her husband, Daniel Breaker,
attending the 2013 Drama Desk Awards

In the years you've been working, increasing attention has been paid to more equitable representation of women artists in theater, especially playwrights and directors. What have you observed?
It seems there are a lot more women that I can name who are taken seriously, in particular in New York. I feel like New York has had more of a learning curve than other places in terms of hiring women. So I've definitely seen, since I started, women have a major impact in the New York Theater community. The stats continue to not be particularly promising; there are certain theaters that could use some more development.

What is holding progress back?
[Pauses and laughs slightly] What a dangerous question. [Pauses again] I think... [And again] It feels simple: They could just hire more women. There could be interest in hiring more women and people of color at certain theaters.
Alison Carey, from Oregon Shakespeare Festival, says whenever she sees a particularly talented young woman, she always makes sure to reach out to her and support her and develop connections with her. I do think that is helpful for everyone to do, and I try to do it myself.

How has motherhood affected you professionally?
I will honestly answer that the designers I work with say that I've become much kinder since I've had children. There's something about having kids that does change your perspective. I do think I have a depth of understanding about human relationships that I didn't have before having kids in terms of interpreting family dynamics in plays.

Do your kids go to the theater with you?
The 7-year-old does, and he also gives very good notes!

[Her Requiem photo by Jeremy Daniel; Sweat photos by C. Stanley Photography (2); photo with Pierce: Jenny Anderson; with Breaker: Walter McBride]

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