Art Meets Humanity

by Lisa Mulcahy

Director Kate Whoriskey brings intellect and compassion to Sweat

Kate Whoriskey has fast become one of the theatre’s most respected new directors—and she’s achieved her sterling reputation using a deep, rare combination of intellectual research, and empathy for her show’s characters. A graduate of New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing and the ART Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard, Whoriskey, a visiting lecturer at Princeton, has directed moving, political drama at the American Repertory Theatre, the Vineyard Theatre, South Coast Repertory, Playwrights Horizon, the Intiman Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Circle in the Square. 

She’s a frequent interpreter of the works of some of today’s most fascinating and talented playwrights including her longtime collaborator Lynn Nottage. Whoriskey’s efforts to create smart, accurate depictions of complex world issues are widely admired and make her an important voice in today’s theatre. This spring, Whoriskey’s latest production, Nottage’s second Pulitzer-Prize winning drama, Sweat transferred from the Public Theater to Studio 54 on Broadway. She perfectly captures the work and personal challenges of blue collar workers in Pennsylvania in this play, owing the show’s accuracy to copious preparation and study. Never afraid to delve into tragic, painful, or challenging issues with a cerebral, sensitive approach, Whoriskey’s process goes a long way toward inspiring other directors to think in a fresh way about how they tackle material as well. 

Director Kate Whoriskey

A Political Point of View

From a very young age, Whoriskey was innately curious about the state of the world. “I’m from Acton, Massachusetts, originally,” she says. “I was born after the Vietnam War, and I remember the war was always kind of in the pocket of my childhood. I can still recall politicians talking about it on television, and between listening to their dialogue, and listening to the opinions of my family on topics like the war, I was exposed to and developed a very sharp understanding of these kinds of political issues at a young age.” 

Whoriskey started becoming interested in theatre as a young girl as well, and decided to incorporate the concept of war’s impact on its participants into a creative project. “When I was 16, I became interested in doing a piece about veterans,” she explains. “I went to the VA near my home, and was able to interview veterans about their experiences during and after wartime. I heard stories about what war was really like. I also learned about the psychiatric treatment many of these veterans received, and all of the information I gathered did evolve into a theatre piece I put together with friends of mine. I cast both students and teachers from my high school and the piece ended up provoking a lot of dialogue. I saw parents speaking to each other about their opinions on the war; I even saw a woman tell one of the real-life veterans at the performance, ‘I was one of the people who spat on you.’ It was a healing experience for her to be able to change her feelings and to express that change to this veteran. So that little theatre piece had a very big impact on me.”

Whoriskey next decided to devote herself to demanding academic theatre training after high school, earning her first degree from NYU in 1992. “While at NYU, I had been very interested in the concept of visual pictures in a theatrical context,” she says. This led her to a unique learning opportunity, subsequently, during her time in the American Repertory Theatre’s post-grad program in directing. “After I arrived at ART, Bob Brustein gave me the chance to use the idea of visual images in a very powerful way,” Whoriskey says. “This led me to be able to do later work that visually correlated themes in well-known to material to the September 11 attacks, for example.” Whoriskey’s vivid, memorable productions at ART included The Master Builder, which helped to cement her reputation as a smart, bold and trailblazing original. 

Fighting to Tell the Truth

Professional companies quickly took notice of Whoriskey’s talent. In short order, she began helming scores of acclaimed productions, ranging from classic works like The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams and Lady of the Sea by Henrik Ibsen, to interpreting the works of strong, daring female playwrights like Paula Vogel, Julia Cho, and Regina Taylor. Each of Whoriskey’s directing experiences informed and changed her. “Theatre, and directing, is full of complexity—there are so many ways to make a great piece of theatre, I think,” she says. “What I learned about myself early on as a theatre artist, both politically and socially, was that I was a bit of a fighter. I needed people to sit me down and show me another point of view about myself.” The more she worked, the more she drew from seminal lessons great teachers had impressed upon her. “I remember once being in an acting class, and I constantly felt like I wanted to offer my ideas as to why I thought a scene should be done one particular way,” Whoriskey elaborates. “My teacher was very wise, and good enough to tell me, ‘Stop it! Just stop thinking! This is an acting class, but YOU are a director.’ And also, Robert Scanlon at ART got me to focus on truth of the material, because I always had an impulse to edit work down. He told me, ‘You’ve got to UNDERSTAND the play before you cut it to pieces! You’re eliminating beautiful pieces of text here!’ That was an important lesson—to listen to the INTENT of the material I’d direct, and to really know and respect the text.”

Whoriskey’s adherence to these principles served her beautifully upon meeting Lynn Nottage. In 2003, she directed her first play by this innovative author, the smart and affecting Intimate Apparel at South Coast Rep. “When I work with a living playwright, I don’t believe I’m a co-creator of the actual material,” Whoriskey says. “Again, it’s my job to listen to the intent of the writer, and listen closely and deeply. Then, I need to ask questions if something does not feel clear. I feel a responsibility not to blemish that playwright’s intent. This is how I work with Lynn.” With this philosophy set, the two went on to work on Nottage’s next play, Fabulation, or the Reeducation of Undine in a highly-respected production at Playwrights Horizons in 2004.

Nottage’s next work was slated for production at the Intiman in Seattle; Ruined was to be a retelling of classic themes, punctuated by modern-day regarding conflicts of race and class. “For Ruined, the idea was to do an adaptation, essentially, of Mother Courage,” Whoriskey explains. The setting would be the Democratic Republic of Congo during its civil war; Whoriskey and Nottage traveled to Uganda in the summer of 2004 to gain firsthand knowledge of the ravages there. “Lynn and I went to do research and really ask ourselves, ‘How does that narrative apply to war?’ We talked to many people there, women who generously shared their personal stories with us.” Ruined was greeted with critical praise when it opened at the Goodman’s New Stages Series in Chicago in 2007, and was co-produced with the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2008, going on to win the Pulitzer in 2009. 

Shining a Fresh Light

Sweat, Whoriskey and Nottage’s next and current work, seems like a natural progression of their common commitment to exposing little-seen strife and human suffering. Similar to the development process of Ruined, Sweat started life as a result of deeply felt, honestly expressed reality. “Sweat came about because Lynn said to me, ‘I don’t have a really set idea what I’m going to write next, but I do know I want to write about Reading, Pennsylvania,’” Whoriskey recalls. “So that’s where we began. Reading is among the poorest cities in the United States, due to the fact that the city’s manufacturing jobs have disappeared. This has led, obviously, to a lot of hardship for workers and families in that community. The play grew from Lynn doing tons of research in Reading. She asked lots of questions of the workers there, people who were completely courageous, and incredibly generous in describing their feelings and experiences. For a year, it was about having those conversations, taking photos of the place and its people, and then Lynn had a script.”

Sweat photo (c)Joan Marcus

Sweat is set at a run-down bar, at which displaced and distraught metal tubing factory workers vent their frustrations, fears, and anger. The play features three female workers who spent their entire working lives at the factory for little reward; powder keg issues like homelessness, racial and class conflict, and union strife are dealt with directly and realistically. Whoriskey used the story’s many truths as a template when working on the piece with her creative design team, consisting of set designer John Lee Beatty, costume designer Jennifer Moeller, lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, and projection designer Jeff Sugg. “In terms of building the play for New York, I focused on the details of realism, as did our team,” she explains. “Acting can take on a more naturalistic style in some environments. I also think a female playwright and director, as well as a multicultural cast, was very important and influential in the way we built Sweat.” The result: a slice-of-life, weather-beaten atmosphere that illuminates the story’s themes of disintegrating values in today’s society, and inspires discussion of how to move forward toward a new future.

Sweat’s themes of unwanted change, and the possibility of redemption, perfectly describe Whoriskey’s directing style as a whole: wise, unflinching, humane, and hopeful.  Like the generous artist she is, Whoriskey is happy to give voice to the voiceless. She sums it all up: “Telling the story of these members of the working class—to help them express their feelings and ideas is a very rewarding process.”  

Be sure to also read about John Lee Beatty's set design for Sweat in the SD article, Closing Time.