Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Kate Whoriskey

"What I would love in 2016 is for theater to find its political and social impact in the culture." -- Kate Whoriskey

Though theater director Kate Whoriskey was just a toddler when the Vietnam War ended, it was the war's lingering effects on her parents and their friends that prompted Whoriskey's first foray into theater. As she described the experience, it may not have been the best play but she learned "what theater has the ability to do...generate conversation." Since her student days at NYU's Experimental Theater Wing and American Repertory Theatre's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, Whoriskey has worked across the country at venues such as Chicago's Goodman Theater, Boston's Huntington Theater Company, and Playwright's Horizon in New York City. She has also received a career development grant from the NEA and Theater Communications Group. Throughout her career as a director, Whoriskey has remained attracted to work that gets people talking whether it's classic work with contemporary resonance or brand new plays, such as her multiple collaborations with playwright Lynn Nottage. Whoriskey has also been consistently lauded for her keen visual eye and the complete world she's able to conjure for the plays she directs. The key to her success? As she noted in our interview, it's all about "imagination and communication." We spoke with Whoriskey by telephone in advance of the Arena Stage opening of Sweat, another new play collaboration with Lynn Nottage.

in a production of the play Sweat a young white man reads a letter he holds in his hand to a young black man about to put his arm around his shoulder

(l-r) Stephen Michael Spencer as Jason and Tramell Tillman as Chris in Sweat at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

NEA: How did you end up in theater as a profession? Were you involved with the arts as a kid?

KATE WHORISKEY: When I was 16 years old, I became interested in the Vietnam War. I think I was always interested in the Vietnam War because it was my parents' generation and it seemed like something that was never discussed around kids. I decided I wanted to make a theater piece based on [the war] and I went to the local VA hospital where I asked to meet with people who had been soldiers. I interviewed them and transcribed what they said and then I asked teachers and friends to perform edited conversations and make a play out of it. I'm sure that that was not a very good theater experience in terms of theater, but what came of it for me was a discussion at the end of the show between certain parents who had been hippies in the day and certain parents who had been soldiers and these apologies and really lovely conversations that I was really happy to have been part of and witnessed. So that was significant to me in terms of what theater has the ability to do or has the potential of doing, which is to generate conversation.

NEA: What's your job description as a theater director?

WHORISKEY: I think the job as a director is to know ultimately what you want the play to be about, the main spine of the play, and then you make all the choices based on supporting the spine of the story.

NEA: If you had to write a mission statement for yourself as an artist, what might that be?

WHORISKEY: I would say I'm interested in theater that has political and social relevance and also theater that has a bold imagination.

NEA: What gets you to say yes to a project?

WHORISKEY: If I feel something when I read it, if there's something that strikes me as both intellectually compelling and emotionally accessible.

NEA: You’re directing Sweat by Lynn Nottage for a production at Arena Stage, which just opened. It’s one of many collaborations you’ve done with her. What sparked this particular project?

WHORISKEY: Lynn had a friend who sent her a letter [that] said, "I just want to let you know that for the last year I have been struggling financially." This woman was a single mom with two kids and she didn't want to have the burden of constantly pretending that she couldn't go out for dinner or couldn't go to the movies. She just wanted to be frank and say, "I just don't have the money, and there's no way I can afford that. My family is in this significant financial struggle and that's where we are.” I think Lynn was really surprised that her friend, who was a close friend, had been masking that for so long and it made Lynn start thinking about this idea of how the financial crisis in 2008 affected everybody, particularly this idea that the new class of poor are these people who suddenly found themselves without money. So then she was trying to figure out how she wanted to address that subject and she had all these different research ideas. One of my very favorite research ideas, which was not practical, was that she was going to rent a truck and she was going to offer everyone a beer, a beer for a story. <laughter> She was going to drive nationally and just figure out how the crisis affected everybody, which I thought was terrific. But realistically, she and I both had children and so that was not done. 

She eventually decided that she would look up the top cities that were the top poorest cities in America and, in 2011, Reading, Pennsylvania, was declared the poorest mid-sized city. It's population is 80,000. So she began going down to Reading and soon after she told me all the things I just told you and she said, "I'm just interviewing a lot of people, I'm not sure where it's going to go. I want to write something. I don't know what I want to write but let's go down there." So we spent some time interviewing some really incredible people and people who were generous with their time--the mayor of the city, the person who runs the homeless shelter, the high school principal of Reading, and some homeless people. It was a real mix of people and we were just asking about what their lives were like and what Reading was and what they think Reading can become. 

In that process, Lynn interviewed steelworkers and I think she was compelled by a group of people who had such a clear financial track. They were doing very, very well, I mean they were solidly middle class. They could afford a certain lifestyle; they could predict their financial future. And then it was suddenly taken away from them because of NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] and the ramifications of that. I think Lynn was really shocked by these people who were in their 40s and 50s who suddenly found themselves in a situation they had never anticipated. That began the journey of her actually writing Sweat.

NEA: In a situation like this where you're involved in the research stage before anything's actually been committed to paper, what's your role as the play’s director?

WHORISKEY: There's a team of us that went to Reading and Lynn said, "I just want everyone to ask questions." It was a great exercise that you'd spend the whole day asking questions and listening and I feel like that describes what a director does in that early process, which is just to listen and to ask some questions and to take in as much as you can about design and about the look of the city and the feel of the costumes and all of those other things.  Really, it's trying to figure out what is significant and what Lynn also wants to bring out.

NEA: Is your process different working with a living playwright than with, say, Ibsen?

WHORISKEY: I was once given the advice that I should always do two classic theater and two contemporary plays a year, which I never fully took, but I did understand the logic that there should be a dialogue between classic and contemporary and it's really two different muscles. I think in classic work it really is about finding the themes that are most alive in the play and most relevant to our time and bringing those to the fore and seeing how something that has lasted for generations is speaking to today. With a contemporary playwright, the living playwright, I feel like the job is to really listen to what the writer's intent is and to try to keep supporting that and help when you don't think there's clarity and also listen when the playwright is saying to you, "No, no, you're the person who's not clear." <laughs> I feel like it's a dance, right? I think sometimes the writer's wanting to be a little bit more specific and sometimes the directing needs to be a little bit more specific and I think being open to that dialogue [around] what is the story that we want to tell and how can we make the steps to make it more clear, whether it's a directing step or a writing step, I think for me that is the process. It's exciting when you're working with a living playwright because you're on a team together and when it's a classic play, you're on your own finding it.

NEA: Can you talk about the role of failure and also success in your work?

WHORISKEY: That's a complicated question. I would say failure as a director is about the lack of ability to get everybody on the same page to think through the thoughts in the rehearsal room and therefore everyone's on a different page on stage and then it doesn't translate to the audience so whatever you were trying to say hasn't been communicated. I would say success is when everyone is carefully crafting the same moment and that there's so much care and listening going on onstage that the audience keys into that and brings themselves to the material.

NEA: As as a director, what's the particular tool that you find indispensable?

WHORISKEY: I would say imagination and communication.

NEA: As you look out at the theater landscape today, what are you noticing as still significantly absent? 

WHORISKEY: There's so many things to say about that question. <laughs>  I would say what I would love to see in 2016 is for theater to find its political and social impact in the culture, that's what I would say.

NEA: Can you say more about that?

WHORISKEY: I think because of financial pressures a lot of playwrights are writing smaller plays that take place in living rooms, that are about interpersonal relationships.  In the Public [Theater] years ago, they used to have a picture of the various people who were part of the McCarthy trials and it was Elia Kazan and all of the folks that we know to have been part of [that era.] Theater artists would not hold that position in society today; we would not be seen as that threatening. I long for a time when we have enough social and political relevance that our stories matter to the culture at large, not just the theater community but outside of the theater community.

NEA: The final question is a fill in the blank: The arts matter because…

WHORISKEY: I feel like we grow and develop through the telling of stories and for me that's what theater is and that's why it matters because it's basically about emotional and intellectual progress and growth.

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