Spotlight: Kate Whoriskey

Intiman's new artistic director and her theatrical family settles into Seattle

In the lobby of the empty Intiman Theatre, an adorable child is in hot pursuit of a ball imprinted with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. It’s an apt plaything for Rory, age 2, who, only a few days before, moved to Seattle from New York City, after a stint in Paris. While Rory is the center of attention on this rainy afternoon, his parents have done their share of scene stealing as well.

Kate Whoriskey, Rory’s mom, is Intiman’s new artistic director, taking the reins after Bartlett Sher’s revered 10-year dynasty. (Sher’s tenure doesn’t expire until the end of this year, but as artistic codirector, Whoriskey curated the 2010 season on her own.) She may look younger than her 40 years, but Whoriskey radiates an intelligent, approachable maturity. This quality, combined with a directing certificate from Harvard, an impressive freelance-directing track record and Sher’s strong recommendation, persuaded the Intiman board (in the face of many a raised eyebrow) to hire her without performing the customary national search.

At 30, Daniel Breaker (Rory’s dad) has earned his own acclaim, having received a 2008 Tony Award nomination for his performance in Passing Strange (he appears in Spike Lee’s film version as well) and a 2009 Drama Desk Award nomination for playing Donkey in Shrek the Musical.

Whoriskey and Breaker, who worked together on several plays as actor and director before marrying in 2008, aren’t your stereotypical New York theater types. They are remarkably laid back—amazingly so, given that they just uprooted themselves (and a toddler), moved to Paris for five weeks (so Whoriskey could direct an opera at Théâtre du Châtelet) and transplanted themselves on a new coast.

The whole family seems more enthusiastic than exhausted. Whoriskey says she’s eager to get out and see more Seattle theater. Breaker, a foodie, is thrilled to find that Seattle’s cuisine is “a jump up” from Parisian fare. And Rory loves Seattle. “In Paris and New York, we were always editing what he wanted to do,” Whoriskey notes, “saying ‘don’t’ and ‘no,’ but here, he can run.” Cue Rory running past.

The kid is not the only one relishing his new freedom. The couple notes that NYC can be limiting in terms of who gets which roles and what’s acceptable on stage. (“New York eats its young!” Whoriskey jokes, but kind of means it.) “I hope to have the freedom to take some artistic risks here,” says Breaker. His wife plans to do the same.

Whoriskey, who worked with Sher as a freelance director at Intiman in 2000, 2001 and 2003, says that when Sher first spoke with her about taking the helm, she wasn’t interested. (“As a freelance director, you don’t have to worry about budget and filling the audience,” she explains.) But after surveying the theatrical landscape, she changed her mind, deciding to take the job to answer the question “How do you make theater relevant again?”

Whoriskey is confident that Seattle is a place where she can fill such a tall order. “You can have a conversation here,” she says. “I want Intiman to be a beacon of conversation.” One way Whoriskey hopes to get people talking is with her new International Cycle, a five-year series that will present one play each season to facilitate relationships with countries “underrepresented in American arts.” First up is Ruined (running through August 8), Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play based on the true stories of Congolese women refugees. Whoriskey, who has directed the Chicago, New York and Seattle runs, says she hopes to raise money at Intiman for women in Congo before the show moves on to Johannesburg.

The other four plays of the International Cycle are still only ideas, but Whoriskey emphasizes that her interest in making theater socially relevant doesn’t mean quality is left backstage. “What’s great about Ruined,” she says, “is the writing. It has a human rights component. But it’s still a work of art.”

And Whoriskey knows great works of art don’t have to be serious. Next up in Intiman’s season is Molière’s 17th-century comedy, A Doctor in Spite of Himself (September 3–October 10), starring the man who is currently blowing up a plastic food-service glove for his son’s entertainment.

“I’m eager to work on my clowning techniques,” Breaker says of A Doctor.This new adaptation is directed by Christopher Bayes—one of Breaker’s former teachers at Juilliard, where he earned a B.F.A. in 2002. The plot involves a woodcutter with a penchant for drinking who’s mistaken for a reputable doctor. The script is based on improvised scenes, and Breaker promises some singing and some slapstick. Yet despite comedic turns in Shrek and Doctor, Breaker is not just about laughs. “I love comedy,” he says, “but I love drama a little more.” And don’t expect to see him in every Intiman play just because he has an in with the artistic director. “The plan,” he says, “is to do some theater in this city.” His dream role? “Whatever I haven’t done.”

Like Whoriskey (and Rory), Breaker doesn’t seem stressed about what’s next. “Everything we come across is a big leap,” he says. “The only things that matter are: Are we artistically satisfied? And, is our son happy? Not necessarily in that order.”