REHEARSALS are for answering questions, and here are some that pop up during a recent session for South Coast Repertory’s season-opening production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.”
What’s the last gesture a ruler makes before being dragged off to his death during a military coup?
How should a full-grown actor sound when he’s voicing the part of a famished newborn?
When a blood-and-guts corporal marches onto the stage to incite both horror and hilarity, does he step straight-ahead, or do a zigzag?
And isn’t it a little surprising that Kate Whoriskey -- a director known for painting sweeping visions across the stage -- is the one who’s here in a chilly rehearsal hall, coaching 15 actors on how to nail these little details?
“It’s a fairy tale,” she says of Brecht’s epic satire, in which wealth, power and chicanery collide with simple decency. It’s the fourth play Whoriskey has directed in the last 2 1/2 years at the Costa Mesa theater, and it would seem to lend itself to a fanciful, visionary approach. But Whoriskey also sees virtue in the smaller, earthier moments that make for good storytelling. There’s something in the tone of that highborn baby’s cry that’s vital, she says, to understanding why an ordinary kitchen maid would risk her life to save him from bloody revolutionaries.
“I think it’s important for her to experience what it’s really like to be a parent, the reality of having to take the kid in exile who’s crying and doesn’t have food. What I responded to in the play is her act of compassion as a political act.”
Whoriskey began notching whiz-kid credentials on the regional theater circuit in 1999, when she was just 28. The stylistic lineage she embraced from her student days at New York University and Harvard makes her an unlikely go-to artist for South Coast Rep. She comes from a school of thought in which a vivid picture is worth at least a thousand words, and the playwright’s text is treated as a trampoline for the director’s visual gambits and interpretive gymnastics.
At South Coast, founding artistic directors Martin Benson and David Emmes have been preaching and practicing a very different version of theater gospel for more than 40 years: In the beginning is the Word, and the Word is the Playwright’s, and the Playwright is God. Directorial interpretation, for them, means figuring out what the author intends, and putting that faithfully and lucidly on stage.
Whoriskey’s early break came when Robert Brustein, artistic director of the Harvard-affiliated American Repertory Theatre, grew so impressed with her student work that he chose her to direct Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder.”
The Boston Globe’s critic, Ed Siegel, loved how she evoked themes and psychological states with visual tropes such as cordoning off characters within geometrically shaped barriers. He pegged Whoriskey as “a major new talent” with “dazzling potential to make theatrical history.”
She kept the momentum going with projects at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre and three engagements at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, including a revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo” in which the set was half-enfolded in a huge, voluptuous red flower. She also had a one-season stopover in 2002 as associate artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse.
With her reputation building, South Coast’s leaders decided to test Whoriskey in a short assignment -- a staged reading of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” during SCR’s 2002 Pacific Playwrights Festival. No visuals, no choreography. Just actors in street clothes, saying the words.
Not only did Benson and Emmes decide Whoriskey could fulfill South Coast’s ethos of “the playwright is queen,” but the queen appointed her as prime minister. Nottage enlisted Whoriskey to direct the premiere co-production of “Intimate Apparel” in 2003 at SCR and Baltimore Center Stage.
The Nottage-Whoriskey partnership resumed last year with “Fabulation” at Playwrights Horizons in New York, after which the two traveled together to Uganda to interview women war refugees, part of the research for Nottage’s as-yet unfinished play “Ruined.”
Now, after also staging South Coast’s recent productions of “Antigone,” in which the stage imagery telescoped ancient Greek tragedy into the post-9/11 present, and Sarah Ruhl’s domestic comedy, “The Clean House,” Whoriskey holds the title of associate artist -- meaning SCR expects her to be in its directing rotation on almost an annual basis.
Slight of build, soft of voice, unpretentious and politely solicitous toward actors, she does not cut a figure of imposing command. At 34, she still looks like a fresh-faced student -- one who can’t seem to keep her lank brown hair from flopping in her face, prompting her to try to puff it away or just grab a hunk of it to fiddle with. Her laughs are frequent, but stifled -- high-pitched squeaks of mirth quickly implode in a stream of sucked-in breath.
What seems to give Whoriskey authority in the rehearsal room is her focus. It’s acute and unflagging as she runs the cast through sequences from “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.”
A scene unfolds in which peasants are in flight, soldiers are on the march, and the servant girl, Grusha, is trying, amid the chaos, to mother the abandoned baby. Whoriskey seems to take in every busy detail at once and measure it against her mind’s-eye vision of the scene. When the action stops, she immediately relays crisp, quietly stated advice to the actors.
Daniel Breaker, who recently starred as Ariel in Whoriskey’s staging of “The Tempest” at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., is playing the Storyteller in “Chalk Circle,” and the director is using him as the voice of the crying infant.
She asks for more volume and “a little more desperate feeling” -- an instruction informed by her recent stint as a baby-sitting aunt to her older sister’s newborn back in suburban Boston, where Whoriskey grew up. She tells Breaker it’s OK if his wails drown out the words of the folk song that Katrina Lenk, as Grusha, will sing to the puppet-infant. Urgent baby cries will tell more of the story than folk rhymes.
When she started grad school, Whoriskey says later, she didn’t pay much mind to storytelling. She believed that film and television had co-opted traditional, dialogue-oriented narrative, leaving theater as their mere shadow or, more promisingly, as open turf for experimentation.
“I was really intrigued by what you could do with dance and movement. Really simple storytelling? I had no idea, and no real interest in doing it. I was thinking that it’s more important what the interpretation is, and not what the material is.”
But her professors drummed into her that storytelling mattered. “It can’t be just an interpretation, because the audience will be lost.”
Something else Whoriskey learned in grad school may contribute to her apparent laser vision for what’s happening on a stage or in a rehearsal room. “I had a teacher who said that to understand a play you should read it seven times” without even thinking about it from a directorial standpoint -- “just to see what the play is.”
When it’s time to start thinking like a director, Whoriskey pulls out a sketch pad and draws the play, scene by scene, creating a storyboard showing all the action.
Does all that meticulous preparatory reading and sketching ever get a tad dull?
Whoriskey lets out her biggest high-pitched, breath-retracting laugh. “No. Thankfully, I’ve liked the plays I’ve directed so far.”
‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Opens Sept. 9. Runs 7:30 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: Oct. 9
Price: $28 to $58
Contact: (714) 708-5555