Kate Whoriskey, a New York-based stage director, has been named to succeed the Tony-winning Bartlett Sher at Intiman Theatre.

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Intiman Theatre has named New York stage director Kate Whoriskey as its next artistic director. And as the successor of current Intiman head Bartlett Sher, the 38-year-old knows she has a hard act to follow. Whoriskey, who has directed classical and new plays at many regional companies, including three shows at Intiman, has not run a theater previously. And in an unusual process, she will work with Sher as his co-artistic director through 2010. At that point, Sher’s contract ends, and Whoriskey takes over.

She knows she has big shoes to fill. Since joining the Seattle Center theater in 2000, Sher has become a top Tony-winning Broadway theater and opera director and led Intiman to the 2006 regional theater Tony Award.

But Whoriskey says Sher’s vaunted reputation actually is “a great advantage.”

“Bart has put this theater in a more national position,” the calm, youthful director said Wednesday at Intiman. “I’m interested in maintaining that.”

Whoriskey’s artistic reputation is heating up, too. Sher calls her “one of the best younger directors in the country.”

The Intiman board hired her at Sher’s strong suggestion, without a customary national search for other candidates — another rare move.

“The board considered who else might be available but settled on the idea of Kate early on,” said Kim Anderson, Intiman board president. “We’re all excited about working with her and feel she’s another star.”

The announcement comes as the East Coast-bred Whoriskey is coming off her biggest theatrical success — her acclaimed Off Broadway mounting of “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s gripping, Pulitzer Prize-winning play set in a Congolese brothel.

Whoriskey traveled to Africa to research the show with Nottage. The Intiman heir also has worked closely with other hot writers (e.g., Sarah Ruhl, Julia Cho, Nilo Cruz), at such major venues as Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and California’s South Coast Repertory Theatre.

“Kate’s become a very confident and mature leader,” said Jerry Patch, head of artistic development at Manhattan Theatre Club, where “Ruined” is still running. “She’s one of the most talented people going, and it’s great she’s getting her own theater. She’s really ready.”

Roche Schulfer, executive director of the Goodman Theatre (which debuted “Ruined”), agrees. “We’ve seen Kate grow as an artist and as a person, and think this is a wonderful opportunity — for her, and for the Intiman,” he said.

Asked why she and her Obie-winning, Tony-nominated actor husband Daniel Breaker (“Passing Strange,” “Shrek the Musical”) want to come to Seattle, Whoriskey spoke of escaping the commercial pressures of the New York theater scene for more aesthetic freedom.

“I want to be in a safe place, where I can focus on developing artistic work, to take to New York later or not,” she said.

The family, which includes a 9-month-old son, Rory, will relocate to the West Coast in April.

Intiman still is in contract talks with Whoriskey, but all parties favor her working with Sher through 2010. Sher says he hopes “to ease the leadership transition” by helping Whoriskey acclimate to Seattle and her new job.

However, Whoriskey is assembling Intiman’s 2010 season on her own. She and Sher both plan to direct, and on her short list are the West Coast debut of “Ruined,” works by Bertolt Brecht and Tennessee Williams, and a project involving Breaker.

Whoriskey also stressed her interest in international collaborations, working with artists “from countries that are underrepresented” on American stages.

Though warmly endorsed by colleagues, critical reaction to Whoriskey’s artistry has been mixed. Some of her more experimental, conceptual efforts were praised as inventive and fresh, such as her 2000 version of Ionesco’s “The Chairs” at Intiman. But other shows have divided critics — such as a bold take on George Bernard Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” that Chicago Tribune reviewer Michael Phillips deemed “a blaring universe of whimsy.”

Anderson says the Intiman board was especially impressed by “Ruined,” which some members attended. Whoriskey agreed that it was a major effort, a “big journey.”

She’s about to start another one in Seattle, soon.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com