An actor of some renown walks into an Upper West Side restaurant and elicits a squeal of recognition from a customer. Typically the first words out of a fan’s mouth would be, “I just saw you in that new play,” or, “I always loved you in that movie!” So it’s something of a surprise when the woman gushes, “I bought one of your sweaters six years ago.”
With Karen Allen, however, life is full of surprises. Allen may be forever remembered as Marion Ravenwood, the love of Indiana Jones’s life. But beyond a long career in movies, television and theatre, she has founded Berkshire Mountain Yoga and Karen Allen Fiber Arts, where she knitted the sweater in question—which, it turns out, she remembers vividly despite the time that has passed.
Even the path Allen, 61, has taken in her “day job” has continued to surprise—she recently started directing plays, and last fall she returned to the New York stage for the first time in a decade, tackling a role in a sparse Norwegian play, A Summer Day, that hardly seems of a piece with her previous work. That, of course, is just the way she likes it.
“That’s how things happen with me—I get enthusiastic and just try something,” says Allen, who has two notable (and wildly different) directing projects planned for this summer—a revival at Massachusetts’s Berkshire Theatre Festival of William Mastrosimone’s Extremities, in which she starred Off-Broadway three decades ago, and Ashville, a new play by Lucy Thurber, at New York City’s scrappy Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. “I don’t worry so much about the details that I won’t do it,” she says of projects that come her way. “I say yes, and then figure out what I’m doing.”
As a child, Allen was more drawn to knitting with yarn than acting in or directing yarns. “I always had a passionate feeling about textiles that is hard to explain,” notes Allen, whose grandmother taught her to knit and whose mother made clothes for her and her siblings. “I could just stand in the doorway of a fabric store and feel an almost spiritual ecstasy. I’d look at the textures and prints and colors and see a world of possibilities in all those raw materials.”
Allen was born in Illinois in 1951 but moved around as a child; she came to New York to study apparel design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She got sidetracked, however, and began traveling internationally. After discovering experimental theatre and taking up acting, first with touring companies, then in Washington, D.C., she moved to New York to pursue more visible stage opportunities. Instead, Allen fell into movies, making a splash as Katy in the 1978 comedy Animal House.
Even as Hollywood beckoned, Allen didn’t abandon her stage roots. “It’s almost impossible for film to match the depth of connection I feel in theatre,” she declares. Between Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 and Starman in 1984, she acted as Helen Keller in four productions of William Gibson’s Monday After the Miracle, starting at the Actors Studio and ending on Broadway, where she earned a Theatre World Award. Soon after, Mastrosimone asked her to take over for Susan Sarandon in Extremities, a controversial hit about a woman who is raped and then turns the tables on her attacker.
Allen’s theatrical career also took her in new directions, literally, when in 1981 she headed to Massachusetts to act at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, then the next summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (“I just felt like I belonged,” she says fondly of the latter company). She returned several times to Williamstown, in 1985 for a star-studded production of The Glass Menagerie, also featuring John Sayles, James Naughton and Joanne Woodward and helmed by Williamstown’s venerated artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos. That mounting of the play, with Treat Williams replacing Sayles, ran to critical acclaim at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre the following year. Allen continued acting in New York through the 1980s.
Then, resurfacing only briefly in 2001, she essentially vanished from the stage.
Allen hadn’t lost her love for theatre but instead had followed her life down several unexpected paths. After she ruptured a vocal cord on Broadway in 1982, she’d spent months working with renowned vocal coach Kristin Linklater in the Berkshires, where Linklater had cofounded Shakespeare & Company. With her husband, actor Kale Brown, Allen bought a house in that region in 1990, the same year their son Nicholas was born. Three years later she moved to the country full-time.
While Allen earned money from small roles in movies as varied as Malcolm X and The Sandlot, she yearned for an endeavor that would immerse her in her new community. In 1995, she opened Berkshire Mountain Yoga. “I’m definitely a seat-of-my-pants, cart-before-the-horse person,” she offers, laughing that laugh which even three decades on reminds the listener of feisty young Marion Ravenwood.
In the late ’90s, Allen and her husband split up. She felt Nicholas was old enough for her to begin acting more, and mother and son moved to New York. A dearth of jobs in the wake of 9/11 prompted a move back to her beloved Berkshires home. Knowing there’d be even fewer acting opportunities there, in 2002 she revisited FIT to study hand-manipulated machine-knitting technology. The following year she opened her own design company and in 2005 added a store in Great Barrington. “The company and the store never really made money, but they sustained themselves,” Allen says. “It’s very empowering to have something of your own, where you’re not waiting for the phone to ring with someone offering you work. I like being an independent artist.”
Now, with her son grown, Allen plans to lessen her commitment to the store and studio to devote more time to the theatre—which, in truth, she never left behind completely, as evidenced by her long-term teaching gig at Bard College’s Simon Rock facility. But after 10 years, Allen has come walking back through the stage door.
“There are lots of plays I love that just have no parts for 60-year-old women,” Allen notes, and so in 2011, she made her professional directing debut. Allen had directed Michael Weller’s Moonchildren with her Simon’s Rock students, and she knew that Kate Maguire, executive director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, was eager to work with her as an actor—so she proposed instead that she direct Moonchildren for the festival. It was an ideal opportunity to learn on the job with top-notch actors, minus the pressure of the New York press’s watchful gaze.
To Weller, Allen didn’t seem like a rookie. “She has a great visual sense and a very complete picture of what she wants in her mind,” he reports. “She improvised a lot and gave the actors freedom in rehearsal—but for the performance she made sure they knew exactly what was needed.”
Directing was fulfilling, but Allen still was thirsty to act if she could find the right role. “It’s different than film—when you say yes to a play you are making a big commitment,” she reasons. “For three or four months you have to step into that world, and I take that very seriously. I don’t want to get two weeks into a play and think, ‘This isn’t very good.’”
Then Rattlestick sent Allen the script for Jon Fosse’s A Summer Day, a poetic meditation on loss in which the main character talks directly to the audience. “It circled round and circled round like a great piece of music in a way that was hypnotic and quite profound,” she says of the challenging script. “Karen was born to do this role,” believes Rattlestick founder David Van Asselt.
Allen says she felt immediately at home at Rattlestick. “Sometimes that just happens, where it’s not just another job, where you’ve found your people,” she remarks.
Meanwhile, the Berkshire fest’s Maguire invited her to take on another project. Allen chose Extremities and reconnected with Mastrosimone, with whom she is relishing an active collaboration. He wants to eliminate the blackouts between scenes; she doesn’t think it necessary. He likes the idea of updating the play; she thinks it creates problems. “It’s an ongoing conversation,” Allen says.
Allen goes from Extremities in the Berkshires in July back to Rattlestick to direct the premiere of Ashville (fittingly set in western Massachusetts), one of five Lucy Thurber plays the company will produce simultaneously this August. And then? Van Asselt wants her back as an actor and a director. She has plays she’d love to act in—she pitched The Cripple of Inishmaan to Maguire—and plays she’d love to direct—perhaps a Sam Shepard or Andrew Bovell piece. But she isn’t planning that far ahead. After all, life would be less interesting if the horse got out ahead of that cart.
Stuart Miller is a frequent contributor to American Theatre.