While Karen Saari may be new to the full-time faculty at Madison College, she is no stranger to the school having served in various recruitment, communications and part-time adjunct faculty roles over the past 14 years. In August she became a full-time Communications and Performing Arts instructor.
But those are just her day jobs. Karen is also an award-winning playwright with her work being read, workshopped or performed at theaters from New York to Los Angeles and many places in-between. Her play Rain on Fire world premiered earlier this year at the Flint Repertory Theater, and she has been a William Inge Festival New Play Lab Playwright. Just last month Karen's play Tragedy Sound was named a semi-finalist (top 15 out of 1,000 submissions) in the Scratch Pad Series at New York City's Playwrights Realm.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Karen to talk about the shift to full-time faculty, balancing two demanding careers and the benefits of a good run.
Talk about making the transition to full-time faculty. Why did you make the move? What has it been like?
I found that I basically fell in love with teaching. I really enjoyed the process of connecting with students and sharing that interest in and love for theater with them. My communications career was rewarding in in a different way but getting to help students discover a passion for theater, whether they are planning to pursue a career in theater or whether we're just instilling an interest in theater, is so personally rewarding. Some students take Acting or Intro to Theater to fill an elective or check some box and for them, if they can leave that class wanting to see more theater or understanding a bit more about what goes into production, that helps foster and support the arts in its own indirect way.
As a playwright, one of the additional appeals of teaching is that it's very hard to be just a playwright. So many of us teach and that was what may have sparked my initial interest in teaching. But once I got started, I realized what a great fit it was and how much I got out of teaching.
What has surprised you about teaching theater classes?
What has surprised me is how hard it is to shut off. I feel so energized by the work that I have a hard time stopping and part of that is experiencing learning about theater through the students' eyes. Most students are very curious and just want to know more and if you make them a part of the learning process and provide hands on experiences and participatory discussions you get to see their lightbulbs turn on and that's fun. Even students who have never seen a play or aren't interested in pursuing theater begin to understand that not all theater is stuffy – it's not all Shakespeare. It's accessible and fun and it still surprises me how exciting it is for them to learn that.
You're essentially juggling two careers right now (not to mention a family!) – what is that balancing act like?
I've found that it's important for me to be doing something physical to stay balanced and on an even keel – for me that's running. Even if I'm pressed for time and can only do a mile-and-a-half, it really helps me find my equilibrium. There are going to be stressful days and things are going to go wrong because this is my first year and I have a learning curve. So, running helps me remain positive. It also helps me access gratitude, which is so important. I'm grateful for my health and the way I feel when I run.
But more than that, I'm grateful for colleagues who have supported me during this transition as well as my family who is always there for me.
Managing two different careers also means that I have to be very intentional about connecting with friends who ground me and lift me at the same time. It's so easy to get caught up in all the stuff I have to do but reminding myself to take time to meet up and just talk instead of rescheduling or canceling again is so important for my outlook.
Karen will be directing Madison College's production of Bus Stop in December 2023 and her newest play, Tragedy Sound, has been selected for the 2024 Br!NK Residency Award by Milwaukee's Renaissance Theaterworks. The play will receive a workshop process culminating in a staged reading.