Conversion Experience: Karen Lund’s Transformation of (and at) Taproot Theatre

How a wandering actress found a new direction: directing, in a church basement.

Most artists don’t have careers. They have careens: Momentum drives them forward until they encounter an obstacle that sends them flying in another direction—or an opportunity that opens an unexpected path.

Such was the case for Karen Lund, associate artistic director at Greenwood’s Taproot Theatre. Lund’s now recognized for an extensive directing resume with a particular strength in comedies and classics. (Her productions of Shaw, Wilde, and Arthur Miller for Taproot have won her critical acclaim, as has her current musical adaptation of Jane Eyre.) In the theater community, she’s known as the president of the board of Theatre Puget Sound, the region’s service organization for theater artists, and also for her integral role in growing Taproot to a respected professional outfit. (The theater was damaged by an arsonist in 2009, repaired by 2013, and has since expanded.)

But when Lund first came to Seattle in 1989, it was as an actress—one who saw Seattle as only a brief detour.

When approaching Taproot director Scott Nolte, she recalls "What I said to him was, 'You need to cast me in your next show.'"

Lund had been a professional child actress in St. Louis, and had worked all over the country: Shakespeare festivals in Idaho and Kentucky; the Cincinnati Playhouse; the Theatre Factory in St. Louis. She only followed her then-boyfriend to Seattle, he pursuing an MFA at the UW, with the expectation that they’d continue to L.A. to work in TV and film.

Then everything changed. “I was just starting to get work in town when I had a terrible summer filled with people dying. My father died. My grandmother died, and a dear friend died in a car accident, and I was losing friends from AIDS left and right. I lost a dozen people in that one summer, and my life just changed. Suddenly I wanted different things.”

She found them, much to her surprise, in a small theater company doing shows in the basement of Fairview Church in Greenwood. A friend asked her to come check out a show in which a couple of cute boys were performing. “I’ll be honest: The boys didn’t even register for me,” says Lund. “But when I saw the show, something happened. I just knew that this company, Taproot, was who I wanted to work with. I said to myself ‘This is it, and I’m going to help them grow into a viable, real group.’ ”

Taproot was founded in 1976 by a group of young drama students, most of whom came from Seattle Pacific University. From its early days, it had presented a blend of straightforward drama and comedy with the occasional more-“churchy” piece: Godspell, C.S. Lewis adaptations, and the like. Yet even though Taproot tended to perform in church basements, it had greater ambitions.

Lund approached Taproot’s director, Scott Nolte, with more of a demand than a request. She recalls, “What I said to him was, ‘You need to cast me in your next show.’ ” That was J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, and the only role left was that of a maid. Lund got rave reviews for her performance, making her a company regular. At the same time, her relationship with the UW MFA boyfriend dissolved. But it didn’t matter. Lund had found a new direction for her life.

Lund became a fixture on the Taproot stage, but after a much-lauded 1993 turn as the lead in St. Joan, she felt her direction shift again.

In early Taproot productions I’ve observed since the ’90s, the sincerity of passion didn’t always make up for weak and sometimes preachy scripts, like 1995’s Pilgrim, an earnest but clunky adaptation of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Pro gress. But to the credit of Taproot’s founders, the scripts it’s tackled have become increasingly mainstream and secular. A typical season now includes musicals, comedies, and dramas with ecumenical appeal, like last season’s The Whipping Man, about the destructive effects of slavery, or this season’s In the Book Of, which dealt with small-town racism as an Iraqi refugee comes to live with the female soldier who rescued her.

“When we talk about issues of faith these days, it’s more likely to be C.S. Lewis in conversation with Sigmund Freud,” says Lund, referring to 2012’s Freud’s Last Session. And while Lund was a Christian before finding Taproot, she feels that her place in her art and her faith have been strengthened by joining the company.

Lund became a fixture on the Taproot stage, but after a much-lauded 1993 turn as the lead in St. Joan, she felt her direction shift again. “I felt like I was reaching the borders of what I could do,” she says. “But then I thought, is this all?” So she began to assist in the directing of the productions, eventually stepping out on her own with the comedy Beau Jest in 1995.

This was the beginning of a long run of comedies for Lund—a genre where she received master-class training from an industry pro, director James Burrows, on the L.A. set of Will and Grace in 2004. “I had received an ‘observership,’ and discovered that along with his comedy gifts, he was famous for running a great and efficient set,” Lund recalls. “Other aspiring directors, including actors from other shows like Friends, would come over to watch how he did it. The entire crew had been working with Jim for years. I asked his props guy, who had been there for 20 years, why, and he said, ‘Look around. No drama. We’re all having a good time.’ I learned a lot about comedy from [Burrows], but I learned as much about leadership.”

In the meantime, one of the “cute boys” from that early Taproot show turned out to be her future husband, actor and scenic designer Mark Lund, whom she married in 1993. “So it really feels to me my life has worked out as it should,” says Lund, who now balances directing with her marriage and two children. “I don’t feel like I missed out on my L.A. dreams either. I have an art that supports my family, and my family supports my art. That’s not the life that everyone wants. But it is what I wanted.” Jane Eyre Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., 781-9707, taproottheatre.org. $20–$40. Runs Wed.–Sat. Ends Aug. 16.

stage@seattleweekly.com

 
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