When Karen Lewis was young, she wanted to be a horse. When she realized that wasn't going to work, she abandoned that idea and focused on her next passion, acting. She loved the idea that acting would allow her to "work out so much stuff, being other people."
She enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University, not far from her hometown of Alexandria, Va., to study theater and acting. Karen's mother mistakenly thought Karen was going to teach acting, which she wasn't interested in at all. So, realizing that school wasn't going to get her closer to her goal, she quit college and went to New York City at the age of 19. She started out sleeping on friends' floors while taking acting classes and working as an office temp at an accounting firm. She got acting jobs in dinner theaters and summer stock. She loved it. It took her eight or nine years before she realized she didn't want to act anymore.
It was Ginger Rogers, the screen legend, who gave Karen the impetus to write plays. Karen had always written skits to amuse herself, and even as a little girl, she loved Ginger Rogers movies. Even though Rogers was well known for her roles with dancing partner Fred Astaire, it was the movies in which Ginger played very strong characters that interested Karen. "Kitty Foyle," for which Rogers won an Academy Award, was one of Karen's favorites. She was so inspired by Rogers' movies that if one was on TV during school time, Karen found a way to stay home to watch it. That was before there was such a thing as recording the movie to play it later. Karen estimates that she was absent about one-third of the seventh grade because of this. "When 'Stage Door' was on the afternoon movie, I was not going to school," pronounced Karen.
(Photo — Barry Lobdell)
When she found out that Rogers was playing in "Hello, Dolly" in New York, Karen, age 13, wrote her a fan letter. Incredibly, Ginger wrote back, and they became pen pals. Their friendship continued even after Karen moved to New York City. She didn't really want to get together with Rogers because Karen was afraid Ginger would think Karen wanted something from her. But they talked on the phone, and it was during one of these conversations that Ginger said, "Why don't you write a play? Your letters are such fun." So Karen wrote a play, "Survival Kit," which she describes as "incredibly bad," for the star. Karen finally did get to meet Ginger when she was performing at a theater outside of New York City. Rogers graciously introduced Karen to fellow actors, and Karen was able to tell her how much her roles meant to her and helped form who she is today. That's how Karen got into playwriting.
Karen continued writing plays and unexpectedly got into the soap opera business. She had a friend who had started writing on the soap "All My Children," where they needed a writer's assistant, and she asked Karen if she was interested. She wasn't but figured she could take the job and still write what she wanted to at night. That's not what happened, as she found she had no time to write her plays. She did, however, spend almost the next 20 years working with wonderfully talented people who took their jobs and their audience seriously.
When Karen started as the writers' assistant at the soap, she realized that, with her poor secretarial skills, she wasn't able to keep up with what she thought the writers wanted. Instead, she just wrote in a way that amused her and seemed to flow. She was amazed that the producers, network and other writers were amused as well. This enabled her to jump up the ladder to jobs that suited her better, that were more creative. Karen eventually became script editor on the head writing team, where she contributed to meaningful story lines such as AIDS and reporters having the right to protect their sources. In addition, the show became known for its humor. Karen was proud of her work, especially when people would write about how the shows affected them personally, either because of their own experience or that of others they knew. Karen won five Emmys, television's equivalent to movies' Academy Awards, and three Writers' Guild Awards, another prestigious honor.
After Karen got out of the soaps, she was able to devote herself full-time to writing plays. She had been working in an office in New York with Susan Neal, who said she was going to come up to Saranac Lake to start a theater. However far-fetched that sounded, Karen wrote a play for Neal about George Sand, called "George Sand, a Passionate Cantata." It was produced at CMDA (now Lake Placid Center for the Arts) and then in Arizona. (Neal realized her dream by founding Pendragon Theatre along with her husband, Bob Pettee.)
Karen loved Saranac Lake and bought a house here more than 15 years ago. It's a cure cottage that was built as an ambulatory house where TB patients who didn't need to be waited on could come and go. There's a porch upstairs set up as if someone is curing there. One hundred school children came through in March; Historic Saranac Lake includes Karen's house on its tours.
When Karen moved to Saranac Lake, she started learning about tuberculosis and how this community responded to it. People came up here to die, but instead many lived and thrived. And those who died were put on trains at night so people wouldn't have to see the coffins. Karen wrote a play about this called "Safe Harbor," produced at Pendragon. TB survivors, who used to have reunions, saw the play and loved it. It realistically showed those with TB being shunted off by relatives and sent to Saranac Lake, where the ill-found acceptance with other TB patients. (The only criticism the TB survivors had was that the players should have coughed more!)
Karen's favorite aspect of writing plays is doing the research. She painstakingly reads everything she can find about a topic. She read many, many books on Vietnam before writing a one-act play, "Even," that was recently accepted into a theater festival in Alaska. Karen will be making the more than 3,000-mile trip to Alaska next month to direct the play's reading, in spite of the fact that she hates to travel.
Karen loves everything about the Adirondacks and doesn't know why people would want to live elsewhere, except for all the snow, of course. Saranac Lake is fortunate to have such a talented, unassuming resident.
Based on an interview with Karen Lewis. Janis Beatty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.