Still Smiling

Actress Karen Allen opens up to Berkshire Magazine.



Jane Feldman

What is Karen Allen’s ideal Berkshire day? Perhaps strolling down Great Barrington’s Main Street on a gorgeously sunny afternoon. Or eating dinner at a local farm-to-table restaurant with close friends. Maybe catching a new production at one of the local theater festivals or skiing with her son at Butternut.

“It would be doing the most simplest stuff imaginable,” Allen answers, then pauses to take a sip of organic juice and a bite of a shared bagel. She is comfortably tucked in the corner of the Monterey General Store as little touches of sunlight dance their way across her reflective blue eyes and lightly freckled face.

“My fantasy ideal day is lying in my hammock and reading all the books that have been sitting by my bed waiting to be read for a really long time and just listening to the wind in the trees, making a little lunch and sitting by the pond,” she says as she settles back into the wooden chair and folds her arms across an exquisitely embroidered jacket she is wearing, an item she carries at her clothing store. Allen radiates a classically simple charm as fitting in this tiny village market as it is on the two-dimensional silver screen.

For those of us who know her—or feel like we know her, which is one of her endearing qualities—we can’t help the faint smile that finds its way across our collective faces as we mention her name. Allen, simply put, is purposeful, resilient, and “optimistic to a fault,” in her own words. “I have no reason to be as optimistic a person as I am. That’s almost a ridiculous part of my personality.”

That positive persona has carried her through life-shifting moments—challenging movie locations, pausing an acting career to raise her child as a single mom, starting a business or two, taking on new roles. Today she finds herself again in transition, reflecting on her past and pondering her future.

The 61-year-old actor, best known for her roles in Animal House and as Indiana Jones’s rugged love interest in two of the series’s films, makes one thing very clear to the photographer standing nearby: Easy on the smile. “Very rarely do I picture myself with a Cheshire grin”—often how she is portrayed in the media. “To me, happy is like a cloud; it kind of passes through the sky and then something else comes, and then you’re sad about something, horrified about something, distressed by something, angry about something, disappointed about something.” Got it. We move on. 

At home here in the Berkshires, Allen finds a comfortable fit with the region’s liberal perspective and tolerance of others, its artistic community, and cultural climate. She sits on the Berkshire International Film Festival board and is directing two plays onstage this summer: the psychological thriller Extremities by William Mastrosimone, which opens July 13 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival; and Ashville by Lucy Thurber, at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City. 

Last winter at Cherry Lane, Allen headlined A Summer Day, the emotionally stark play about a woman who loses her husband on a late summer’s day when he takes a boat out on the water near their rural house and never returns. As does any performance that Allen commits to, it profoundly impacted her.

“I think of things like what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, and it brings up that sense of randomness of life, that we’re not in control,” she says. “We do wake up in the morning and we do carry some sort of sense of safety and some sort of sense of how the day is going to go, what’s going to happen, and that the people we love and care about are going to be safe and then something happens.” 

Although this type of personal, reflective role draws Allen to the stage and to film, it isn’t what she’s famously known for. A 30-minute walk from Cherry Lane is the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, where Allen attended classes some 39 years ago. She was among hundreds of people who passed by a three-by-five card posted in the lobby, and she was one of only three who responded. She got the role—Katy in Animal House. The 1978 film propelled her career and that of other actors, notably John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Tom Hulce, Kevin Bacon, Jamie Widdoes, and Bruce McGill. “It’s sort of a brilliant film,” Allen says. “It’s still very, very funny.”

Many of us know the wide-eyed actress even better as Marion Ravenwood opposite Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Allen was among 50 would-be Marions who auditioned. “I saw Casablanca,” she says of her reading for the part. “I didn’t see this sort of stylized, boy-adventure thing because I didn’t have the vocabulary in my head.” 

Filming was tough. “The first time you meet me, I’m drinking a 400-pound man under the table, so that was the character I fell in love with. There were times when I felt that the character was left very passive and I had to fight for her life every day. I had to say, no, no, no, she’s not going to just stand there and go ‘Eek.’ She’d grab something and say ‘I’m gonna hit you with this’ because that was the character I met when I auditioned.”

As one of three women and 250 men on the crew, Allen felt isolated while on location in northern Africa and England. “I had never done a big film where sometimes you could spend an entire week, 12 hours a day screaming, with dirt falling in your face, gagging and pulling it out of your nose and your ears. Then snakes are coming out of the mouth of corpses, and you’re having to scream. It was a very challenging little episode in my life,” she admits.

Her second “Indy” film, some 27 years later, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, turned out to be a lot more fun because it reunited her with some extraordinary people such as Ford, John Williams, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Kathleen Kennedy. Allen is game for another “Indy” movie, but nothing is happening—yet. “As far as I know, they’re working on it,” she says. “They would like to find a story and develop it.”

As an actor, Allen has learned to be certain of one thing—not to be certain about the future. It’s something she mentions to acting students at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, where she periodically teaches. Her audience is between 17 and 20 years old, and she helps bridge their world of student acting with the professional world. “I can’t imagine a better person to have working with our students—her own personal brilliance, her ability to work in personal theater, and her innate talent as a teacher,” says Karen Beaumont, who has known Allen for 25 years and chairs Simon’s Rock’s arts division. “She comes in there and rolls up her sleeves and works right along with us.”

Allen teaches students to use “sense memory,” a technique she discovered after her travels through South and Central America. It changed her life. She had been focused on art and design, and a neighbor invited her to a play performed by the Polish Laboratory Theatre in Washington, D.C. She didn’t understand a word, yet was profoundly affected by one of the actors, Ryszard Cieslak. “It was like how a caterpillar becomes a moth, making the chrysalis transparent and allowing us to watch that process,” says Allen of his performance. She moved back to New York City and took up acting. To this day, she puts Cieslak’s photograph on the wall in her dressing room to inspire her when she does a play.

Although Allen considers her first home New York City because she lived there longer than anywhere else, she calls the Berkshires “my home in the country.” And she is thrilled that her son, Nick Browne, now 22, has settled here. Currently, he is a chef at Cafe Adam. 

Allen first came to this area in 1982 for the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s revival of William Gibson’s 1958 Broadway play, Two for the Seesaw. She returned another two summers to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, then again after a ruptured right vocal chord. In 1993, she moved to the Berkshires full time. A student of yoga since age 18, Allen saw the conditions in which yoga was being taught here—in living rooms and damp, chilly church basements—so she opened Berkshire Mountain Yoga in Great Barrington in 1995. She now owns the building and leases it for yoga classes.

Allen moved back to New York City in 2000 so her son could be close to his father, from whom she had separated several years earlier. She couldn’t support two different worlds, particularly after 9/11. “I saw everything just slipping away,” she says. “I thought, I’ve got to figure it out. If I move back to the Berkshires, I’ve got to have something at least where I have attempted to make a living.”

Allen naturally turned to knitting, something she picked up at age five while vacationing with her family at her grandmother’s home in rural Illinois. “When I was a kid growing up, if I wanted to have the kind of ecstasy that I think my son has when he is in a gourmet-food store, it would be in a fabric or rug store,” she says. “My heart would start to beat in my chest so much I would want to cry.”

She studied machine knitting at the Fashion Institute of Technology during her last year in New York City, then brought two knitting machines to the Berkshires. Allen discovered techniques that inspired her to own her own fiber-arts design company, and she maintains a shop on Railroad Street, where she sells her work as well as other unique clothing from small design companies.

 Creating these items comes with a price tag. To make one scarf—and she sometimes creates five in one day— Allen must bring a carriage across 200 stainless-steel needles, at resistance, 1,200 times. Her left shoulder has been severely injured from the repetitive motions. “It can get so bad,” she says, “that I have a hard time picking up a cup of coffee.”  She still makes smaller items, sending off selected yarns to someone in New Jersey who knits the sweaters on a larger machine. And she consider the store and studio her “expensive hobbies.” 

 With her son grown up, her focus is even more on acting. “For me right now, there’s a lot of questions,” she says, “and I don’t necessarily have the answers for them.” And like all good actors, she will let the future, for now, be what it is—uncertain. 

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January 2019

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Cost: Free

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View map »


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Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield University Art Museum
1073 North Benson Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
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Grab a glass of wine and join us in exploring the basics of drawing the figure with artist and Aldrich staff member Noah Steinman. With a live model as inspiration, use a variety of materials such...

Cost: $12; $10.80 member

Where:
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
258 Main Street
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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Doctor of Oriental Medicine, Jampa Mackenzie Stewart of Valley Spirit and Wellness Center in Washington Depot, CT presents TaiChi & Meditation an Introduction.  Join us for a...

Cost: Free and open to the public

Where:
Gunn Memorial Library
5 Wykeham Road
Washington, CT  06793
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Sponsor: Gunn Memorial Library
Telephone: 860-868-7586
Contact Name: Margaret Ferguson

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Thursday, Jan. 24 Author Talk: Stephanie Land - Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother's Will to Survive, 7 – 8:30 p.m. Maid is showing up on almost every best of, must read, don't miss list of...

Cost: free

Where:
Wilton Library
137 Old Ridgefield Road
Wilton, CT  06897
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Sponsor: Wilton Library
Telephone: 203-762-3950
Contact Name: Wilton Library
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Members and guests are invited to join us for the Election of Trustees, followed by an artist talk by eight photographers with work in the current exhibit. Visit our website at...

Cost: 0

Where:
Carriage Barn Arts Center
681 South Ave.
Waveny Park
New Canaan, CT  06840
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Join New Morning Market’s new knitting club! We’re crafting wearable items for Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury and welcome all levels to join! Instructors will be on-hand for beginners. Yarn,...

Cost: Free - registration requested

Where:
New Morning Market
129 Main St North
Woodbury, CT  06798
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Sponsor: New Morning Market
Telephone: 203-263-4868
Website »

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Blending nature and spirituality, Connecticut artist Lori Barker explores the rhythms of life in a new collection of mixed media works on display at the Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery from...

Cost: Free

Where:
Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery
5 Wykeham Rd.
Washington, CT  06793
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Sponsor: Gunn Memorial Library
Telephone: 860-868-7586
Contact Name: Sharon Morrissey

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The Bruce Museum is organizing an exhibition of small artworks created entirely by the public for the public. We invite art lovers of all ages, interests, and abilities to submit a depiction of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Bruce Museum
One Museum Drive
Greenwich, CT  06830
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Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-869-0376
Website »

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In this key moment in our national history and the struggle for women’s equality and freedom of expression, the Fairfield Museum’s exhibition “Flappers: Fashion and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield Museum and History Center
370 Beach Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
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Zachary Zaitzeff is a painter living in the Hudson Valley who has incorporated his extensive world travel, including his 2011 summit of Mount Everest, into his artwork. Zachary spent 2018 studying...

Cost: free

Where:
RT Facts Gallery
8 Old Barns Rd
Kent, CT  06757
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Sponsor: RT Facts
Telephone: 860-927-1700
Contact Name: Natalie Randall
Website »

More information

Here’s a holiday idea for the whole family – a private tour of the Peter Parley Schoolhouse! The Ridgefield Historical Society maintains and operates the 1756 Schoolhouse, also called the...

Cost: Suggested donation $10 for adults, kids are free

Where:
Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Intersection of West Lane and CT Rte 35
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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Sponsor: Ridgefield Historical Society
Telephone: 203-438-5821
Contact Name: Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Website »

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We invite families to drop-in and enjoy interactive pop-up activity stations, gallery games, and art projects around the KMA.  Get inspired by Outrageous Ornament: Extreme Jewelry in the 21st...

Cost: Member price: Free Non-Member price: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Katonah Museum
134 Jay Street
Katonah, NY  10536
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Sponsor: Katonah Museum of Art
Telephone: 914-232-9555
Website »

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Calling all fans of Scottish food and Diana Galbaldon’s Outlander series. Don your tartan, make like Jamie’s clan motto and be ready! You’re invited to an amazing Outlander...

Cost: 100.00

Where:
Hunt Hill Farm
44 Upland Road
New Milford, CT  06776
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Telephone: 860-355-0300
Website »

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Friday, Jan. 25 Wilton Library Mini Golf Tourney for Adults, 6:30 – 9:30 p.m. The kids had so much fun at last year’s Mini Golf fundraiser, that Wilton Library is holding one for adults only...

Cost: $50 and up

Where:
Wilton Library
137 Old Ridgefield Road
Wilton, CT  06897
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Sponsor: Wilton Library
Telephone: 203-762-3950
Contact Name: Wilton Library
Website »

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Original members of the Billy Joel Band featuring Liberty DeVitto on drums, Richie Cannata on saxophone and Russell Javors on rhythm guitar. The band recorded and toured extensively with Billy Joel...

Cost: $40

Where:
The Ridgefield Playhouse
80 East Ridge
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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Telephone: (203) 438-5795
Website »

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Born from humble beginnings in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport, CT The Alpaca Gnomes cut their teeth in the neighborhood bar scene by playing marathon shows filled with originals and a wide...

Cost: $15.00 - $20.00

Where:
Wall Street Theater
71 Wall Street
Norwalk, CT  06850
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Sponsor: Jeanne Moore
Telephone: (203) 831-5004
Contact Name: Jeanne Moore
Website »

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Are you a lifelong with a passion for sharing history? Find out about becoming a Museum Docent! Docents are trained volunteer educators who present guided tours and other education programs to...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield Museum and History Center
370 Beach Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
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Bring the baby and enjoy a lively conversation inspired by the art on view. Enjoy light snacks while socializing with newly-made friends. Crying babies welcome and activities provided for older...

Cost: Member price: Free Non-Member price with Museum admission: Free

Where:
Katonah Museum of Art
134 Jay Street
Katonah, NY  10536
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Sponsor: Katonah Museum of Art
Telephone: 914-232-9555
Website »

More information

Heather Gaudio Fine Artis pleased to present “Jae Ko: 漂流 Drift,” the artist’s first solo exhibition at the gallery.   In addition to showcasing...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
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Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

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In this key moment in our national history and the struggle for women’s equality and freedom of expression, the Fairfield Museum’s exhibition “Flappers: Fashion and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Fairfield Museum and History Center
370 Beach Road
Fairfield, CT  06824
View map »


Website »

More information

Blending nature and spirituality, Connecticut artist Lori Barker explores the rhythms of life in a new collection of mixed media works on display at the Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery from...

Cost: Free

Where:
Gunn Memorial Library Stairwell Gallery
5 Wykeham Rd.
Washington, CT  06793
View map »


Sponsor: Gunn Memorial Library
Telephone: 860-868-7586
Contact Name: Sharon Morrissey

More information

Winter Guided Hike @ Woodcock Nature Center Saturday January 26th, 10-11:30am, FREE ​ Join Mr. Sam for a hike where we'll investigate whats going on in nature in the winter season and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Woodcock Nature Center
56 Deer Run Road
Wilton, CT  06897
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Sponsor: Woodcock Nature Center
Telephone: (203) 762-7280
Contact Name: Sam Nunes
Website »

More information

The Bruce Museum is organizing an exhibition of small artworks created entirely by the public for the public. We invite art lovers of all ages, interests, and abilities to submit a depiction of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Bruce Museum
One Museum Drive
Greenwich, CT  06830
View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-869-0376
Website »

More information

Heather Gaudio Fine Artis pleased to present “Jae Ko: 漂流 Drift,” the artist’s first solo exhibition at the gallery.   In addition to showcasing...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

More information

Saturday, Jan. 26 Mini Golf Family Day in the Stacks at Wilton Library, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Wilton Library will hold its 2nd mini golf fundraising event. There will be food (each paid admission will...

Cost: $5

Where:
Wilton Library
137 Old Ridgefield Road
Wilton, CT  06897
View map »


Sponsor: Wilton Library
Telephone: 203-762-3950
Contact Name: Wilton Library
Website »

More information

  Touchon transforms verbal language into handsome geometric compilations, to reveal the beauty and musicality of language characterized by warmly colored shapes, interlocking irregular grids and...

Cost: free

Where:
Canfin Gallery
39 Main Street
Tarrytown, NY  10591
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Sponsor: Canfin Gallery
Telephone: 914-332-4554
Contact Name: Jean-Claude Canfin
Website »

More information

Zachary Zaitzeff is a painter living in the Hudson Valley who has incorporated his extensive world travel, including his 2011 summit of Mount Everest, into his artwork. Zachary spent 2018 studying...

Cost: free

Where:
RT Facts Gallery
8 Old Barns Rd
Kent, CT  06757
View map »


Sponsor: RT Facts
Telephone: 860-927-1700
Contact Name: Natalie Randall
Website »

More information

Here’s a holiday idea for the whole family – a private tour of the Peter Parley Schoolhouse! The Ridgefield Historical Society maintains and operates the 1756 Schoolhouse, also called the...

Cost: Suggested donation $10 for adults, kids are free

Where:
Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Intersection of West Lane and CT Rte 35
Ridgefield, CT  06877
View map »


Sponsor: Ridgefield Historical Society
Telephone: 203-438-5821
Contact Name: Peter Parley Schoolhouse
Website »

More information

Saturday, January 26th from 1:00 - 2:00 PM, Ages 4+ Attend for groovy crafts, snacks, games, and more in celebration of the Pete the Cat book series. This event is free and no registration is...

Cost: Free

Where:
Keeler Library
276 Titicus Road
North Salem, NY  10560
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Sponsor: Keeler Library
Telephone: 914-669-5161
Contact Name: Carolyn Reznick
Website »

More information

Hudson Chorale, the area’s largest mixed voice chorus, is poised to please.  The group will begin its 2019 season with two matinee concerts on Saturday, January 26, 2019 at 3:00 pm and Sunday,...

Cost: Advance Sale-$25; Door-$30; Students-$10.

Where:
The Chapel at Maryknoll
55 Ryder Rd
Ossining, NY  10562
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Sponsor: Hudson Chorale
Telephone: 1-800-838-3006
Contact Name: Anne Norum
Website »

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Join us for a very special evening of music from these four accomplished singer songwriters: David Ray, Mike Latini, Dave Goldenberg, George Mallas.  

Cost: 20.00

Where:
Hunt Hill Farm
44 Upland Road
New Milford, CT  06776
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Telephone: 860-355-0300
Website »

More information

Join us for another incredible evening of music featuring four local singer songwriters performing original music! Doors open at 7pm in New Morning’s handicapped accessible Community Room on the...

Cost: Free

Where:
New Morning Market
129 Main St North
Woodbury, CT  06798
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Sponsor: New Morning Market
Telephone: 203-263-4868
Website »

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