Sunde, Karen 1942–

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SUNDE, Karen 1942–

PERSONAL: Born July 18, 1942, in Wausau, WI; daughter of John E. (a retail manager) and B. Marie (in food manufacturing and product quality control; maiden name, Schoen) Sunde; children: John, Paul. Education: Iowa State University, B.S., 1963; Kansas State University, M.A., 1965.

ADDRESSES: Office—130 Barrow St., No. 412, New York, NY 10014.

CAREER: Actor, writer, and director. Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Boulder, CO, actor, 1967; New Shakespeare Company, San Francisco, CA, actor, 1967–68; Arrow Rock Lyceum, Arrow Rock, MO, actor, 1969–70; Classic Stage Company (CSC) Repertory, New York, NY, actor, 1971–85, associate director, 1975–85; freelance writer, 1985–. Served on theatre panels of New Jersey Council on the Arts and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Appeared in stage productions, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, New Shakespeare Company, 1967; and Portrait of the Artist, Playbox, New York, NY, 1970. Roles off-Broadway include The Homecoming, 1972–76; The Misanthrope, 1973–74; Twelfth Night, 1973–74; Hedda Gabler, 1974–77; Measure for Measure, 1975; Antigone, 1975–77; Heartbreak House, 1976–77; Rosmersholm, 1977–78; The Madwoman of Chaillot, 1978; The Merchant of Venice, 1980; Oedipus Cycle (composed of Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus), 1980–81; Woyzeck, c. 1981; Peer Gynt I/II, 1981–82; King Lear, c. 1982; Big and Little, 1983–84; Dance of Death, 1984; and The Orestia, 1984–85. Also appeared in The Cherry Orchard, The Homecoming, and La Celestina; performed in Poems from Finland, produced in New York, NY, and Minneapolis, MN, and at workshops and staged readings. Director of stage productions, including Exit the King, New York, NY, 1978; Philoctetes, 1983; Balloon, Leonce and Lena, and (with others) Ghost Sonata. Appeared in television movie Mayflower: The Pilgrim's Adventure, CBS, 1979. Narrator of documentary film Image before My Eyes, 1981.

MEMBER: Actors' Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild.

AWARDS, HONORS: Bob Hope Award, 1963, for The Sound of Sand; travel grant, Scandinavian Foundation, 1981; production grant, Finnish Literature Center, 1982; three Villager awards and Outer Critics Circle Award nomination, 1983, for Balloon; McKnight fellowship, 1986; Aide de la Creation grant, 1987; To Moscow named Village Voice Choice, 1996; Outer Critics Circle recommended list for To Moscow, 1996, and The Fastest Woman Alive, 2004.



The Running of the Deer, produced by CSC Repertory, New York, NY, 1978.

Balloon (produced off-Broadway, 1983), Broadway Play Publishing (New York, NY), 1983.

Philoctetes (adapted from the play by Sophocles), produced by Jean Cocteau Repertory Theatre, New York, NY, 1983.

Dark Lady (produced by PCPA, Santa Maria, CA, 1986), Dramatic Publishing Company (Wilton, CT), 1985.

To Moscow (produced by the Playwrights Center, Minneapolis, MN, 1986; produced in New York, NY, 1991), excerpt published in Scenes and Monologues from the Best New Plays, edited by Roger Ellis, Meriwether Publishing (Colorado Springs, CO), 1992, full work published by Dramatic Publishing Company, 1997.

(With Christopher Martin) Quasimodo (musical; adapted from the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo), produced in Woodstock, NY, 1987.

Kabuki Macbeth, produced by The Acting Company, New York, NY, 1988.

Anton, Himself (produced in Louisville, KY, 1989), edited by Michael Bigelow Dixon and published in Moscow Art Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, 1989, excerpt published in Scenes and Monologues from the Best New Plays, edited by Roger Ellis, Meriwether Publishing, 1992.

Haiti: A Dream (produced by Seven Stages, Atlanta, GA, 1990), published in Facing Forward, edited by Leah D. Frank, Broadway Play Publishing, 1995.

Masha, Too (produced with Anton, Himself in Philadelphia, PA, 1991), excerpt published in Scenes and Monologues from the Best New Plays, edited by Roger Ellis, Meriwether Publishing, 1992.

Achilles (based on The Iliad by Homer), produced by the People's Light and Theatre Company, Kourion, Cyprus, and Philadelphia, PA, 1991.

In a Kingdom by the Sea (also see below; produced in Madison, NJ, then New York, NY, 1992), published in Plays by Karen Sunde, Broadway Play (New York, NY), 2001.

How His Bride Came to Abraham (also see below; produced at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, 1993), published in Plays by Karen Sunde, Broadway Play (New York, NY), 2001.

La Pucelle (Me and Joan), produced in Philadelphia, PA, 1993.

Daddy's Gone a-Hunting, workshopped in Philadelphia, PA, 1995.

Oh Wild West Wind (produced at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, 1997), published in Rowing to America, Dramatic Publishing Company, 1998.

Kabuki Othello, produced by the People's Light and Theatre Company, Annenberg Center, Philadelphia, PA, 1997–98.

When Real Life Begins, produced in New York, NY, 2000.

Plays by Karen Sunde (includes How His Bride Came to Abraham, Truth Takes a Holiday [produced in New York, NY, 2001], and In a Kingdom by the Sea), Broadway Play (New York, NY), 2001.

2020 Sexcare, produced in New York, NY, 2001.

Please God, No Wedding or Shooting at the End, produced in New York, NY, 2001.

The Fastest Woman Alive (produced on Cape Cod, MA, 2003; produced in New York, NY, 2004), Dramatic Publishing (Woodstock, IL), 2005.

Native Land, produced in New York, NY, 2004.

The Flower's Last Child, produced in New York, NY, 2004.

Kabuki Lady Macbeth, produced by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 2005.

Spa (opera), music by Michael Roman Dilthey, produced in Tarrytown, NY, 2005.

Author of Kabuki Richard; author of libretto D'Eon. Creator of production Poems from Finland, produced in New York, NY.


The Sound of Sand, produced by the Iowa State University Players, Ames, IA, 1963.

Balloon (in French), produced by Radio France, Paris, France, 1986.

Haiti: A Dream, National Public Radio, 1992.


Author of unproduced screenplays, including Undercover Patriot, Countdown, Earth, Parallel Loves, Dream House, The Secret Ship, Final Quest: The Mountain of the Gods, Boule de Suife (based on a work by Maupassant), Over the Rainbow, and an adaptation of her play The Fastest Woman Alive. Also wrote a script about British serial killer John George Haigh.

Sunde's manuscript collection is at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, New York, NY.

WORK IN PROGRESS: The screenplays Parallel Loves for Terra Bella Entertainment and Dream House for Passport Cinemas; the biography Indian Takes All.

SIDELIGHTS: The works of New York-based playwright Karen Sunde form "a distinctive, even unique, contemporary American drama, more akin to European than to other American plays," commented Tish Dace in Contemporary Dramatists. Reviewing a production of Sunde's 2000 play When Real Life Begins, New York Times contributor D. J. R. Bruckner noted that while the play "presents a formidable task to the actor" who takes on its only vocal role, the work also serves as an "appropriate honor" to the person for whom the play was written: New York stage actor Kricker James, who died of cancer in 1997. Sunde wrote the play at the request of James's wife, Claire Higgins; it is Claire's voice that serves as the solo voice, honoring her husband's through reflection, memories, and the slow process of coming to terms with his absence. In Back Stage, Jeanette Toomer also praised the work, calling it "poignant and heartrending" and a "powerfully moving testimony to a dedicated actor."

Sunde set some of her early works in the era of the American Revolution. George Washington and his freezing, starving troops appear in The Running of the Deer, while Benjamin Franklin is a major character in Balloon. Of the latter, Dace observed: "An appropriate protagonist for a play about hope and progress, Franklin strives and achieves, yet his painful interpersonal relations have diluted his triumphs." This statement also describes certain characters in some of Sunde's other plays, as the plays often challenge commonly held assumptions about real-life characters and famous characters from literature.

In Dark Lady playwright and poet William Shakespeare meets Renaissance poet Emilia Bassano, "a passionate woman whose humanity, courage, spirit, and generosity equal—and ultimately exceed—the Bard's," noted Dace. Likewise, in Achilles, drawn from The Iliad, Sunde details how male ego, lust, and machismo contributed to the disastrous war over Helen of Troy. Based on a real incident involving a kidnapped Marine, In a Kingdom by the Sea focuses on a man abducted by terrorists in Lebanon. According to Dace, the production depicts how "macho bravado means more than would an end to hostility" for some people, even those who seek peace.

After the appearance of Shakespeare and Bassano in Dark Lady, Sunde depicted another prominent literary figure, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, in a series of three plays. To Moscow depicts Chekhov's personal life, complicated by his relations with his wife (the actor Olga Knipper), his devoted sister, and a protégé, as well as his professional life in terms of the Moscow Art Theatre and its founder, Konstantin S. Stanislavsky. In a Back Stage review of a 1996 production of To Moscow, Irene Backalenick wrote that the play's female characters are "all quickly, skillfully drawn and effectively portrayed." In the trilogy's other components, Anton, Himself and Masha, Too, both one-act plays, Chekhov struggles with his sister, upon whom he depends and who yearns for a life of her own. "While viewers need know nothing about Chekhov to enjoy these three, Sunde interlards the action with jokes about the plays and stories, especially intriguing to knowledgeable viewers," Dace contended.

Sunde has also written kabuki plays for Japanese director Shozo Sato. Kabuki is a type of Japanese drama that uses elaborate sets, costumes, and makeup in addition to music and dancing. Dace said that although the plot of Kabuki Othello closely resembles Shakespeare's Othello, "Sunde makes Iago's motivation clearer and eliminates the Bard's racism and sexism." The playwright has also produced Kabuki Lady Macbeth, which Sato produced for the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in 2005.

Sunde once told CA: "An actor since childhood, I've always been fascinated by life, wanting to watch closely how people feel and behave. It's easy to imagine myself into other lives, and I have a hunger to experience life, then, to offer what I've found to the audience. So, as an absorber/interpreter, I feel both passionately connected to all people, and terribly alone. And I seem, no matter what century or people I portray, to be writing about 'my country,' which is the community, the nation, the world, the beyond. I seem to long for humanity to be joined."



Berney, K. A., editor, Contemporary Dramatists, fifth edition, St. James Press (London, England), 1993.


American Theatre, January, 2004, Derek S. McCracken, review of How His Bride Came to Abraham, p. 10.

Back Stage, October 11, 1996, p. 43; October 27, 2000, Jeanett Toomer, review of When Real Life Begins, p. 57.

Nation, May 30, 1981, pp. 675-676.

New York Times, September 27, 2000, D. J. R. Bruckner, review of When Real Life Begins, p. E1.

Variety, April 14, 1982, p. 92; October 15, 1986, p. 180.


Karen Sunde Home Page, (May 20, 2005).