How many 10-year-olds do you know who start their own newspaper and keep it going for years, despite occasional trouble with some 120-plus subscribers?
Award-winning filmmaker Karen Thorsen started her quest to disseminate information early. Her family moved from New York City to Fairfield County for the schools. A love of writing and compelling curiosity led her to create a weekly gazette. She didn’t get into trouble reporting on a murder less than a mile from where she lived although she didn’t solve the case; she got into hot water for announcing in print when and where neighbors were going on vacation … together.
But the “mistake” Thorsen remembers most clearly was her report on an offshore power plant proposed by a local utility. Before it was built, she printed the corporate version of how “safe” and “barely visible” this sky-blue structure would be.
“I didn’t push back, didn’t use any critical thinking,” she said. “And my father—who proofed and printed each weekly edition—didn’t interfere. He never censored anything I wrote, he wanted me to grow and learn.” Years later, that offshore “eyesore” was shut down as a source of severe pollution.
While growing up, Thorsen’s parents were careful to provide context around the dinner table. They explored complex topics, from environmental hazards to racial discrimination—including the gated community where they lived. “I learned that deed restrictions made it unlawful for certain minorities to buy property there, that certain people weren’t welcome,” she said. Those lessons stayed with her.
After graduating from Vassar, Thorsen found inspiration at the intersection of art and social justice. As an editor for Simon & Schuster, a journalist for LIFE Magazine and a foreign correspondent for TIME, then as a screenwriter and film director, she has focused her narratives on “game-changers, the artist/activists who shape history.”
Thorsen is a powerful storyteller. Her films have an impressive inner energy: Supported by carefully curated archival footage, her subjects speak for themselves without the barrier of imposed narration. But no words describe this better than the films themselves, two of which will air nationwide in June of this year.
‘Joe Papp in Five Acts’
The PBS premiere of “American Masters: Joe Papp in Five Acts”—produced, directed and written by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen, a collaboration that was years in the making—will be broadcast on Friday, June 3 at 9 p.m. A feature-length biographical portrait, the film explores Joe Papp (1921-1991), the larger-than-life theatrical producer who was a champion of inclusion … onstage, backstage and in the audience.
Founder of New York’s free Shakespeare in the Park as well as the Public Theater, Papp believed that art could lead to a better, more inclusive society—and that great art should be accessible to everyone. As he said, “We have public libraries, why not public theaters?”
From Meryl Streep and James Earl Jones to David Rabe and Larry Kramer, many notable actors and playwrights got their start at the Public, as did many groundbreaking plays that went on to become mega-hits, from “Hair,” and “A Chorus Line,” to “For Colored Girls,” whose 2022 revival has just become the most Tony Award-nominated show on Broadway.
‘James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket’
“Joe Papp in Five Acts” is just the first of Thorsen’s June “double-features.” On Saturday, June 11 at 9 p.m. (check local listings), PBS/American Masters will repeat its broadcast of her documentary film classic, the feature-length “James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.” Co-produced with Bill Miles in collaboration with Maysles Films, it explores the life of civil rights activist and best-selling author James Baldwin (1924-1987).
“The Price of the Ticket” is both an emotional portrait and a social critique—in a world that has yet to understand that “all men are brothers.” Now the centerpiece of the non-profit James Baldwin Project—Thorsen’s international outreach and engagement initiative where film screenings + public forums focus on racism, discrimination and the meaning of brotherhood—the film has been honored in 25 countries and has already reached millions.
Thorsen’s next venture is a memoir of her collaboration with Baldwin, both while he was alive and after his death. Titled “The Disorder of Life: James Baldwin on my Shoulder,” it chronicles what she calls the “head-on collision” of “straight White female, gay Black male, generations apart—with more in common than most people realize.” Two excerpts have already been published as essays by the prestigious “James Baldwin Review.” Thorsen hopes to complete a book version in time for James Baldwin’s Centennial in 2024.
It’s all part of her belief that art can open minds and change lives. “It’s my form of reparations,” she said. “We each do what we can to make this world a better place.”
Sharing Inspiration with Others
Thorsen has lived in Easton with her husband and co-filmmaker husband Douglas K. Dempsey for almost 30 years. Their son, Dylan Kai Dempsey, is a well-published film critic and emerging filmmaker. And even though Thorsen’s weekly newspaper days are long gone, it’s fair to say that she still has a lot of the 10-year-old spunk that fueled her rise as a storyteller. She cooks, gardens, dresses and creates with communication in mind.
“It’s all about juxtaposition, what goes next to what,” she said. “Each word, each image, each ingredient has to help build the message you hope to deliver.” She pauses. “When you get it right, when you get to share your own inspirations with others, it’s a privilege.”
For more information about Joe Papp in Five Acts,” click below:
For more information about James Baldwin: The Price of a Ticket visit JamesBaldwinProject.org.