Karen was born in southern Illinois, but grew up in Washington, DC. Her father was in the FBI and her mother was an elementary school teacher. She is the middle child of three daughters.
At 17, Karen went to live in NYC to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology to study textile and clothing design, having been interested in textiles since she was a young child. She left after two years to travel in the West Indies, Mexico, Central and South America and returned to the US a year later to live in Washington, DC in 1972.
Although she had early interest in writing and had begun to have her work published in the early 1970’s, she was inspired to work in the theatre after seeing Jerzy Grotowski’s extraordinary Polish Theatre Laboratory in a performance of Apolcalypsis Cum Figuris in 1972 when his company came to the US on tour. She attended George Washington University and began to study and perform with the experimental company, The Washington Theatre Laboratory in Wash DC, whose work was based on Grotowski’s teaching. She co-produced theatre productions with actor/director Paul Iorio (now a Franciscan Monk in Italy) and together they brought experimental companies from Europe to the Washington Project for the Arts for several years. In 1977 she left DC to move back to NYC and to continue working in the theatre.
In NY she portrayed Helen Keller with Jane Alexander playing Annie Sullivan in William Gibson’s The Monday After the Miracle directed by Arthur Penn at the Actor’s Studio, the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC, the Kennedy Center in Wash DC, and on Broadway, for which she won a Theatre World Award. She played Marjorie in William Mastrosimones’ Extremities at the Westside Arts Theatre, and performed in Strinberg’s Miss Julie at the Actor’s Studio directed by Peter Stormare. She starred in productions of The Country Girl, The Miracle Worker, and Speaking in Tongues at the Roundabout Theatre. With Joanne Woodward she played Laura in The Glass Menagerie at the Longwharf Theatre directed by Nikos Psacharopoulos, and she produced and performed in Beautiful Bodies by Laura Cunningham at the Whole Theatre. She loved to escape NYC in the summers to work at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (Tennesse Williams: A Celebration, The Royal Family and The Glass Menagerie), The Berkshire Theatre Festival (Two for the Seesaw), Shakespeare and Co. (As You Like It), and the Westport Country Playhouse (Temporary Help). In the Fall on 2012 she starred in the US premiere of Norwegian playwright, Jon Fosse’s, A Summer Day with Rattlestick Theatre at the Cherry Lane in NYC.
As a director in the theatre she has done two productions of Michael Weller’s Moonchildren, at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, and a production of Joan Ackermann’s, The Batting Cage. Most recently she directed an award winning production of William Mastrosimone’s Extremities and Lucy Thurber’s world premiere of Ashville for Rattlestick Theatre at the Cherry Lane in New York which won an Obie Award in 2014. In the summer of 2015 she directed Terrance McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Claire du Lune and most recently directed John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar” (2019) at the BTF in Stockbridge, MA. Ms. Allen is on the faculty of the Theatre Department at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, has taught acting and directing at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in association with NYU, and is a lifetime member of the Actor’s Studio in both the Acting and Directing Units.
Not long after moving to NYC in 1977, Karen auditioned for her first film and was offered the role of Katy in Animal House opposite Peter Reigert and Donald Sutherland, directed by John Landis. The extraordinary success of this film opened many doors for her as an actor. She next chose the role of Nina in the The Wanderers based on Richard Price’s first novel and directed by Phil Kaufman. Rob Cohen’s directorial debut cast Karen in her first leading role in A Small Circle of Friends set at Harvard in the 1960’s. Steven Spielberg then met her for the role of Marion Ravenwood for Raiders of the Lost Ark, which she auditioned for in NYC and screen tested for in Los Angles. They offered her the role and it was shot in London, France, Tunisia and Washington DC in 1980
For the next ten years she alternated between working in the theatre and in films including Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon with Diane Keaton and Albert Finney, Cruising opposite Al Pacino, Until September directed by Richard Marquand with French actor Thierry L’Hermitte, Starman with Jeff Bridges directed by John Carpenter, Animal Behavior with Armand Assante and Holly Hunter, The Glass Menagerie directed by Paul Newman with Joanne Woodward, John Malkovich and James Naughton, the dark thriller Backfire with Keith Carradine, the futuristic thriller The End of the Line, with French rocker Johnny Hallyday, Richard Donner’s Christmas comedy, Scrooged, with Bill Murray, and Australian film Sweet Talker opposite Bryan Brown.
Karen married actor Kale Browne in 1988 and their son, Nicholas, was born in 1990. While he was growing up and in school, Karen moved to the countryside outside of NY and looked for supporting roles that gave her more time and freedom to be with her son: The Sandlot, Steven Soderberg’s, King of the Hill, Falling Sky, The Perfect Storm, The Basket, In the Bedroom, Spike Lee’s, Malcom X, World Traveler and Poster Boy.
When her son went off to college she began to travel again and accepted roles in Shaka Zulu, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, White Irish Drinkers and Bad Hurt which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015 and the award-winning film Year By the Sea directed by Alexander Janko and based on the NY Times best-selling memoir by Joan Anderson. She recently has completed the independent film, Colewell, written and directed by Tom Quinn, to be released in 2019.
In the Spring of 2016 she directed her first film based on Carson McCullers’ short story, A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud. It premiered at the Manchester Film Festival in March of 2017 and won Best International Short Film and has screened in over 25 film festivals including Cannes, Madrid, Rhode Island (Best Director), Holly Shorts, River Run FF, the Big Apple Festival, NY Shorts, Berkshire International FF, Woods Hole FF and the US FF in Dallas. It also screened in Rome, Italy and in Columbus, GA as part of a 100th anniversary celebration of Carson McCullers as a writer.
On television she has been seen as Abra in the mini-series of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, as Christa Mcauliffe in The Challenger, and in Secret Weapon, Voyage, The Road Home, All the Winter’s That Have Been, My Horrible Year, Rapture, November Christmas, Law and Order, and Bluebloods
In 2010 she received an honorary doctorate from FIT and the State University of NY for her design work with her company Karen Allen Fiber Arts in Great Barrington, MA where she has a design studio and store that represents dozens of textile and clothing designers from around the world whose work she admires. Karen divides her time between western MA and NYC and between her work as an actor and director. She is an active Board member of the Berkshire International Film Festival and oversees its Documentary and Narrative Feature Film Juries every year, and she is also on the Board of the Amazon Conservation Team. She is a student of Buddhism and a longtime practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga. Her son, Nick, is a professional chef.