Writer / Producer / Director
Award-winning writer / filmmaker Karen Thorsen finds inspiration at the intersection of art and social justice. Her heroes are game-changers, the artist / activists who shape history – and her films tell their stories without narration, weaving first-person narratives with archival treasures. ‘Cinéma Vérité Passé.’
Thorsen began as a writer. After graduating from Vassar College, with a year at the Sorbonne in Paris, she was an editor for Simon & Schuster, a journalist for LIFE Magazine, and a foreign correspondent for TIME. Screenwriting followed, then directing.
Her first feature-length documentary was JAMES BALDWIN: THE PRICE OF THE TICKET. Working with the renowned Maysles Films, Thorsen wrote, produced and directed BALDWIN (with Co-Producers Bill Miles & Douglas K. Dempsey, Executive Producers Susan Lacy & Albert Maysles). A co-production with PBS/American Masters, BALDWIN was honored at festivals in over two-dozen countries – including Sundance, London, Berlin and Tokyo. Now considered a documentary film classic, BALDWIN was described as “Splendid” by Variety, “A video page-turner” by The San Francisco Chronicle, and “A haunting, beautifully made biography” by the Los Angeles Times. “Stays with you after the program ends,” said the New York Times.
Thorsen’s second feature-length doc, JOE PAPP IN FIVE ACTS – made with Co-Producer/Co-Director Tracie Holder – premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012. A co-production with PBS/American Masters and ITVS, PAPP examines the New York street kid-turned-impresario who insisted that art is for everyone, both on-stage and in the audience. From free Shakespeare in the Park to HAIR, A Chorus Line and The Normal Heart, Joe Papp consistently bucked tradition … and brought more theater to more people than any other producer in history. The film’s broadcast premiere will be in 2014.
Beyond PBS, Thorsen productions include an Intimate Portrait for Lifetime Television (one of their top five shows of the year); a three-part series for the History Channel (winner, Parents’ Choice Award); numerous contributions to The Learning Channel and National Geographic; and ONE SMALL CANDLE, a documentary film history of the Pilgrims and their Native neighbors. Produced and directed with her husband, Douglas K. Dempsey, ONE SMALL CANDLE is now a permanent installation at Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, MA. Other collaborations with Dempsey include high-profile museum media projects for the Smithsonian Institution and George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Thorsen has also been honored by multiple grants and fellowships from the New York State Council on the Arts, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, ITVS and numerous private foundations.
This year, along with the restoration and re-release of JAMES BALDWIN: THE PRICE OF THE TICKET, works-in-progress include two other collaborations with Dempsey. Like BALDWIN, both are transmedia projects: PEACEJAM: CHANGE STARTS HERE, a series of web-based shorts and longer-form docs about Nobel Laureates working with teenage activists – and THOMAS PAINE: VOICE OF REVOLUTION, a feature-length documentary & multi-media museum exhibit about the 18th-century author of Common Sense. Designated as a “We The People” project by the National Endowment for the Humanities, PAINE was one of only three films in the nation to be awarded an NEH Scripting Grant in 2011.