Karen Saari standing in front of the Bartell theatre


By Kristi Evans

A pennant affixed to a wall on the set of the World Premiere Wisconsin production of Bad in Bed (A Fairy Tale) would have been immediately recognizable to any audience members with NMU connections who attended the March sold-out run at the Bartell Theatre, just off Madison’s Capitol Square. It featured a familiar green and gold color scheme emblazoned with the Wildcat athletic logo. The pennant’s placement was deliberate, not a coincidence. Bad in Bed is set in Marquette, centers on a group of NMU alumni and includes several references to the university. It is the latest work by playwright Karen Saari '96 BS that reflects her Upper Peninsula roots.

“I found myself missing Marquette after attending an NMU theater reunion in 2016, and was thinking of the different journeys we embarked on after college and how we’ve grown up and changed,” said Saari, who graduated with a broadcasting major and theater minor. “But sometimes in a familiar setting with friends—even if it’s been a long time—it’s easy to revert to who we once were. Those things were spinning around in my head along with a separate idea of someone who’s cursed to be a bad lover and clueless about it. Bad in Bed combines all of that.”

In the play, Charles’ third wife has just informed him she’s leaving. As he reels from the news and the reason she gives, he travels to Marquette for a weekend to nurse his wounds in the company of his college best friend, Jack, who works as a sports director at TV6. The two men connect with alumna Betsy, who happens to be in town promoting her new hit book titled Bad in Bed, a grown-up fairy tale about a young woman rejected by her crush. Betsy once dabbled in witchcraft and reveals a secret from their college days that could be the reason for Charles’ failed relationships. He is convinced it was a curse that made him a bad partner—it couldn’t possibly be that he’s a terrible listener—and wants to reverse it. With the help of a Finnish coven and an “off-brand” Wicca witch, they engage in a goofy curse removal ritual in the hope that Charles can win back his wife.

Saari first drafted the script in 2017. She said it is common for a play to embark on a multi-year journey through table readings, developmental company workshops and award submissions—all of which generate suggestions for fine-tuning the script—before its world premiere. Once her work reaches the directors and actors who will stage the production, she prefers a hands-off approach.

“I don’t go to rehearsals because I fear I’d be obsessive,” Saari said. “It’s fun to provide initial direction and be available if they have questions, but part of the fun and trepidation is trusting a group of people to take your work and do it justice as they bring it to life. Once I fully embraced playwriting, it didn’t seem like a choice anymore. I feel like there are voices saying, ‘Hey, tell my story,’ and they start taking shape as characters. While I’d love to see one of my plays open on Broadway someday, that is just a small percentage of the professional, quality theater done in the U.S. There are thriving professional regional companies everywhere.”

Saari added that she would like to produce enough plays or TV scripts and make enough money from playwriting that it could be her sole professional focus. For now, she serves as full-time external communications manager and part-time instructor at Madison Area Technical College. This fall, she will shift to a full-time faculty role in communication and performing arts, where she will oversee theater programming. Saari applied both her passion and career to Bad in Bed (A Fairytale), which was a joint production of the MATC performing arts program and Madison Theatre Guild. She was able to help foster an educational partnership in which students from the college could be hired for technical support jobs on the show and obtain a certificate while learning from professionals.

Bad in Bed was a 2021 semifinalist for the Princess Grace Fellowship Award and a 2018 semifinalist for the Garry Marshall Theatre New Works Festival. Prior to the play’s world premiere in Madison, it received a 2018 developmental production from Acadiana Repertory Theatre in Lafayette, Louisiana. Acadiana commended the “charming comedy with a twist” for its wonderful characters and underlying message of female empowerment, adding, “And the playwright is more than happy to provide a pronunciation guide when it comes to the Finnish. If you are looking for a fun romantic comedy that has a fantastic message, grab this show!”

Building with a sign that reads "Bartell"

“This play feels very grown-up, in the best possible way,” wrote one reviewer, Conor McShane. “Despite its slightly fantastical premise, it feels like a play about real people trying to grow and change and be better, that gets at some pretty relatable themes. It’s easy to blame our circumstances on some outside force like a witch’s curse, but we can’t truly change unless we own up to our flaws and try to learn from them.”

Saari said she was eager to tackle an unabashed comedy, which she excels at, even though she typically incorporates moments of levity into dramas to make difficult characters more palatable. Her two previous works dealt with heavier themes: Rain on Fire, a play with music about how the opioid crisis affects one U.P. family (the Flint Repertory Theatre will produce the world premiere this fall); and In a Clearing, about a recovering alcoholic who is convinced he’s responsible for a tragic event. Saari’s hometown of Mass City in Ontonagon County inspired both scripts.

“After my parents passed away in relatively close succession, I reconnected with my hometown in a much different way because the people were so awesome and supportive,” said Saari, who inherited her childhood home and occasionally vacations there. “When I was young, I was more judgmental about what was taking place there and just wanted to get out. But after having others’ kindness extended to me, I started seeing my hometown through a more mature lens. It was never my intent to write about life in the U.P, but I started understanding how some people end up in difficult situations and seeing how rampant the drug problem was. There’s a lot of addiction in the U.P. and within my family—my dad was a recovering alcoholic. All of that provided inspiration for those two dramas.”

Rockhound, Saari’s companion piece to Rain on Fire, shares the story of a lonely widow with a growing dependency on painkillers who bonds with her kind but unstable nephew while both risk falling prey to the trappings of the drug trade in their U.P. town. A virtual reading and workshopping of the play occurred in March with The Shattered Glass Project in Seattle. Her latest script, Tragedy Sound—also set in the U.P.—is about three young women who take a bet and embark on a dangerous canoe ride, causing them to question their choices and face their regrets. It won the 2024 Br!NK Residency Award with Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks and will receive extensive workshopping and a public staged reading next May. She became the first “double Br!NKer” because of her previous win for Rain on Fire in 2019

Two men acting in a play on stage

A scene from Saari's play, "Bad in Bed (A Fairytale)"

Saari’s introduction to performing arts took place in Mass City, where she began participating in a newly established community theater group as a high school sophomore. The productions were so well received that her school started a drama club her senior year. She chose to continue her passion at Northern after visiting campus on a couple of field trips. Saari later performed with Music Theatre of Madison. As her playwriting career started to take off, the company’s artistic director contacted her in 2018 and asked if she would be interested in co-writing a musical.

The result was Ten Days in a Madhouse, about journalist Nellie Bly’s experience infiltrating a notorious insane asylum to report on the abhorrent conditions. It was research for an NMU class assignment that sparked Saari’s lifelong fascination with Bly.

“During my senior year, I was taking intermediate acting with Shelley Russell, and we were asked to write a monologue from the perspective of a historical figure,” she said. “I randomly chose Nellie Bly. The more I learned about her, the more shocked I was that she wasn’t a household name. She had an extraordinary life and career. My last semester, I wrote a full-length screenplay about her for an advanced scriptwriting directed study with Bill Buccalo.”

While Saari said she occasionally misses being on stage, she did get her “acting fix” last year in a production of Harvey, the Pulitzer Prizewinning comedy about perfect gentleman Elwood P. Dowd and his six-foot tall, invisible rabbit. She played the supporting role of Betty Chumley in the production, which was directed by her husband, David Pausch. The couple has two children, ages 12 and 10.

For her next playwriting act, Saari is working on a musical about women who sold moonshine in the Upper Peninsula during prohibition. She came across a related reference deep within a historical article about the collapse of the mining industry and a resulting ghost town


Photo of Karen Saari

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