Karen Paul – A lawyer’s love for theatre

Karen Paul (neé Davis) matriculated at Trinity Hall in 1987. After pursuing studies in MML, a career in law, and multiple charity roles, Karen has found her calling in theatre with fellow Cambridge alumna Peggy.

You studied Law at Trinity Hall. How did you become involved in theatre?

Yes, I studied Law in my second and third years and pursued a career in the law but I actually started at Trinity Hall as a Modern Linguist reading Spanish and French. I have always loved the study of language and culture and the associated engagement with creativity and drama, in Spanish especially, and this was very much a part of the course at Cambridge. As a practising lawyer I felt the need to stay connected with those creative endeavours so the theatre, visual arts and dance (I used to perform Flamenco) remained my passions outside the office.

Having become a partner in city law firm, Olswang, at 31, I gave up law to be a full time mother to my boys, Joshua (TH 2018) and Jack (now a second year French student at Durham University), and to take care of my husband, Ian, who survived pancreatic cancer but was gravely ill during our boys’ early years. Once we were out of crisis mode and Ian was back at work, I started fundraising for cancer charities, specialising in campaigns and events for Cancer Research UK and was later invited to bring these skills to the board of Trustees at Hampstead Theatre in London.

How did you and your business partner Peggy (Christ’s 1984) meet?

Once on the Board at Hampstead Theatre, which until last year was chaired by the all-round inspirational human that is David Tyler (TH 1971), I swiftly began organising events to encourage philanthropy at the theatre. As Chair of the Development Board I was lucky enough to meet Peggy, who also sat on this Board, introduced to the theatre by David, a personal friend of hers, and we too quickly established not only a deep and lasting friendship but also an engaging working relationship. It was through our joint efforts at Hampstead that we were able to indulge our mutual love of theatre and ultimately to start Stellar Theatre together.

What’s unique about Stellar Theatre and who’s it for?

Stellar is for theatre lovers who are in search of an intimate, next-level experience which brings them into the heart of the creative process.

We offer rehearsed readings of plays which can be performed anywhere – in your living room, board room, club or other private space and we can also stream our work, which we did regularly during the pandemic and which helped us reach the widest possible audience. One of our plays, Virtually Single, is an incredibly funny and poignant look at dating during a pandemic.

Stellar has a carefully curated selection of plays written by an incredibly talented roster of new and emerging playwrights. A Stellar play is short and impactful, has a small cast and most importantly (and to quote Peggy) “has to move or change you”. The plays are performed by wonderful actors from our roster whom we have chosen not only for being famous for their roles on stage and screen but also for their love of engaging in conversation with an audience after the show, which is de rigour at a Stellar event. The playwright is on hand too and so the theatre loving client gets the complete backstage experience!

Stellar also acts as a supportive community for our talented creatives whom we love to help and encourage to help each other. This felt especially important over the past two years and is a part of our business which continues to flourish. We are always looking for new talent to celebrate and one of our most recent (and youngest) playwriting colleagues is Imogen Usherwood, a first class English Literature graduate from Durham University and incoming MFA student at Emerson College. Another happy Cambridge connection, thanks to Peggy and Christ’s College – we were able to offer Sam Smith, now a first-year English Literature student at Christ’s, the opportunity to work with us during the year that his place was deferred thanks to the pandemic – and he was instrumental in the work that we did to establish a new theatre company during lockdown!

What do you enjoy most about the theatre?

Referencing Peggy’s mantra about being moved or changed, this is what attracts me to live performance, most especially in the theatre. The fundamental combination of a story unfolding, bearing witness to the actors’ performances and their direction, coupled with the staging, set and costumes, the hush and anticipation as the light go down, all together amount to a magic intellectual and sensory elixir for me. The pandemic cut my regular IRL theatre-going habit so when I sat down at Hampstead Theatre last week to watch The Forest, the world premiere of Florian Zeller’s thrilling new play about adultery, I was absolutely overwhelmed. I cried within the first minute!

If you were to recommend one theatre production for people to watch, what would it be?

This is impossible – might I please recommend three? Excluding The Forest – see above.

One which will stay with me always and which is still available to watch online is Yerma, starring Billie Piper as Lorca’s “earth-quaking heroine”. I loved this in every way and was especially moved for it propelling me back into my love of Spanish literature and my studies at Trinity Hall.

Also, Mr Foote’s Other Leg, written by and starring Ian Kelly (TH 1984), produced at Hampstead Theatre in 2015, a wickedly funny biography of the original stage artist, yielding a shining performance from Simon Russell Beale, strongly supported by Dervla Kirwan and indeed Ian Kelly himself as King George.

Finally, and other one to still available to watch online is Hymn, starring the multi-talented Adrain Lester and Danny Sapani. Hymn offers a searching, soulful look at what it takes to be a good father, brother or son and quite apart from Lolita Chakrabarti’s beautiful writing, the performances of the two actors, encompassing spoken word, singing and dance, are utterly transformative.

What’s your favourite memory of Trinity Hall?

Is it very hard to give one memory as an example because I simply loved my time at Trinity Hall. I met kindred spirits I would never had found otherwise, was taught by inspirational academics, I loved our accommodation – I had a crush on someone living in O staircase and spent a long time looking up at his window! But on reflection the most special moment for me must be Joshua’s graduation ceremony last summer. My joy and pride were visceral.