Karen Beth Walsh Rullman, 1975-2017
Karen Beth Walsh Rullman was born on August 28, 1975 in Concord, Massachusetts. She died on May 30, 2017 in New York City, twenty months after being diagnosed with colon cancer. In the forty-one years that she lived so fully, she was an incredible storyteller, doer, memory-maker, connector, and friend. She was a powerhouse in every way, including as a singer, actor, wife, mother, daughter, and sister. At her core, Karen was hilarious and helpful, often at the same time. She was petite in stature, but enormous in spirit.
Her parents, Ann and Robert Walsh, taught her the value of being a good person—warm-hearted, compassionate, and thoughtful. Throughout her formative years in Littleton, MA and Northboro, MA, Bob and Ann’s strong ties with family and friends made an indelible impression on Karen: that deep and meaningful relationships were the highest form of currency. Laughter and witty one-liners were pretty worthwhile, too.
Her husband, Todd Rullman, was her ballast of 18 years, steadying her with encouragement, freedom, devotion, and love. They first connected on the telephone—back when she was waitressing at Outback Steakhouse and pagers were still a thing—because Todd happened to be living with one of her college friends and answered her call right on time. Together, they lived in San Francisco, California and then Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where they were both in graduate school. In 2004, they moved to Manhattan in an apartment that had a spectacular view of the East River, the Citibank Building, and the Pepsi Cola sign. After moving to the Upper West Side, their children Zoe and Tate made grand entrances in 2008 and 2013, respectively. Karen was always mindful to set a positive example for them—how to be caring, how to do good for others near and far, and how to be strong. To say she fulfilled this mission would be an understatement.
In fact, she fulfilled many missions—and powerfully so. Ever since she was a little girl, Karen dreamt of moving to New York City and becoming a Broadway actress, a dream she realized with fullness, truth, and heart. She had parts in several Broadway productions and also in television and a film role she shot while undergoing treatment. Unstoppable doesn’t even begin to describe her awe-inspiring will.
No matter what the performance, Karen gave herself fully. Playwright Sam Hunter remembers her dedication during the production of Jack’s Precious Moment. “She really went to the mat for character development,” he says. In 2014, Lyndsey Turner directed Karen in Machinal. During auditions, Turner was impressed instantly by Karen’s magnetism, an impression that would grow throughout the production: “…it was hard to take your eyes off Karen…Not that anything Karen was doing was showy or flashy: it’s just that she somehow managed to fill every second of the action with such accuracy, richness of thought, interiority and longing that I knew what she was thinking even when she was in silence.”
Actress Rebecca Hall, who also met Karen during the Machinal production, remembers one crystalline moment during the play’s rehearsal process. Turner invited the cast to spend a week sharing ideas before showing the set design or any of her ideas for production. This auspicious beginning set the company’s direction away from the audience and toward the story they were telling in concert with each other.
Hall says, “Karen was the first person to express what we were all feeling during that first week. She was quite emotional and turned to me and said, ‘This is what I always dreamt theater could be.’ I fell in love with her from that moment on.”
If her acting life was characterized by an ability to strip away the layers of the human experience, Karen brought that same bravery to all other facets of her life, including her illness. Writer Christopher Hitchens once said of his cancer diagnosis, “I’m not fighting or battling cancer—it is fighting me.” In the face of a serious existential challenge, that was Karen’s ethos, too. Though cancer may have taken her life, cancer, going up against someone as utterly formidable as Karen, most certainly did not take her spirit.
Karen’s force of will came as no surprise. When she received her cancer diagnosis on September 11, 2015, Karen was in the midst of producing her second Broadway benefit for the American Cancer Society. The first benefit, which took place in 2012, was Karen’s very personal, if not public, way of responding to her dear friend Jim Rebhorn’s cancer diagnosis. That Karen would corral some of entertainment’s best to raise money for a good cause was vintage Karen—making a positive contribution to the world in collaboration with her community.
She was in the process of producing a second benefit in November 2015 when she learned of her own diagnosis. Karen never for a second considered cancelling the benefit. With the help of co-producer Rebecca Brooksher and an army of support, she raised thousands of dollars and put a clear stake in the ground: she wasn’t going to back down.
During her fifth chemo session, choreographer and director Sam Pinkelton, joined her in a sunny infusion room on York Avenue. Feeling the creative itch, Karen asked him to shoot a picture with her, to which he replied, “Well, you might as well make it interesting.” They captured an image of Sam holding Karen up on a ledge, the chemo port in her chest visible. She might have cancer, but she could still fly.
The hilarity and joy in that first picture fast morphed into a yearlong photo project, in which Karen would invite family and friends, including many of her fellow actors, to stage elaborately themed photo shoots in the infusion room. Often, she recreated memorable scenes from popular culture, such as Star Wars, Forest Gump, and The Golden Girls. Karen quipped, “It’s not treatment. It’s a photo shoot.” She said of her instinct to make her treatments social, “I got this feeling like I wanted to party as often as possible. Of course, the term ‘party’ has had to be redefined a bit, what with my inoperable liver mets.”
Mary-Louise Parker, who met Karen while she was understudying for Parker in Heisenberg, participated in one of the shoots. Parker says, “The whole thing was emblematic of who she was—a real artist who could go to her cancer treatment and somehow make her cancer just the footnote.”
That was just the beginning of turning lemons into lemonade. After Karen started posting her photos on Instagram, she started receiving feedback from strangers who were going through similar struggles or who just needed a dose of courage in their daily lives. News outlets across the world—including Australia, Italy, Israel, Poland, and Spain—covered her ingenious approach to “healing treatments” (a term that her friend and fellow Broadway actor Marin Mazzie had used to refer to her own treatments). As Karen put it, “I wasn’t looking to talk about my ‘cold’ all the time, but it’s nice to know that what we have all made has given joy to other people.”
She wanted to show others that “this process doesn’t have to be Terms of Endearment.” Kat Eves, who discovered Karen’s photos on the Fempire, a 17,000-member Facebook group, notes, “She gave people, including other people with illness, room to do more than cry.” Another member of that group, Colleen Newvine Tebeau, said, “Shouldn't we all aspire to be remembered this way? To go down swinging? If we all lived the way Karen faced death, the world would be a better place.”
Karen used her platform as a bright, creative light (who just happened to have a “cold”) to fiercely advocate for cancer research and prevention. The American Cancer Society named her 2016 Mother of the Year and the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable appointed her an Ambassador for the 80% by 2018 initiative to get 80% of the eligible population screened by 2018. She attended speaking engagements and participated in panels, bringing her trademark warmth and wit to make a difference.
As if there were any doubt about her fight, a week and a half before Karen passed away, she communicated her intentions in a very “Karen” way. That Sunday, it took all the strength she had to lift her hand and slowly move it in the direction of her iPad. With her elegant index finger, Karen opened iTunes, skipped over Adele, and pressed play on Prince’s Greatest Hits. This was a clear direction: she wanted to celebrate—and she wanted all of us to join her.
Fortunately, that’s going to be a big party. The strong network of connections she made is legendary, a huge orbit of loved ones from many different areas of her very rich life. Karen’s larger than life presence will live on in this community, especially in her family, to whom she was incredibly grateful. In addition to her husband, children, and parents, she is survived by two brothers, Michael Walsh of Marblehead, MA and Matthew Walsh of Needham, MA; Lisa Manganiello and Ivy Walsh, her sisters-in-law; her niece and nephews, Finna, Awley, and Bryce Walsh; and many loving aunts, uncles, and cousins.
No matter the context or circle she was roaming in, Karen was always a bona fide original—funny and quirky to the bone. As Pinkelton says, “There was just Karen and the truth.”
On June 8, the Roundabout Theater will dim the marquees at the American Airlines Theater in honor of Karen.
Suzanne Guillette - cousin and friend