Why Karen Still Loves Play School, & How Mulan Inspires Her

Why Karen Still Loves Play School After 18 Years, and How Mulan Inspires Her

After 18 years of Play School presenting, Karen Pang is becoming one of the show’s veterans, joining the ranks of greats like Noni, Benita, John and Simon.

By Clare BruceThursday 13 Oct 2016Guests and ArtistsReading Time: 5 minutes

Listen: Karen Pang chats to Andrew Morris about her 18 years with the iconic Play School.

With 18 years of Play School presenting under her belt, Karen Pang is now becoming one of the show’s veterans, joining the ranks of greats like Noni, Benita, John and Simon before her.

In an interview with Hope 103.2 marking the ABC TV program’s 50th anniversary, Karen reflected on the many laughs and happy times she’s had on the show—which has been the bread and butter of her acting career,

There are many reasons she’s stayed on the show for so long, since 1998. One of the main reasons, she said, is the show’s values.

“It’s such a blessing to be in a job like that, because you’re there to give children that time in their lives, permission to play, to be creative, to teach them things,” she said.

“And the things that we teach them are not just, ‘how do you cook something’ or whatever. The last block I just did was about helping people, asking people if they want help, or asking someone for help, and the joy of sharing help with each other.

“There’s a sense of Christian teachings, of what it is to live together and how to do it in a fun and creative way, and a responsible way. It’s a privilege.”

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What’s Changed on Play School in 18 Years?

Watch: Karen Pang chats about her Play School memories.

Having been on the Play School set for so long, Karen said she’s seen many changes in the show, particularly the way it’s filmed.

“When I first started, you would read the script, rehearse a couple of times, and then they’d shoot it in one take. You were running around cameras, finding your right position, with no-one to tell you when you to be ready—you just had to be there.

“It was the best training ground for an actor, because you had to take responsibility, and you had to be creative.”

Karen and Teo from Play School

Above: Karen and Play School co-presenter Teo. Picture: Nicole Hastings Photography

Some of Karen’s funniest Play School memories are from making mistakes, then improvising to cover them up while the cameras kept rolling. A case in point was the day she took ‘forever’ to complete a four-piece puzzle—one that a toddler could have finished quicker.

“I remember not being able to put [this puzzle] together, because I was learning how the camera sees things in reverse,” she said. “I was looking at the screen that was showing me what the camera was seeing.

“I couldn’t quite work out the tail from the front and the head from the back, and they were all cracking up. And they didn’t stop the tape. They wanted me to keep going, and it just got funnier and funnier and funnier.

“Now we record it in sections, so it’s a little bit more polished, a little bit more rehearsed.”

Jemima, Big Ted, and Other Old Faithfuls

Karen Pang and friends from Play School

Above: Karen with some of her many Play School friends. Image: ABC

But while there have been significant changes in technology, it’s the constants that have stayed over the 50 years, that give Play School its iconic quality. Constants like Big Ted, Humpty Dumpty and Jemima, as well as the high value the show’s producers place on children.

“There’s still that same quality that is asked of presenters to speak to the child, to communicate with them and to share the space with someone else, and play,” Karen said. “And those toys haven’t changed. Kids still draw to them, because they have certain identities and qualities. They’re very unique.”

An Entertainer From An Early Age

Karen Pang (second from right) in the play, CAMP

Above: Karen Pang (second from right) in the play, CAMP. Image: Stage Whispers / Natalie Boog

Karen was about four years old when she first caught the acting bug – while watching Singing in the Rain – and from that point on, wanted to sing, dance and act all at once.  

Coming from a Chinese family, though, Karen’s parents had a mixture of enthusiasm and caution about her dream to be an entertainer. They hinted many times as she grew up, that she should consider a more traditional career path.

“I want to tell stories, and I have those stories within me. I have experiences that can give life.”

A stint of work experience with a law firm in Year 10, however, convinced Karen that business and law definitely weren’t her thing. Instead she chose to study theatre and media at university, followed by an acting degree at NIDA, and she landed her Play School job soon after graduating.

Her other acting roles have included films The Nugget, Danny Deckchair, Superman Returns, and TV shows All Saints and Home and Away—which she’s currently in the middle of recording.

Karen’s also recently worked with her former Play School co-host Colin Buchanan, recording an album of Christian kids’ songs about Jesus—an experience that she described as a great joy.

How Karen Pang is Inspired by Mulan

Watch: Karen Pang chats about what inspires her most.

As a young aspiring actor, Karen’s dream role was to play Mulan: a character who’s tough, courageous and feminine all at once—and Chinese. Although she’s moved on since those days, she still loves the idea of playing roles that tell stories of courage.

In 2008 Karen was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, and having walked the rocky path of mental illness, she feels she now has a lot more wisdom and insights to share.

“I have a story to tell now,” she said. “I think why I wanted to be an actor was because I want to tell stories, and I have those stories within me. I have experiences that can give life. The dream is there now, more than ever, to have that sense of Mulan, which is to ‘fight the good fight’ and to step up and to be courageous.”

Her ideal roles are stories about of overcoming.

“It’s about those stories of moving through the darkness, or through the depths. and coming out. Giving people a moment that helps them see a slice of their life and go, “Yeah, I can do that,” or “That really touches me,” or, “How can I help someone else who is going through the same thing?”