Listen: Open House’s Sheridan Voysey chats to Karen Pang.
Karen Pang has appeared in films like Superman, Danny Deckchair and The Nugget, but is best known to parents as an ABC TV Playschool presenter.
In her interview with Sheridan Voysey, Karen shared about not only about her acting career, but also her faith journey, and the challenges of mental illness.
It was in Karen Pang’s teenage years when she first caught the acting bug.
“In Year 11 I played a character in a Shakespearean play, the Twelfth Night,” she said. “I played the court jester role. I just had a ball and the experience was so memorable. I was also doing speech and drama classes and the teacher really instilled in me a love for text and drama.”
Against the norms of her Chinese Australian community, she went to study at NIDA in Sydney (the National Institute of Dramatic Art).
“I was amazed that I had an opportunity like this. I felt like it had dropped out of the sky because I know the Institute is hard to get into. I felt like it was a blessing that had been given to me saying, ‘go down this path because things like this don’t come around so easily.’”
The Joys Of Playschool Presenting
Karen’s role on ABC TV’s Playschool was her first job after leaving NIDA and has brought her much joy and many memorable moments. She said that during filming there are often impromptu moments that make for fun both on camera and off.
“We rehearse and then we record two episodes per day,” she said. “They’re all scripted but there are instances where we instil little moments of our own – a lot of the time from our own mistakes!
“Once I was creating a wombat puzzle. It only consisted of four pieces and for the life of me I could not construct it. The crew found it hilarious and let it keep going until I finally got it. Kids love it when we are a bit of a goose. They love to see our personalities.”
A Rough Road To Christian Faith
Karen’s Christian journey began during her childhood, and while she gained a strong understanding of Jesus and the gospel as a teenager, it took her some years to take her faith seriously.
“I found it very hard to feel close to God as I felt I wasn’t worthy to be loved,” she said. “I led a very two-faced kind of life. I was a very rebellious adolescent involved in lots of drinking and partying on the weekends. Then on Sundays I would attend church to try and purge my sins, so to speak.
It was at a conference in 1998 led by renowned Anglican Church speaker Phillip Jensen, where Karen had her great epiphany.
“He was talking about the impact of Jesus and just how great the cost was,” she said. “It was a physical, spiritual and emotional moment that God really laid upon me. However this is where the challenge started as God began his work. There was a lot of necessary healing.
“In my childhood I had endured trauma and there was a lot of cleaning out to do. I had to work out how he fitted into all that. So, it has been a continuous process. But he has constantly followed me regardless of the many occasions I’ve pushed him away.
“I knew He was the only one that could bring me through from the dark place I resided. I had to pray and say, ‘do what You will and I will go wherever You will have me go’.”
Battling With Bipolar
Karen’s faith has brought her through some very dark times, including a battle with bipolar disorder, diagnosed in 2008.
“There was a point where I was hospitalised for two months because of its severity,” she explained. “Those are the moments where you’re out of control and you have nothing to really hold on to.”
“In my opinion the manic phase is just as bad as the depressive phase. At times, you feel fantastic and you can do a million things, and I did, but there are moments when you feel this slight quiver that you’re not in control. You feel you cannot get back to reality.
“That pull right in the centre of you is really painful as you know that something is not quite right. You feel really out-of-sync and coming out of that phase was even more difficult.”
Karen said she finds that mental illness is still a bit of a taboo subject.
“Generally amongst my friends they’re great,” she said. “But, at the same time, if people see you well they assume you’re fine. It exists on the inside and is not externally recognisable.”
A mix of exercise, medication, eating well, and various emotional strategies, have helped Karen to manage her condition. And relying on God has been a great strength, too.
“You’re pretty helpless,” she said. “Nobody around you can come into that internal place so it forces you to stop. You have nowhere to hide and it makes you realise that God is great.
God’s Words Are Her Refuge
For me, the Psalms really gives me something to hold onto. The passage I always keep in mind is, ‘God you are faithful, God you are good, I will remember your good deeds and I will remember your faithful love’.”
“My life is far from perfect. I do have some very good days but I also have very bad days and I don’t get through them in a perfect kind of way. It reminds me that I have limits. Those limits draw me closer to God because they force me to seek refuge in the unchanging God, our Father and our King.”
Karen’s husband, a counsellor, is also a great support.
“He’s amazing,” she said. “I really think God has put us together as a compliment to each other. He has been the one that has often pointed me back to Jesus. He encourages me to focus on the one true light that there is. However at other times he has been the one that has found it difficult to continue walking and we have helped each other.”
- This interview was recorded and first aired on the Open House program in 2009.
- Correction to audio: Phillip Jensen is referred to in the interview recording as having been the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney; this is incorrect.
For more on Bipolar and Depression visit the Black Dog Institute.