Ted Anthony ’95 grew up immersed in Thailand.
Before he was born, his parents—linguistics professors at the University of Pittsburgh—had lived and worked there. Their home was filled with Thai artifacts, so for Anthony, moving to Bangkok in 2014 as the Associated Press’s Asia-Pacific news director felt like “coming full circle”—all the more so because his parents had gone there with his recently widowed grandmother, and he with his wife and two children.
But Anthony—who was at University Park this week to receive an outstanding alumni award from the Department of History—landed in Bangkok at a tumultuous time. A mere three days after he took up his position, he told students in a history class on Tuesday, the Thai army staged a military coup against the government, suspending the constitution and imposing martial law. Naturally, the events left Anthony no time to indulge in the nostalgia of his family’s connection to Thailand.
If Christian Thompson ’15 seems taken with his role of portraying Benny, the landlord and de facto bad guy in the musical “Rent,” that could be because he’s been preparing for it since he was a senior at Penn State. That’s where School of Musical Theatre musical director Beth Burrier encountered him and felt he fit the role perfectly.
“She said, ‘You’re the most Benny-est Benny I’ve ever seen and one day you’re going to play this so you should know the solo,’” Thompson recalled. “And so she taught it to me and who would think that two years later I’d be coming back to Penn State playing that role.”
But Thompson won’t have much time to reminisce once he gets to Dear Old State. “Rent,” the late Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking musical that debuted 20 years ago and has been revived for a multi-city U.S. tour, comes to Eisenhower Auditorium for one night only on Thursday, April 6. Thompson and company might not even have time to tour the Creamery—“We may just have to walk by it and be like, ‘That’s it. It’s really good. If you’re not too cold, make it happen.’”—before heading out for three nights of performances in Providence, R.I., starting April 7.
“Rent” chronicles the lives of starving artists in their close-knit community in New York’s East Village bound by a collective energy they summon daily in their struggle to make ends meet, all while dealing with the hardships brought about by discrimination, AIDS and—most visibly—a demanding landlord.
Thompson plays that landlord, Benjamin Coffin III, trying to collect the rent from his one-time friends—filmmaker Mark and AIDS-stricken musician Roger—who haven’t kept up with him financially and are now living in one of Benny’s East Village buildings, facing eviction.
When we caught up with Thompson by phone, it was a few hours before the show opened a six-night run in downtown Detroit’s historic Fisher Theater last month. As he prepared to partake in one of his favorite activities—exploring a new city for some good local coffee—he reflected on what it’s like to play the bad guy, taking on the added role of being the understudy for Roger, the importance of diversity in the arts, and his near-miss at landing a role in another landmark musical, “Hamilton.”
Diane Ackerman, award-winning poet, essayist, and author, draws on the many wonders of the natural world to inspire her work. The movie version of her book, The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Golden Globe-winning actress Jessica Chastain, hits theaters today (you can watch the trailer at the top of this post).
The book recounts the story of Jan Zabinski, director of the Warsaw zoo in 1939, and his wife Antonina, who during the Nazi occupation of Poland, tirelessly worked with the Polish resistance to hide hundreds of Jewish people, and zoo animals, in their villa. The Zabinskis helped many Jews escape to safety and saved numerous animals.
We chatted with Ackerman ’70 via email. Here’s what she has to say about The Zookeeper’s Wife, about her work and about the power of nature:
It is extremely difficult for western journalists, American journalists in particular, to enter The Islamic Republic of Iran. But Laura Secor, journalist and author of Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran (Riverhead Books, 2016), was fortunate enough to be able to visit the country on several occasions between 2005 and 2012, and to gain unique insight into the hearts and minds of Iranians struggling against a harsh and repressive regime in their quest for a national and cultural identity.
Secor—daughter of retired Penn State English professors Bob and Marie Secor—spoke at a Penn State Forum luncheon on Friday. She’s written widely on Iran for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs, among others. Her book encapsulates the shifting political and intellectual tumult in Iran, and the ebbs and flows of dissent that have ensued since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
She was drawn to Iran, she says, “because as a journalist I loved the idea of going into something forbidden. And when I was growing up, Iran was so off-limits, it was so demonized.”
The time Secor spent in Iran brought her close to a wide array of dissenters: Philosophers. Bloggers. Student activists. Feminists. Intrepid journalists. She also got to know key Iranian dissenters living in exile in other countries and got their stories.
“I was blown away by the level of civic engagement and civic courage I encountered in Iran,” she told me after the luncheon. “By my second visit, I was completely engulfed by people I got close to, by their stories, and I admired the bravery, grace, and dignity with which they operated.”
Needless to say, the Iranian government kept strict tabs on Secor’s comings and goings (the people she interviewed were closely followed, too), and in 2012, she was detained and questioned by the authorities, asked to prove that she was indeed a journalist and not a spy.
She was released—but since then, Secor has been denied a visa to Iran and has not been able to return to the country.
Which saddens her greatly, she says, even as she plans to move onto covering other parts of the world.
Savita Iyer, senior editor
Gary Eberle’s name had been floating around the Penn Stater office for years before we finally got around to writing about him. We knew that Eberle ’67 was a former Nittany Lion football player who had gone on to become a successful California winemaker, and we’d occasionally talk about whether he might make a good feature for the magazine. But for all sorts of reasons, we never got around to it.
If you’ve seen our March/April issue, you know we finally got around to it. What changed: A little more than three years ago, Eberle was blindsided by what amounted to a hostile takeover of his namesake winery. It took 18 frustrating months before he and his wife, Marcy, finally reclaimed their business—an incredibly difficult experience for them that also made them a much more compelling story for us.
We’re glad to report it has a happy ending: Back under Gary and Marcy’s leadership, Eberle Winery is thriving. You can read about it here.
Ryan Jones, deputy editor
When you talk to Ben and Zach Lieb, one word pops up more than anything: We.
Ask them what happens when they play tennis against each other. You’ll get an answer that anyone with siblings can relate to.
“We fight,” Ben said.
Almost immediately after Ben finished his sentence, Zach chimed in: “We always, whenever we play any sport, we always somehow get into an argument.”
The sophomore twin brothers from Newtown Square, Pa.—featured in our March/April issue—are really good at this. Sometimes, one will start a sentence, the other will jump in and continue the thought, and the one who kicked things off will interject one last time to finish what the two of them said.
As you can guess, the pair have a bond that is impossible to replicate. This goes beyond tennis: In addition to playing on the same team, they live together and are both business majors (Ben is majoring in supply chain management, Zach plans on majoring in finance). Even the decision to attend Penn State stemmed from the fact that the two wanted to be together. Ask them if they planned on attending the same university, and “we” pops up immediately.
“We were always a package deal,” Ben said. “We’re so used to being together, we live with each other, here and at home, obviously. We always wanted to go to school together.”
Schools like Louisville, Richmond, Boston, and Penn all tried to acquire the services of the Liebs. Eventually, the desire to play a Division I sport, get a degree from the Smeal College of Business, and represent their state school meant Penn State checked all the boxes.
It helped that they were given the opportunity to come to Happy Valley as a package deal. It’s not a huge surprise—according to tennisrecruiting.net, both were five-star recruits after wildly successful high school careers at The Haverford School. Over the Liebs’ four years at the school, Haverford accrued an absurd 94-1-1 record.
“We won a few league titles in a row,” Ben recalled. “Then we got to our senior year, we got invited to play at the National High School All-American tournament in California where we finished sixth, we were on the all-tournament team there.”
“It’s team oriented, but it’s singles and doubles, so you play six singles and three doubles,” Zach continued. “We could play both, same as college. Ben and I were selected as All-Tournament team, I think there were 10 of us…”
“And then eventually All-Americans after that,” Ben interjected.
“High school All-Americans,” Zach quickly clarified.
Thanks to their chemistry, success, and time they’ve spent playing with one another—they first picked up rackets when they were around 4 and played in their first tournaments before they turned 10—the pair know each other on the court better than anyone. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that Zach “hates” playing Ben, because “we’ve played so many times it’s boring.”
Still, they rely on each other. Despite being different players—the hallmark of Ben’s game is consistency, while Zach’s style of play is based around power—they would always make it a point to prepare and warm up with one another growing up while attending tournaments. This has helped them on the court in a few ways. Getting coaching from someone who knows their game so well is a benefit, but being teammates with your brother also forces you to step up your level of competition on and off the court.
“You don’t wanna be left behind,” Zach said. “If I see Ben doing well in school or tennis, I’m gonna try and catch up.”
After their freshman years, Zach admitted he had a little bit of catching up to do—he accrued a 5-4 singles record and a 6-5 doubles mark as a freshman (Ben went 20-10 in singles and 9-3 in doubles). While Ben thought the two adjusted pretty easily, Zach disagreed, at least when it came to tennis.
“I didn’t really play as well as I wanted to last year, but I’ve been playing a lot better this year,” Zach said. “Our courts are really fast … It’s all power tennis—big serves, big forehand, points are really fast, just not something I was used to coming in. I think I’ve caught on now.”
Ben, on the other hand, wasn’t as high on how he played in the fall, admitting to losing some matches he thought he should have won. Two things he wanted to focus on heading into the spring were his mental toughness and consistency over the course of an entire match.
They’re different off the court, too.
“We’re different, but we like to do the same things,” Ben said. “Growing up, we were always active, we weren’t huge into video games…”
“…I think people would say you’re more serious than I am,” Zach interjected. “I have kind of a goofy personality. I might have read a little bit more. I’m a bit smarter, that’s why.”
“I don’t know about that,” Ben quickly replied.
Like Ben said—they’re brothers. They fight.
Bill DiFilippo, online editor