Author Archive

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

When we met Mike Karns ’11 for our Sep./Oct. 2015 feature on alums making their way on Broadway, his digital startup Marathon Live Entertainment was handling social media for small, off-Broadway clients, a few real estate agents, and was in the infancy of its current stint with a show that had just started its run on Broadway, Hamilton. And just as the “ten dollar founding father’s” star has risen, so has Karns’ profile.

Today, he oversees a digital and social media empire for the Broadway phenomenon, which still plays to packed houses in New York City and has spawned a national tour. With tickets still in high demand, merchandising for the show has grown to include a mixtape, an instrumental soundtrack, and now a smartphone app—launched Aug. 11 by Karns’ company—that recently surpassed 750,000 downloads.

His social media efforts have attracted more than two million followers. In addition to Hamilton, Marathon Live handles the digital marketing for a number of other Broadway and off-Broadway productions, and he himself has become a Tony-nominated producer, after having latched on as a co-producer with Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, a Broadway musical that has featured, among others, Josh Groban and Ingrid Michaelson. Away from Broadway, he’s president of the School of Theatre Alumni Program Group and a recipient of the 2017 Alumni Achievement Award.

Not bad for a guy whose claim to fame before A. Ham was having handled social media for a show called 50 Shades! The Musical, which Karns says “is laughable, now, to look back on.” The turning point? A meeting, set up through a mutual friend, with Jeffery Seller, the Tony Award-winning producer of Hamilton.

“I happened to meet him at a time when he was really interested in finding someone new to run all of his social and digital efforts, so it was sort of serendipitous,” Karns said when we caught up with him by phone recently. “I picked his brain about producing” while also mentioning his social media work with 50 Shades!

Before long, he was on board as Sellers’ social media guy. A few months later, in February 2015, Hamilton premiered at New York’s Public Theater and Karns’ profile took off from there. He shudders to think of where he might be without Hamilton.

“I have no clue, to be honest with you,” Karns says. “I never anticipated starting a business. I never anticipated being in the social media space. I wasn’t even looking for jobs in social media when I met [Seller], and the opportunity sort of presented itself and it’s taken me on quite an unexpected trajectory.”

He still has a goal of producing his own Broadway show, and toward that end he’s taken on jobs with that type of project in mind. Connections he’s made through his work on Hamilton led to his involvement with Great Comet.

“In addition to coming on and running social media, I also came on as a co-producer,” he says. “I helped with fundraising for that show and was involved from a producing level as well, which was a really good learning experience. I was really able to learn and see both sides of it.”

At the moment, he’s in the process of developing a winter concert in New York that hopefully will tour nationwide. And, of course, he’s looking for his next Broadway project. How long Hamilton lasts is anyone’s guess, but Karns couldn’t be happier with his role in its legacy.

“The thing that’s most exciting to me is that one of the determining factors of the brand’s longevity is its digital and social presence,” Karns says. “I feel like I am fortunate enough to be able to really play a key role in helping to lay the groundwork for people to continue to be interested in it.”

And so what ends first, the show itself, or Karns’ time with the production before deciding to move on to other projects?

“I’ll never leave Hamilton, man,” Karns says. “I’m gonna ride this thing until I can’t anymore. I think that Hamilton is going to be an enduring brand for a long time. Watching as the company starts to think not only about what we need to do to sustain the brand now, but also what we’re doing to maintain the brand in 10 years is a really fascinating thing, and I continue to have new opportunities to learn and be a part of that.”

B.J. Reyes, associate editor

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September 5, 2017 at 1:46 pm Leave a comment

Inside Our September/October 2017 Issue

Since she was young, Zena Cardman has wanted to explore—to become a novelist, to venture out into the great outdoors. A high school interest in science led her down the path of more intellectual exploration. As an undergrad at North Carolina—where she earned a biology degree and minored in marine sciences, creative writing, and chemistry, with an honors thesis in poetry to boot—something clicked, and she realized science wasn’t just in the lab, but also out in the field. Research has taken her from the Gulf of Mexico to British Columbia, Antarctica, and now, Penn State, where she’s a Ph.D. candidate.

Next stop: outer space. As a member of NASA’s 2017 astronaut class, Cardman will train for missions beyond our own atmosphere and perhaps even into those of other planets, namely Mars. Meet Penn State’s newest astronaut—she would become the fifth alum to hold such a distinction—in our Sept./Oct. 2017 issue, which should begin arriving in mailboxes this week.

The new issue also includes an interview with Ben Locke,  director of Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). “Coping Skills & Growing Pains” explains how the campus counseling center is helping today’s college students navigate anxieties and pressures unlike those of previous generations. And: How did a Penn Stater and OB/GYN by training step in to deliver a baby gorilla? Read her story in “It’s a Boy!”

Plus, learn about the former Golden Gloves winner and Penn State’s only professional boxing champion; go beyond the bleachers and into the structure and history of Penn State football’s iconic home with a crash course on Beaver Stadium; and see how this year’s senior class is looking to break tradition with three separate gifts.

What do you think about the new issue? Let us know by commenting below or emailing us at heypennstater@psu.edu.

B.J. Reyes, associate editor

August 23, 2017 at 7:04 pm Leave a comment

Nittany Lions in the Great War

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Our July/August 2017 issue has a short piece on the Penn State All-Sports Museum’s current exhibit on university athletes who fought in World War I. “Field to Front: Nittany Lions at War, 1917–1919” is a fascinating exhibit of mementos, photos, letters, cards, pins, flags, and other assorted memorabilia from the approximately 210 students who served in the Great War. Of those 210 young men, roughly 75 to 80 were sent overseas, and eight died.

The project was spearheaded by museum director Ken Hickman ’98, who spent the last year and a half researching and collecting the pieces for the exhibit, located in the temporary exhibition space. Hickman’s research process started with a book, Penn State in the World War, which was compiled after the conflict.

The book’s authors surveyed alumni and faculty in the years after the war to put together a collection of bios on all Penn Staters who served. For this project, Hickman and a small staff compiled a list of athletes and proceeded to work backward, tracing their genealogy forward to current living relatives. It was then a process of sending out surveys, contacting people, and trying to flesh out what information they could and couldn’t trust.

The result? “We did much better than I expected,” says Hickman. (more…)

July 12, 2017 at 10:59 am Leave a comment

Inside Our July/August 2017 Issue

When Harry Swimmer ’51 started a therapeutic horse riding program for special needs children at his North Carolina farm 23 years ago, the staff consisted of, essentially, just him and his horses. There was one rider, a 7-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. He didn’t charge a dime. Today, there are some 200 volunteers, 69 riders, and 26 horses on Swimmer’s 83-acre Misty Meadows farm. And to this day, he has never charged any money for the services.

That altruistic approach to service earned him recognition as one of CNN’s Heroes in a ceremony last year, and landed him on the cover this month’s issue of The Penn Stater, arriving in mailboxes soon. In “A Farm Full of Hope,” we visit Misty Meadows to see how Swimmer has kept up with the needs of the kids and the community, as well as his reaction to the CNN tribute.

The new issue also gives you a look into how last year’s Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl berth turned many skeptics into believers of James Franklin and his approach to building the football program, in a profile called “Unite and Conquer.” Additionally, we talk to retiring American Studies professor Simon Bronner, whose office is filled with items from the cultures and communities he has studied in “A Folklorist at Work.”

Plus we’ll tell you what the $30 million gift from Hollywood producer Donald P. Bellisario ’51 means for the College of Communications, take you inside a class that looks at the stereotypes of “good” vs. “bad” moms in literature, and look back at a historic Big Ten championship for men’s track and field.

What do you think about the new issue? Let us know by commenting below or emailing us at heypennstater@psu.edu.

B.J. Reyes, associate editor

June 26, 2017 at 4:54 pm 1 comment

Inside Our May/June 2017 Issue

A look back at some of the musical acts to make their way through Happy Valley, starting on the cover with Jon Bon Jovi.

If you’re feeling nostalgic, our May/June issue will help you relive some of the more memorable and iconic musical acts to play the Bryce Jordan Center since its opening in 1996. Starting with Jon Bon Jovi on the cover, longtime BJC marketing director Bernie Punt ’84 takes us backstage to talk about what it took to land Paul McCartney, the parenting skills of Gene Simmons, and what makes Garth Brooks a favorite among BJC staff, among other behind-the-scenes stories. The retrospective begins on p. 44.

The new issue, arriving in mailboxes soon, also tells how Dr. J. Richard Ward ’66, a civilian chemist, befriended a Russian defector in the waning days of the Cold War and unwittingly became a secret operative for the CIA. The tale of “The Accidental Spy” begins on p. 38.

You’ll also get a look at how Penn State experts are helping the Central American nation of Colombia move away from the cocaine trade by instead growing the key ingredient in chocolate (p. 30). You’ll meet Rob Turrisi, a professor whose research has shown that short, targeted conversations with teenagers can have a substantial impact on reducing high-risk behaviors like tanning and binge drinking (p. 52). Plus a look back at memorable seasons for Penn State wrestling (again) and men’s ice hockey.

What do you think about the new issue? Let us know by commenting below or emailing us at heypennstater@psu.edu.

B.J. Reyes, associate editor

April 26, 2017 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment

Being Benny

What You Own: (L to R) Danny Harris Kornfeld, Christian Thompson, Kaleb Wells
RENT 20th Anniversary Tour, Credit Carol Rosegg, 2016.

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.”

(more…)

April 4, 2017 at 10:54 am 1 comment

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