Philadelphia native Lenny Leibowitz joined the University of Southern Indiana theater faculty last summer, after building an impressive list of directing credits. They include productions in off-Broadway venues in New York City (including the Rockefeller Center) and in some of the nation’s leading regional theaters, including the Tony Award-winning Intiman Theatre in Seattle. There, he co-wrote and directed Before the Rain, a new gospel musical inspired by Stephen Vincent Benet’s classic short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”
Before he turned to theater, Leibowitz was a musical prodigy, making his solo debut as a pianist with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of 16. A graduate of Columbia University and Boston University, he also worked as a music director on the first European tours of On the Town and Grease. In June, Leibowitz will make his debut as artistic director of the New Harmony Theatre, described by Leibowitz as a cultural landmark and a regional treasure. The season’s lineup so far includes Amadeus, which carries an “adult language” warning on the theater’s Web site; Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; and the Broadway classic romantic romp I Do, I Do!.
What do you miss most and least about living on the East Coast?
The most: old and dear friends, Philly cheese steaks, and spectacular New England autumns. Although I must say, the magnificent tree-scape in my Downtown Evansville neighborhood absolutely bristled with ardent colors this fall. The least: the city traffic. Oy vey!
How old were you when you discovered you loved theater?
Pretty young. I opened up my dad’s tattered old anthology of Shakespeare plays and read some passages from The Merchant of Venice. I may not have understood it on a literal level, but I responded on an emotional one. The power and beauty of the language — its rhythm and melody — haunted me and continues to haunt me.
What was your first acting experience?
I believe my first play experience was my third grade holiday show in which I was actually enlisted to play a part. I played Sam Swift, a fast-talking salesman trying to persuade Santa to upgrade to a spiffier, speedier sleigh that came equipped with all the latest technological amenities. Suffice it to say, the walls are not still ringing with ovations.
What is your source of inspiration?
This is a hard one because I draw inspiration from so many sources: from my actors, from my students, from a spontaneous act of kindness that I witness, from a brilliant mistake that someone makes in rehearsal, from perfectly fluffy mashed potatoes. And from my cultural heroes, of course: Shakespeare, Beethoven, Jan van Eyck, Arthur Rubinstein, Max Ophuls, Pauline Kael, Camille Paglia. I think the key for me is to pay attention and remain open — to search for inspiration outside of myself.
What do you do when your creative well runs dry?
What was it about the New Harmony Theatre position that enticed you?
The opportunity to lead one of the nation’s landmark regional theaters into a new era of growth, the graciousness of the community, the rich history and bewitching serenity of New Harmony, Southern Indiana’s cultural vitality, Evansville’s magnificent old Downtown homes, and of course, the opportunity to be a part of USI’s theater department, one of the fastest growing and most creatively fertile in the region.
If you weren’t a theater director, what would you be doing?
Playing third base for the Phillies. Well, I can dream.
Finish this sentence: When I am not working, you can find me…
At the movies. Especially if there’s a revival of an old Hollywood film noir — something with Barbara Stanwyck or Gene Tierney.
Is there something special that you make sure to add to every play you direct?
I try to bring an unabashed, full-blooded sense of theatricality to each production. I’m drawn to theater’s elemental storytelling power — its ability to invoke ritual, myth, and the transformative power of the imagination. It’s important to me that theater feels different than television. Only theater can truly engage the audience as witnesses rather than passive spectators. That almost congregational energy excites me.