Buzz Podewell, a prolific man of the theater, who directed productions ranging from children's stories to William Shakespeare's plays, died Friday of lung cancer at his New Orleans home. He was 69.
A member of the theater faculty at Tulane University for nearly 40 years, Dr. Podewell was a co-founder and former artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane. He also had served as the associate artistic director of the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, and was the longtime director of Tulane Center Stage, the theater department's former summer-stock company.
He was such a popular teacher that his classes on Shakespeare, theater history and directing filled quickly.
He wrote "Shakespeare's Watch," a handbook that breaks down each play in the canon, scene by scene, and establishes its time and location.
In his career, Dr. Podewell directed about 200 plays, both at the university and on professional stages, ranging from Shakespeare to Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov and Edward Albee.
Generally favoring classical works of the theater, Dr. Podewell was known to plumb the depths of drama while also leaving room for elements of whimsy.
Former Times-Picayune theater critic David Cuthbert noted that ability from the day Dr. Podewell arrived at Tulane, describing his debut show, a 1974 production of Ibsen's "Peer Gynt," as "frolicsome." Dr. Podewell, an accomplished jazz musician who routinely played in the French Quarter, accompanied the show on banjo.
While classic dramas and comedies were his forte, Dr. Podewell also collaborated frequently on new works. Playwright Jim Fitzmorris was a longtime colleague at Tulane, as well as artistic partner. Dr. Podewell directed a series of his plays examining the culture of politics in Louisiana and New Orleans, as well as other Fitzmorris works.
"He was a storyteller who never forgot it was called a play for a reason," Fitzmorris said. "The energy he fostered around him was joyful, rambunctious, and incisive. No one in the city of New Orleans made rehearsals as much fun."
His real name was Bruce, but no one ever used it – or, probably, even knew it.
His nickname was bestowed upon him by his younger sisters, Penny and Polly, because they couldn't pronounce Bruce when they were young, said Dr. Podewell's wife, the musician and singer Banu Gibson.
He was born in 1943 in Evanston, Ill., a Chicago suburb, and attended Emerson College in Boston, where he was a classmate of Henry Winkler. He earned his doctorate in theater from New York University and came to New Orleans in 1973, to begin teaching at Tulane.
Long a promoter of children's theater, Dr. Podewell began his life in entertainment as a child actor himself. As a boy, he appeared in the "Mr. Wizard" television series.
A few years later, he played a teenager named Buzz in a short promotional film, "Mr. B Natural." He played a shy boy sitting alone in his room. A leotard-clad woman appears, identifying herself as Mr. B Natural and telling him that if he discovers the joy of music and learns to play an instrument, he'll never be lonely. The blatantly commercial film for a musical-instrument company became a cult classic in more recent years when it was rediscovered and aired on the camp TV series, "Mystery Science Theater 3000."
Dr. Podewell's own musical instrument, his beloved banjo, would often find its way into the many children's productions he presented as founder of the Patchwork Players, for which he wrote the stories and songs. The improvisational theater troupe has entertained audiences for nearly 30 years, with Dr. Podewell's retellings of such stories as "Rumpelstiltskin," "Aladdin," "Pecos Bill," "Cinderella," and "The Emperor's New Clothes." His daughter, Jessica Podewell, continues her father's tradition today as the troupe's artistic director.
Aimee Hayes, the artistic director of Southern Rep, joined Patchwork Players for a season when Dr. Podewell was on a sabbatical. But she recalled working with him later through a postgraduate directing class.
"Buzz's work that I had experienced over the years had inspired and challenged me," Hayes said. "At the end of the semester, he said, 'You remind me of me when I was your age.' It was the ultimate moment for me. I still think I direct with part of my head wondering what Buzz would say."
Hayes later assisted him in directing a production of "Julius Caesar" at the annual Shakespeare Festival.
"That may stand as my favorite theatrical experience ever," Hayes said. "It was sensational, heady, visceral theater. I remember how we all watched and listened to Buzz with total focus and adoration. With Buzz, you never really were afraid of getting there. He always knew the way."
Cuthbert also noted the effect of the director's fervent commitment.
"From start to finish, whatever Buzz would direct with students, he was on the stage with those kids, in his direction and enthusiasm, both for theater and what they were achieving as actors," he said.
Dr. Podewell's final appearance as director at Tulane was the 2010 production of "Love's Labour's Lost," making it a joyful celebration of young love. It was a family event, Cuthbert said, because his daughter, Jessica, acted in it and Gibson provided music for Shakespeare's verse.
He also shared his expertise one last time, serving as dramaturge for the company's 2012 summer season, which included "Hamlet" and Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." These were joint productions with the Red Noses Theatre Company, which Dr. Podewell helped found.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Podewell is survived by a son, David Podewell, and two sisters, Penny Reid of Los Angeles and Polly Podewell of Pasadena, Calif.
"By Theodore P. Mahne, NOLA.com
| The Times-Picayune The Times-Picayune
on March 29, 2013 at 11:20 AM, updated March 29, 2013 at 12:35 PM "