Twenty Years of Making Merry

May 4, 2004

Nick Marinello
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Buzz Podewell has good timing. Pitch him a softball question such as, "Has your 20-year involvement in the Patchwork Players been an important part of your career?" and he'll deadpan, "No, not really" without missing a beat.

podewellHe's not serious, of course, but he's not about to pass on a punchline, either. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Patchwork Players, a Tulane institution dedicated to promoting giggles, guffaws and squeals from children.

For two decades, Podewell has led a seldom-changing, ever-aging troupe of actors who stage two children's productions every summer.
Podewell is the group's founder, art director and playwright. His tightly scripted musical productions, based on classic stories such as Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Pecos Bill and Cinderella provide a kind of interactive theatrical experience that kids find irresistible.

"There is a formula for kids' theater that we are not alone in using," he says. "Every five minutes you write in an excuse to get the kids on stage."

The loose, improvisational anarchy that occurs in every production is inspired by the children. "It really comes from having no idea of what they are going to do and having to deal with it."

In the space of only a few years, Podewell wrote the eight scripts that the players now rotate through. He admits the formula has lessened the demand on the troupe.

"It's gotten to be such a routine and so many players have been around for years and years that we don't really rehearse much any more. We just do it." In the early years, when he was still writing scripts, things were more hectic. Good thing he had help.

"My children were very involved," says Podewell. "They were my technical advisers. They would be at rehearsals and I would run some stupid joke by them to get a response."

Over the years, Podewell, who began doing children's theater back in the late '60s, has learned how to play to his audience. "Kids love a good story," he says. "When Patchwork hasn't worked as well as it should it is because the story gets lost in too much fooling around. What kids want to know is what Snow White is going to do with those damn Seven Dwarfs."

Podewell, who founded the Shakespeare Festival 10 years ago and who has directed just about any Shakespeare play you can name, is currently working on the first of a series of volumes that will document the elements of time and place of each scene in the Bard's 37 plays.

"It's a practical tool for actors and directors that does a lot of backbone work for staging scenes--knowing where you are and what time it is at any given point in the play." Don't try to corner him into saying which is more important, Shakespeare or Rumplestiltskin. "There's nothing like seeing those mommies coming out smiling and having the kids run up and hug the players. You can't get much more serious than that. I am proud of it."

With any luck, the players will be around for some time to come. "Who knows how long it will go on?" says Podewell. "We're all getting so old. There will be a point when we all say, 'That's enough!' but we haven't said it yet."

This summer, Patchwork Players will stage Hansel and Gretel and Shorts, a medley of fairy tales. In August, Podewell will take on more "grownup" material when he directs Kings of Nothing, written by theater department colleague Jim Fitzmorris. And so it goes--from serious to silly and back again. Whatever. Just raise the curtain. As Shakespeare, Podewell and any actor knows, the play's the thing.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000