Energetic is a word often paired with Otterbein University theater director Lenny Leibowitz.

Energetic is a word often paired with Otterbein University theater director Lenny Leibowitz.

After 10 years in New York City raising money and directing shows, Leibowitz brought his verve to Westerville, where he finally has a little time to relax.

The move hasn't been too big an adjustment. He misses the variety of restaurants found in each block of New York, but has been pleased with the Westerville food scene so far. He certainly doesn't miss the exorbitant rent rates and enjoys having time to reach his goal of seeing eight movies each week.

"I love living in Westerville," he says. "The food is really good. I have to be careful. I'm not walking all the time so I have to think thin."

So far, Otterbein likewise is loving Leibowitz, who quickly rose to the top of 65 applicants for the theater director position. Otterbein Department of Theatre and Dance Chairman John Stefano employs words such as "brilliant" and "amazing" when discussing him, and calls Leibowitz's spring production of Into the Woods among the most beautiful productions done on the Fritsche Stage.

Leibowitz started at Otterbein in August 2014 after a year-long national search to replace Ed Vaughan, who retired in spring 2013. In addition to directing, he teaches senior showcase, musical theater studio courses, American musical theater history, and acting, voice, speech and movement.

"He's been a terrific fit," Stefano says. "We sensed it from the paperwork, but as soon as we interviewed him on Skype we thought he was perfect. He's one of three new people we've brought on faculty this year in the department. It's like a whole new workplace."

A Philadelphia native, Leibowitz received his bachelor's degree from Columbia University in 1994 and his master of fine arts from Boston University in 2006. The 45-year-old discovered his love of theater in college and did some acting before moving on to directing, where he feels much more comfortable.

He recalls his first acting role, playing the part of the jester Trinculo in The Tempest, and says any laughs he got were probably not the kind he wanted. "The world is a much better place with me in small parts," he says.

Leibowitz spent time teaching at Boston University and Southern Indiana University before taking on artistic director duties and starting Marvell Repertory Theatre in 2010 in New York, where he's lived for the past decade. Marvell bills itself as New York's only off-Broadway company devoted exclusively to producing new and enduring works in rotating repertory.

"Being an artistic director is very exhausting," he says. "So much of the life is devoted to fundraising, and that grind was quite exhausting and I was longing to return to the classroom where I could focus on the art of theater. That combined with Otterbein felt like serendipity to me.

"One of the challenges was adjusting to the model and pace of the academic model," Leibowitz says. "As exhausting as the constant hustle was of raising $400,000 and renting out six rooms and being responsible for that and producing shows off-Broadway, that kind of hustle is not only exhausting but very, very fulfilling. Adjusting to a more focused model has been a challenge for somebody who has been on the run-like marathon for a decade."

But Leibowitz has found living in Westerville has its advantages. Along with affordable housing, teaching at Otterbein has allowed him to enjoy some time alone, an activity rarely found in New York.

"Another thing is you can afford, quite literally, to take time to think or treat yourself to a little bit of R and R, to do laundry in your own apartment," he says. "It sounds like a small creature comfort, but it adds up to quality of life."

Classroom Collaboration

Some of the things Leibowitz loves about New York can be found in Westerville. In such a big city where people are struggling, Leibowitz says everyone is on their toes and trying to be their best every day. "Complacency exists everywhere, but you find it least where people are always struggling to make ends meet and be the very finest artists of themselves at all times," he says.

He found people striving to be their best here, too. "That quality is what I love about Otterbein students and staff," he says.

Even before taking his latest job, Leibowitz worked with Otterbein graduates on shows in New York and found them to be adventurous and uninhibited on the stage. Working with such actors allows productions that are collaborative and creative, he says.

Rather than treating his young actors as students, Leibowitz seeks to treat them the same way he treats Broadway veterans. He tells students there's no reason their production can't compare to one on the Great White Way.

"He's so willing to be open and collaborate," says Otterbein senior Erin Ulman, a musical theater major. "He put me at ease and helped me be more imaginative. It wasn't just somebody telling me where I need to stand on stage and move. It felt very natural and collaborative. He put so much trust in us. He made an environment of collaboration and excitement in the room, and because of that everyone is pushed to a new level they didn't know they could reach."

Actress Erin Stewart, who worked with Leibowitz on Guys and Dolls at New Harmony Theater in Indiana, recalls a similar experience. "He puts you at ease and makes you feel so relaxed and makes a talent of bringing out the best in you," she says. "It's a very organic process, the way he works."

Along with Leibowitz's skill as a director, he has a reputation as a gifted pianist and played with the Philadelphia Symphony as a child. He's also a font of pop culture knowledge. Ulman says Leibowitz amazed students in the classroom with his extensive knowledge of movies, songs and books, even rapping a song one day.

"It's all kind of just here," Stefano says of Leibowitz's pop culture prowess. "There isn't any ego about it. He's not showing off. He tries to use it to get kids interested."

"He's definitely a walking encyclopedia," Stewart says. "Even beyond all that technical information, as a human being, he has a wonderful spirit and is a really awesome person."

Considering Leibowitz's energy and knowledge, Stefano likens him to Yoda from Star Wars, and means it as a compliment. He talks about how Leibowitz supported himself in college by working as an accompanist. He's also seen the way the director is with Otterbein's budding actors: supportive but not afraid to offer advice.

"In Jewish parlance, he's a mensch," Stefano says. "If there was a musical, it would be Lenny with an exclamation point. Like Mame! or Oklahoma!"

Jennifer Noblit is a reporter for ThisWeek Community News.

This story appears in the Summer 2015 issue of Westerville365.