Wendy Lehr, the celebrated Twin Cities actor, director and teacher who worked at the Children’s Theatre for more than three decades, has been awarded the McKnight Foundation’s Distinguished Artist Award for 2013. The honor, which recognizes her stage work and teaching over five decades, comes with $50,000 in cash.
“I opened my mouth and not a sound came out when they told me,” said Lehr, 70. “This prestigious award threw me off center for a couple of days. The saving grace was doing a load of laundry.”
The McKnight award, now in its 13th year, has in the past gone to Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy, composer Dominick Argento, potter Warren MacKenzie and Jungle Theater founder Bain Boehlke, among others.
Boehlke and Lehr have a theatrical partnership dating to the early 1960s, when both acted for the Moppet Players, a forerunner to the Children’s Theatre. Lehr worked in numerous capacities at the CTC from 1966 to 1986, then took a break before returning for both onstage and offstage work. She was director of education there from 1990 to 1998.
Lehr was the founding artistic director of the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts, where she began its training program.
Her stage résumé is a compendium of harridans, queens and princesses. Lehr performed her goofy, eye-popping stepsister Pearl in “Cinderella” at CTC more than a dozen times. In the past few years, she played Bananas in “The House of Blue Leaves” at the Jungle and Big Edie in “Grey Gardens” at the Ordway Center, where she also brought her comic touch to the pianist in Theater Latté Da’s “The Full Monty.”
“Wendy has shaped the path of Twin Cities theater at least as much as it has helped shape her,” said McKnight president Kate Wolford.
Lehr won the Lifetime Achievement honor at the 2010 Ivey awards.
Lehr was born in Easton, Pa., to an engineer father and an arts-loving mother. When she was 7, the family moved to rural Harmony, N.J. Her mother took her to see dance in New York City, which mesmerized her.
“It was like everything I’d imagined when I was reading books had come alive onstage in front of me,” Lehr said.
The family later moved to St. Louis, where she completed high school. Lehr enrolled at Drake University and transferred to the University of Minnesota, but left to pursue theater.
In the early days of the Children’s Theatre, she ran the box office, made costumes, operated lights and did whatever else was necessary.
Lehr remains active. She’s choreographing John Fenn’s new musical, “The Geriatrical Theatical,” which opens this weekend at Plymouth Playhouse. And she will play the title character in “Driving Miss Daisy” this fall at the Jungle in the back seat of a vehicle driven by actor James Craven.
“I thought about retiring, but I’m not a laurel-rester,” she said. “I thought I was semi-retired, but I am busy now.”
“Wendy has become a renaissance woman in the theater,” said director Gary Gisselman, who has directed Lehr more than a dozen times. The two shared an office at Children’s Theatre during the early 1990s when both were associate artistic directors.
“I’ve seen her act, teach and direct, then she ran this school over in St. Paul,” said Gisselman. “Wendy does so many things and does them so well — she’s a consummate theater artist.”