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Wendy Lehr and ‘the politics of getting people in the room together’

At 71, the grand dame of Twin Cities theater is in her prime — learning, teaching, listening, watching — and being amazed and humbled by it all.

Wendy Lehr: "I just feel like you don’t get to a certain point and just coast. Things keep opening up all the time."
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

“It’s wonderful to have gotten to a point where I don’t care what I look like,” said Wendy Lehr Friday morning, sitting in a booth at the French Meadow Bakery and Cafe in Minneapolis as I took her photo.

No wonder. The 71-year-old actress, long considered the grand dame of the Twin Cities theater scene, has made a career of looking like whatever part she inhabits. A founding member of the Children’s Theatre Company from 1966 to 1986 and an always active player at the Jungle Theater and other stages, Lehr was awarded the McKnight Foundation’s Distinguished Artist Award for 2013 and tonight addresses the annual meeting of the Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries in a talk she’s calling, “My Life in the Theater: I Always Said Yes!”  

Lehr gave MinnPost a preview of her presentation that encompassed her time as an actress, director, teacher, dancer, choreographer, and founding artistic director of The St. Paul Conservatory for the Arts.

MinnPost: How are you preparing for the U of M presentation?

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Wendy Lehr: It’s particularly interesting for me to do this now, as the libraries are archiving much of the creative life of Minnesota and a number of the theaters, which are near and dear to my heart. They’re not so interested in things like reviews and programs; they’re really getting a broad view of the life of these theaters and directors’ books and actors’ notes, and I think there may be a move to get oral histories. [Friends President] Judy Hornbacher, who invited me to speak, said, “We’ll clean your attic for you.” I’m looking for things that are particular to me and that might not be duplicated by other gifts.

MP: There’s been a lot of Wendy Lehr in the last couple years. You won a lifetime achievement award at the Iveys in 2010, there was the McKnight award last year, and others. It seems like you’ve never been more beloved. How does it all feel?

WL: It’s outrageous. I am just so amazed and humbled by being, as I call myself, a representative of the community. I think one of the very good things is my good friend Bain Boehlke and I are neck and neck. It’s lovely to be recognized; I’m a little embarrassed by all of it. The thing that gets me the most and the thing I love most is that I’m still getting cast in plays. My career hasn’t ended. Bain keeps thinking when we get all these awards that people are trying to tell him, “That’s enough now, time to retire.” But we’re both still working, and happily so. One of the last things I did, “Driving Miss Daisy,” I learned so much doing that play. I just feel like you don’t get to a certain point and just coast. Things keep opening up all the time.

MP: What did you learn? How can that be?

WL: It often has to do with the actors you’re working with. And one of the actors is very much an actor of the moment. And it really taught me about really listening. You know, you always say “listen.” But don’t listen for what you know is coming, listen for what you don’t know is coming. That keeps the spark of it so fresh. And it’s not that I didn’t know that lesson, but it was burnished for me in that play.

The next thing I did was “Our Town” (for Theater Latte Da), as the stage manager, which is a man’s role, written for a man, but not necessarily so. The cool thing about doing that is Thorton Wilder’s play was so groundbreaking in 1938, and some plays now are not nearly as avant-garde as that play was in its form and content.

MP: As a teacher, what would you impart to people coming up in the theater now? What do you tell people about creativity and staying in touch with that the way you have all these years?

WL: Well, I went into teaching somewhat unwillingly. In the early days of the Children’s Theatre, it was always a part of the aesthetic of the company to have young people play roles of young people [as opposed to adults playing children]. Which happily required some training of these young people. So I think it was 1968 when we started having these classes, and John Donahue, who was the head and founder of the Children’s Theatre, wanted all the actors to teach classes.

And I was always, “How do I teach? How do I teach?” I was 24, I was always begging Bain to teach my classes for me. I started teaching technique and mime and things like that, but as I continued to teach and as I became more adventurous in what I was teaching, I realized that it was a gift to me because it made me articulate my process. Not only that, but talk about what my frustrations are and what I’m trying to accomplish and what my change in tactics might be.

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It was a real eye-opener, because in those days so many of the young people were not only your students but your colleagues on stage. So you really had to be on the honest side because they were going to be up there on stage with you in front of a paying audience.

I’ve always tried to remain a student. I’m not taking any classes now, but I took a lot of classes so that I could always feel the perspective of the students. There are only so many lessons you learn, but every time you relearn you come at them with more experience and more perspective, so it enriches you. So I realized there’s only so many lessons to teach.

MP: That’s a very interesting idea — only so many lessons to be taught. There’s a limit?

WL: I don’t mean for the audience, I mean for the artist. The things that you learn that are core and necessary are presence, commitment, discipline, imagination. And a few of those other words like courage and confidence, but those are the lessons, aside from specifically, “How did Mary Twinkle hold her teacup?” You know, you don’t want to ice the cake before you bake it.

Anyway, those are the lessons I had to teach. I find it somewhat more difficult and challenging these days because cultural references have changed so much. I have to sometimes find a new vocabulary, and I don’t mean current jargon, I mean a new way of getting at something. I can’t really guide people young people too much about how to have a career, because I was so blessed to have joined the Children’s Theatre, where I had a 20-year apprenticeship, in which I learned a hell of a lot of skills and didn’t have to spend half of my time looking for a job and another third of my time being a barista and then just scrambling.

One of the reasons why I loved doing “Our Town” is because there were all these young people and I love ‘em. I love to have them over for a drink, because they don’t talk about their health. They’re so cool, because they’re all making their work. There are so many little strange fabulous invigorating companies now. I can’t even tell you what their names all are. A couple years ago I saw just a fabulous piece Savage Umbrella did. It was some weird Greek play about two brothers, and it was … in like an old bombed-out theater, and it was cold but it was great. And the gestalt of it, all of those things fit together so brilliantly.

Another piece I saw was at Red Eye, and it had some friends of mine in it — Annie Enneking, and Barbara Berlovitz, and Sara Richardson, and it was about Brecht and the three women who were prominent in his life when he went to California. It was exhilarating, and as groundbreaking as some of the early work that was done here, and that Children’s Theatre did as well. Because it wasn’t all children’s literature — there were all those adult pieces that were so wonderful. But the Minneapolis Ensemble Theater, the Palace Theater, At the Foot of the Mountain, Firehouse, all of those places were doing this really groundbreaking material, and it’s wonderful to see it all still happening.

MP: Great that you’re out and going to stuff you’re not personally involved with.

WL: I don’t go as often nearly as much as I should, because there’s always a zillion things going on. But I like to contribute my enthusiasm, and in the spirit of that, it’s going to pass it on to you, and you’re going to pass it on to somebody else.

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MP: What did the ’60s in Minneapolis implant in you? What were those halcyon days like, for someone who wasn’t there?

WL: They were so courageous. Nobody ever said … you know, the title of this talk I’m giving is “My Life in the Theater: I Always Said Yes!” Well, part of that is because in those days nobody said, “No.” John Donahue asked me one time, when he was doing one of his very surrealist plays, “Would it gag you if you had a live toad in your mouth?”

It was a time of incredible discovery. I couldn’t believe it. Going to work at the Children’s Theatre, I learned about expressionism, art, music, karate, early medieval music, ballet — you name it, it was all there. It was just expanding the vocabulary of storytelling and the vocabulary of exploration. There was so much exploration going on, and there were audiences for it. That’s one thing I’ve been researching about this community. It’s really great to remember that there’s always been theater here. The thing that’s interesting is that there always was an audience, so I think that that’s fertile ground for what has happened.

MP: Have you ruminated on that at all? For as many artists as there are, there have always been plenty of people in this area who come out and see live theater, music, art.

WL: There are many versions of theater, and many different audiences at this point, and I think it’s good for us to not to get too judgmental about things because I believe in the politics of getting people in the room together. You know, if they’re going to see “Disney Princesses on Ice,” they are in the room and they’re seeing someone who can skate their ass off. That’s a skill; you might not call it Eleonora Duse doing something, but it’s [worthwhile].

MP: I agree one hundred percent. Especially these days when we can sequester off with a book or movie or record and have all sorts of experiences alone. What do you mean by “the politics” of getting people in a room together for a performance?

WL: A lot of things.  I guess “politics” isn’t the word so much as I think it is a necessity in understanding yourself as a community. Of course, people tend to go where they’re most comfortable, and it’s nice to tease ‘em out a little bit.

MP: What’s next?

WL: On Tuesday, right after I give the talk at the library, I start rehearsing “The Heiress” at the Jungle, which is an adaptation of a Henry James novel, “Washington Square.” I’m learning lines, I like to be up front about learning lines because there’s nothing worse than carrying the script around because it truncates your physical process. I’ve been looking at paintings and photographs from that period, 1850, and ruminating. Then Bain and I are playing opposite each other in “On Golden Pond” in November. And I love to work at the Jungle because I don’t drive and I can walk to work.  

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MP: Any parting words of wisdom for those of us who have been inspired by your life work?

WL: I try to not to have expectations and not to judge them. A friend was telling me that John Guare was their graduation speaker at Columbia and he said “Beware of the itty bitty shitty committee in your head,” and I love that.