Over the years, Wendy Lehr has made numerous and significant contributions to the Twin Cities theatre community. Not only has she acted, directed and danced on stages throughout the area, but she has also taught the next generation of theatre professionals. She is the founding artistic director of the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts.
As a member of the Twin Cities theatre community, Wendy Lehr has received numerous accolades including the 2010 IVEY Award for Lifetime Achievement, the 2010 Sally Irvine Award for commitment to the arts and the 2013 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award.
Currently, staring as Frau Schmidt in the Ordway Center’s for the Performing Arts’ production of The Sound of Music, Wendy Lehr sat down with me to discuss the show, her career and how she same to have a life in the theatre.
The Sound of Music is currently playing in Saint Paul at the Ordway through January 2. For more information on the show or to purchase tickets, visit the Ordway’s website.
How did you first become interested in theatre?
When I was five, I was taken to the ballet and was so enchanted by the beauty and magic of it that I knew I wanted to be a performer and inhabit those “other” worlds. When I walked into the theater in high school, it was a classic “smell the greasepaint” story.
Every performer has that moment where it just “clicks” and they know performing is what they want to do for a living. What was that moment for you?
Perhaps it was what I call my first acting lesson which made me think “Oh, I got this.” I was holding the book (prompting) for a very good actress in high school. One day she wasn’t available and I walked her role in rehearsal, imitating her performance. I had a big revelation: “It’s conversation not recitation.” That swung open a big door for me. I’ve been in the theater ever since.
You play Frau Schmidt, how would you describe your character?
The Sound of Music (SOM) is based on real people. In my research the Von Trapp “housekeeper” was a baroness herself. I don’t know her whole story, but I imagine that she is widowed and finds herself in need of employment. She probably has known the family for years. The script (in an effort to provide some exposition) suggests through Frau Schmidt that the household was much happier when the last Baroness Von Trapp was alive. Frau Schmitt has a great loyalty to the family, but regrets the changes that the Captain has made. She is eventually charmed–as is everyone–by Maria. You also see her fierceness when confronted by the Nazis.
The Sound of Music is a favorite for many, what do you hope the audience takes away from this production?
Although SOM is a somewhat fictionalized account, much of it is absolutely true. I hope the audience is engaged and moved by the transformation of these real life characters and the faith and courage they have as real life dangers threaten them. I know for many, the historical realities of the play are difficult, but through the Von Trapp family we can overcome the fear. When much of the audience joins in singing “Edelweiss” toward the end of the play it is a wonderful moment of audience joining cast in such a heartfelt support of the moment. I can hardly wait to sing with the rest of the cast who also join in backstage.
You’ve had a long and distinguished career as an actor, dancer, director and teacher. What keeps you energized, engaged and inspires you to continue making theatre?
Every project opens new worlds to me. The theater is an education in history, psychology, literature, art, music, anthropology–you name it! It engages your imagination, cultivates your empty and encourages your humanity. As I get older the roles change and that’s a fascinating journey. I am privileged to work with other artists who nourish me and share their artistry. One of my dressing room mates said the other day, “I was at the audition and was the oldest woman in the room.” I said to her, “Tell me about it!” But I embrace it. For one thing, people are always getting you a chair in the rehearsal hall.
If you could offer any advice to someone trying to begin their career as an actor, dancer or director what would that be?
Get to work. Don’t get too judgmental about it, but be discerning. Don’t put up barriers between you and learning. That is my definition of humility. Don’t let your dreams and ambitions keep you from being present and fully engaged in the work at hand. Do know that it is possible! Be courageous.
Is there anything you wish you knew about a career in theatre before you embarked down this path?
I wonder what that would be? I will say performing is hard on your knees. Take care of yourself!