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Theater artist Wendy Lehr receives 2013 Distinguished Artist Award

June 6, 2013, Minneapolis The McKnight Foundation has named Minnesota actor, director, and teacher Wendy Lehr as the 2013 McKnight Distinguished Artist, in recognition of artistic excellence spanning nearly five decades. Now in its 16th year, the annual honor includes a $50,000 cash award and recognizes individual Minnesota artists who have made significant contributions to the quality of the state’s cultural life.

In Minnesota, Lehr has appeared in numerous productions at Children’s Theatre Company (CTC), The Jungle Theater, Guthrie Theater, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, Park Square Theatre, Illusion Theater, History Theatre, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Theater Latté Da, and The Playwrights’ Center, among others. Nationally, Lehr has performed with the Arizona Theater Company, Lyric Opera Cleveland, Seaside Music Theater (Daytona Beach), and the Kansas City Repertory.

Lehr also has directed for the stage at CTC, Bloomington Civic Theatre, Park Square Theatre, the Ordway, Lyric Opera Cleveland, and Seaside Music Theater. International credits include choreographing A Little Night Music for the National Theater of Hungary, co-directing The Secret Garden (Thomas W. Olson adaptation) at Canada’s National Arts Centre English Theatre in Ottawa, and serving as movement consultant for the Stratford Festival’s Alice Through the Looking Glass in Ontario.

“With her talent, Wendy Lehr could have built a fine theater career in many locations around the country,” explains Kate Wolford, president of The McKnight Foundation. “It is our good fortune that fate brought her here 50 years ago, and that she chose to stay and share her art with generations of Minnesotans. Wendy has shaped the path of Twin Cities’ theater at least as much as it has helped shape her.”

Although Lehr’s résumé since the mid-1960s is virtually a comprehensive reflection of Twin Cities theaters, she is perhaps best known for her long affiliation with Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Lehr was a member of CTC’s adult acting company from 1966-1986, and associate artistic director and director of education from 1990-1998. As an actor, Lehr appeared in hundreds of CTC productions, and also directed and choreographed numerous shows.

Over decades, Lehr has also carved out space and time to share her craft with countless students. No surprise that — in addition to acting, directing, and choreographing — she played a role as CTC theater arts instructor. And to reach a slightly older crowd, she has also served as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Minnesota. In fact, Lehr’s love of teaching inspired her to help establish a charter high school, the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists where she was artistic director from 2005–2009 and is credited with co-developing the school’s curriculum. In 2010, the Conservatory named the Lehr Theater in downtown St. Paul in honor of its artistic director emeritus; the theater is an instructional space and a performance venue for the school and other professional arts organizations.
After graduating from Webster Groves High School in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, Lehr’s trek north began by way of Drake University in Des Moines. During her sophomore year in Iowa studying English, Theater, and Philosophy, Lehr met up with a traveling Minnesota theater group called Theater on the Road, who hired Wendy to join their troupe. The job pulled her to the University of Minnesota and to the Twin Cities, where she “fell in love with everything. People. Place. Theater. Ideas. Everything.”

By the mid-1960s, Lehr was balancing stage work for the Moppet Players in Minneapolis with summer stock performances at Bemidji’s Paul Bunyan Playhouse. Among her newfound Minnesota connections were actor/director Bain Boehlke, composer Roberta Carlson, and producer/director John Clark Donahue — all major influentials in CTC’s early days, which eventually resulted in her own job offer. “When I started working for Children’s Theatre, they couldn’t hire me as an actress,” explains Lehr, “so I ran the ticket office, I helped with costumes and the prop shop, and I acted in the plays, so we were up with the bang of dawn. But I think that’s probably what it took.”

Today, Lehr serves on the faculty of MacPhail Center for Music’s Prelude Program, for high school students seeking to discover new possibilities as performing artists. This spring, she directed On the Town at Bloomington Theatre and Art Center, where in 2012 she directed Crimes of the Heart. Of her approach, Lehr says, “I am an actor who directs. There is a slight, but important distinction there. I like to assist the actor’s process. I don’t know if it makes for a better play or not, but it is what I have to offer.”

Lehr’s numerous accolades include the Twin Cities Drama Critics Award (KUDO), the Sally Irvine award for commitment to the arts (2008), and the 2010 IVEY Award for Lifetime Achievement. This June, The Geriatrical Theatrical, choreographed by Lehr, opens at Plymouth Playhouse. And in November, she will play the title role in Driving Miss Daisy at the Jungle in Minneapolis.

The McKnight Distinguished Artist Award recognizes individuals who help lay the foundation for Minnesota’s rich cultural life. Despite opportunities to pursue work elsewhere, they chose to stay — and by staying, they have made a difference. Previous recipients are composer Dominick Argento (1998), ceramic artist Warren MacKenzie (1999), writer Robert Bly (2000), choral conductor Dale Warland (2001), publisher Emilie Buchwald (2002), painter Mike Lynch (2003), orchestra conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (2004), sculptor Judy Onofrio (2005), theater artist Lou Bellamy (2006), sculptor Kinji Akagawa (2007), writer Bill Holm (2008), theater artist Bain Boehlke (2009), sculptor Siah Armajani (2010), dance artist Ranee Ramaswamy (2011), and poet John Caddy (2012). The McKnight Foundation will honor Lehr at a private reception later this year.

The McKnight Foundation seeks to improve the quality of life for present and future generations through grantmaking, collaboration, and encouragement of strategic policy reform. Founded in 1953 and independently endowed by William and Maude McKnight, the Minnesota-based Foundation had assets of approximately $2 billion and granted about $85 million in 2012. Of the total, over $9 million went to support an environment in which artists are valued leaders in our community, with access to the resources and opportunities they need to succeed. Learn more at, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Tim Hanrahan, McKnight Communications Director, 612-333-4220

Maren Searle