Susan Lehman never had any doubts about what she wanted to do with her life.
She wanted to be an actress.
It was a dream that so many little girls have, but Lehman was specific in her acting aspirations. She just didn't want to be any actress, she wanted to be in theater.
“I knew from the get-go that's what I wanted to do,” Lehman says.
And she never had any doubts that it would happen even when she was young. The Fort Wayne native got her start at Fort Wayne Civic Theatre, but even before that she had roles in children's theater and would ride her bike to Franke Park to work on theater sets, even if she wasn't in the show.
It was the start of a 57-year career that has included acting and directing.
The 79-year-old was honored this spring for her work by being among the first group of 10 performers to be included in the Performing Arts Legacy Project by the Research Center for Arts and Culture at the Actors Fund. The legacy project is an online platform to identify and document the work of older artists in an effort to preserve their legacy.
“It's quite an honor,” Lehman says by phone from her home in New York City, where she has lived since 1962. “I never ever thought as myself as a star. I wanted to work in theater; that's all I wanted to do.”
She says she asked Joan Jeffri, director of the Research Center for Arts and Culture, why she was chosen. Jeffri replied, “You wanted it more than anybody else.”
Lehman made her Broadway debut in 1962 in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” as an understudy for Barbra Streisand.
Lehman marvels at how this also was Streisand's first show. “She was a nobody – at that time,” Lehman laughs.
The North Side High School graduate already had her Equity Card when she came to New York, which was right after she graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in theater.
Other Broadway shows she appeared in included “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” and “Show Me Where the Good Times Are.” Lehman also toured across the country playing Tzeitel in the First National Co. production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I got married 410 times,” Lehman laughs.
She has lead and supporting roles in more than 40 professional plays and musicals, sang and danced in many revues and cabarets across the country and had roles on TV soap operas such as “All My Children,” “Ryan's Hope” and “As the World Turns.”
Lehman also appeared as a senior dancer in the film “Enchanted” and appeared in the 2008 Academy Award performance for the film's nominated song, “That's How You Know.”
And if that wasn't enough, she also helped direct on several TV programs and other projects.
“I've been very blessed to say I do what I wanted to do,” Lehman says.
Over the years Lehman has found herself in all parts of the theater. She says she has acted, stage managed, directed and understudied.
But there was a time when she decided to step away from acting. So for 15 years she worked various jobs that included secretary, gardener and operating a nutrition business.
She also was a professional Broadway usher where she would get paid to see a show while telling people where to go. It allowed her to still be a part of theater, she says.
Lehman has often said her love for theater started in Fort Wayne.
Her first show for the Civic was as Martha in “Cheaper by the Dozen” in 1952, according to Elise Ramel, marketing director for Civic Theatre.
That was followed by several performances in the next few years, ending in 1958. Ramel says the performances would have represented Lehman's middle school and high school years.
The Civic was contacted about Lehman by Lehman's sister, who still lives in Fort Wayne, Ramel says. Ramel says the Civic was excited to learn about Lehman's inclusion in the legacy project and the fact she credits the Civic for her start.
“I was just very charmed by her story,” Ramel says. “Her story is interesting because she did (acting) for so long. Longevity doesn't seem to be a part of an actor's path.”
Ramel says she wonders how many other actors and actresses from Fort Wayne have had similar longtime careers that aren't on the Civic's radar.
The Civic plans to begin an alumni program this year with the hopes of using Lehman's story to launch it.
“(Theater) changes people's lives and we see that all the time,” Ramel says.
Lehman's profile on the Performing Arts Legacy Project's website (performingartslegacy.org) presents an incredible résumé.
In addition to her bio, there are hours of oral history in which Lehman talks about her life and career and a gallery of photos from her various performances and headshots over the years.
For Lehman, who has memory challenges, the project has been a way to recapture and record her vast performing work.
She says interns helped her with the project, which started in 2016, and included sorting through her reviews, playbills, programs and other items she has kept of her work.
“I never threw anything out,” Lehman says.
In one video, Lehman can be seen looking lovingly at her memorabilia, including reading a review of one of her performances that wasn't so flattering.
But Jeffri says the fact that Lehman embraces the good with the bad is what makes her so special.
“Susan has no hierarchies,” Jeffri says by phone. “She embraces everyone the same way, and for her the theater is everyone in the theater.”
“Everybody,” says Jeffri, from the actors, to the directors, ushers, set builders, etc., “is included in that mix. That's rare.”
Jeffri says eight months were spent recruiting actors for the project.
“It was a very careful process of casting,” Jeffri says.
The project was created based on a similar project of older visual artists conducted by the Research Center for Arts and Culture in 2005 in New York City and then in 2011 in Los Angeles. When the Research Center joined the Actors Fund in 2015, Jeffri wanted to do the same thing with older performers, starting with actors.
The idea is that older performers can pass on their legacies by mentoring and working with younger people. The project involved not only recruiting the 10 New York City-based actors but also five young actors to conduct 30 oral histories with the actors, as well as 10 fellows in theater, arts, health and aging to partner with them.
“All the aging literature says, as people tend to age, they get more isolated,” Jeffri says. “... So it's really meaningful of older people in anything to review their lifetime. They begin to find patterns in the work and the decisions they made; it brings a kind of closure of a lifetime career.”
Lehman says she never imagined that she would have the career that she has had. “I always knew that I would be in professional theater,” she says. “(But) I never felt that I had to do things in a certain way.”
Lehman has never married, and while she doesn't miss that, she says she does miss not having kids.
“But I have other people's,” she says, adding that she has five godchildren – all boys. “I just love that.”
Her mantra, Lehman says, has always been, “I am right where I need to be now.”
“That's how I live my life,” she says. “This is happening for a purpose.”
She hasn't been working as much these days but has been active with the Actors Fund.
Lehman also has other interests, such as reading and history. She also loves to garden. “I wish I could do more of it now, but my knees,” she says. Lehman adds that she had polio as a kid and while she was able to overcome it, she does walk with a cane now.
As for what's next, Lehman says she's not sure.
“I want to be useful,” she says. “I have a lot of stuff that I know.
“As long as I am still walking and talking, ... that's the important thing.”