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A triumphant curtain call

Shorewood theater alumni pay tribute to Barbara Gensler

July 18, 2012

Shorewood - Needless to say, the world has changed by leaps and bounds since Barbara Gensler first came to Shorewood High School to oversee its drama department in 1965.

What hasn't changed within the 47-year span is Gensler's desire for people to take center stage and stretch themselves mentally, physically and emotionally.

Gensler retired last month, and the highly regarded teacher and theater director was honored during a three-hour program Saturday amid the Shorewood High School Alumni Association's annual reunion and picnic.

The tribute was held at the SHS auditorium, which has since been renamed the Barbara Gensler Theater for the Dramatic Arts.

Students from Gensler's nearly five-decade career in the village returned to the same stage to pay tribute to a teacher and director that positively impacted their lives. Some traveled from the corners of the globe.

The event was filled with plenty of laughs and tears - in addition to a bounty of reflective memories from years long gone by, but experiences kept close to the heart.

Although she admittedly was embarrassed by the attention, Gensler said she also was touched and moved by the standing ovation she received from former students who have moved on to all walks of life.

"I really don't like accolades," she said. "But I'm also thrilled by all of this. It's so nice to see all of these people again."

Theater and life skills

Gensler pushed her students and required a high work ethic and time commitment - a theme that resonated throughout Saturday's event. But she also has been credited with helping her students gain important life skills.

"I want people to love their life and the person next to them," Gensler said. "It's all about how we relate to one another. I want everybody to see worth in everybody else."

Those life principals were intricately woven into the numerous theatrical performances she directed over the years.

"Good theater is a re-enactment of life," Gensler said. "You can do good theater in a closet. You don't need a huge stage. You need to set the bar high, invest the time and take the time to care."

Gensler's contributions over the years could be visibly seen at the beginning of Saturday's program. From A to Z, every title she directed was scrolled across a screen. The process took several minutes to complete.

Nancy Kaufmann (nee Foreman), a 1967 graduate, was one of Gensler's first students. Kaufmann described Gensler as "a short ball of fire." Kaufmann went on to work in a career in public health and has met such dignitaries as Hillary Clinton.

"You made me feel so confident," Kaufmann said to Gensler. "You showed me how to reach out and touch people's lives."

'Fanning the flames'

David Archer, a native of England, attended Shorewood High School in 1978 through the AFS intercultural exchange program. Archer, who went on to obtain a degree in drama, returned Saturday to the other side of the pond to reflect on his time in the community.

"The flames were lit in England," Archer said of his formative experiences in drama. "Thank you, Barbara, for fanning the flames of that fire and for encouraging me to continue on."

Arik Luck, a 1996 graduate, took his roots in the musical theater and went on to become a cantor in a Reform congregation, Beth Emet, a synagogue in Evanston, Ill.

"Barb Gensler didn't teach us drama, she taught us how to live," Luck said. "She had a vision. The message was always clear: Join me on this stage, and we will create something extraordinary."

While Gensler had high expectations of her students, the same could be said of other people involved in her productions.

Gary Pruett, former technical director at SHS, worked alongside Gensler for three decades. Together, they were responsible for 165 shows.

"She wanted to make students into something they had no idea they could become," Pruett said. "The same could be said of the staff. She also pushed parents and helped them let go of their children."

Gensler wasn't afraid to take risks, showing plays that some could deem too adult for a high school stage. It was an effort, Pruett said, to give the audience an opportunity to challenge themselves.

"But the one person she probably pushed the hardest was herself," Pruett said.

Gensler may not like accolades, but she received one of the highest imaginable. At the culmination of Saturday's event, she was presented with a signed letter from President Barack Obama.

"As you leave this noble profession, I hope you will look back on your accomplishments with joy and happiness," Obama wrote in the letter.

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