Shorewood Theater Legend, Gensler, Raises Curtain on Last Big Act
What started as a safety net for an acting career became a 45-year success story for Shorewood's Barbara Gensler, who launched countless careers instead of her own. Stars shine in Shorewood's AIDA, Gensler's last, big, musical at Shorewood High School.
It's show time in Shorewood, and the big spring show is AIDA, the Tony-award-winning rock musical by Elton John and Tim Rice.
This is what Shorewood is all about. Starting in the early 20's, when community businesses and the school came together to build a campus that was infused with a grand auditorium, Shorewood High School and the drama department became central to the village.
Now, in 2012, the drama department, as the one performing arts group that serves as the reward for volunteers in the village and district (May 17 this year), Shorewood drama does not disappoint, partly because it thinks it's a professional company, and doesn’t know it’s inside a high school.
One person has kept it going strong for the last 45 years. The powerhouse, and beloved director of Shorewood’s theater legacy, Barbara Gensler, who says she will pull the curtain closed on her era of big musicals.
So, let's go inside. I will try to live up to my Patch moniker and describe the rehearsal on Friday night, with one week until curtain and accompanied by my 8-and 5-year-old children (who begged to stay and watch, a good sign).
Entering the building, long props tables line the halls, with each item outlined with glow-in-the-dark tape and numbered. We brush past palm fronds to get inside the studio theater, where Gensler commands from her familiar post — her back against the mirrors and facing the cast, with script in front of her, and a few small squares of Ghirardelli chocolate scattered on the side (keeps her going, no coffee). Her face, partially hidden under the Avenue Q baseball cap (the Broadway one), shows rapt attention, head tucked, hand on head, listening and watching. Her radar is functioning like an air traffic control center on high alert with a screen full of low-and high-flying planes mixed with wobbling Cessnas.
I asked her later, how she reads people, and whether they know it at the time.
"I always knew I had a gift; not sure if it was from my mother's intuition or from my work with delving into the characters as an actress myself," she said. "In almost all cases, I have known what a student was feeling and I felt so blessed to know that and be able to help them. I know that for the most part, they didn't know that I helped them until maybe many years later."
She is flanked by Maripat Wilkinson and Gus Rich, both alumni, both directors in their own right, who are helping co-direct the show. Jayne Perkins is accompanying on the piano, smiling, encouraging, taking direction, starting and stopping as needed with grace and the talent that comes from years as a beloved Lake Bluff Elementary music teacher. Students not in the scene are strewn about the perimeter in the studio, snacking and texting and listening. The stage behind us across the hall is awash in the sounds of ladders, drills, paint cans, and tech crew gearing up for dress rehearsal in a few days.
Suddenly, a lively scene stops, as Simon Earle, a Shorewood junior, prepares for (spoiler alert) a pivotal sword fight but breaks his line mid-sentence, drops his arm, and says, "Mrs. Gensler, what ... what is happening here? Why am I doing this ... alone? Why can't Radames help me in this scene?"
Her response is unflinching, untroubled, unfazed.
"Good question,” she said. “Let's think about that. Radames is protecting Aida, upstage.”
Henry Cummings, playing Radames, says, “And I have to get her to the boat.”
“So…” Gensler continues, “Simon, you're right, but Henry needs to get to the boat ... so does he leave her at the boat? We need to see their development … so maybe the timing should be different. What do you think?"
And just like that, a thoughtful discussion of the scene in larger context of the plot ensues. Gensler, in her notes also has references to how the scene, which is four lines of a large binder long, was treated on Broadway as well as on different high school stages and decides how it will play out on her stage with input from those who will be doing it.
After 45 big musicals, the person in the Broadway baseball cap with the thick script full of notes is a professional, a teacher, a director and a person who is thrilled to work with this age of actor. Gensler is unflappable and confident, despite her self-deprecating sense of humor, and even with just days before the curtain goes up, she wants the cast to know why they're there. All of them.
"I always say, 'If you believe it; your audience will believe it. If you have fun; your audience has fun.' If they get that, they're good," she said.
And, to spit out their gum. Please.
This relationship illustrates why Gensler’s retirement is unlike other teachers', and why graduates are flying in to alumni night and coming forward to plan events in her honor, on Saturday. She is spot-on. Years later, they do realize how much she paid attention to them in their formative years. And most of them have a line or two that is in their heads — still in her voice — that speaks their truth.
Helene Gresser, a 1984 graduate, is flying in from New York for the alumni night. Her tribute to Gensler in the program reads, "You told me when I was 16 that I did not have enough discipline to get the lead parts, and you were right.
"You made me want to work harder, be better, and prove you wrong," she continued. "I am now a proud member of Actors Equity and have been performing for 28 years."
Dan Schnur, a 1981 graduate and recent Tradition of Excellence Award recipient for a successful career in politics and education, remembers Gensler literally “pulling me into her office between classes to ask me why I never auditioned.
“I ended up with the lead of ‘Our Town,’ something that has helped frame my life and approach to politics," he said. "Drama has such depth because it merges different grades together. Personal attention by teachers like Mrs. Gensler made getting involved easy."
When the lights go up on AIDA on Friday, they will also highlight a 45-year legacy of Shorewood Drama. Gensler deserves our full attention. Now spit out your gum, tuck in your shirt, and know that you belong here.
AIDA runs through May 19. All shows start at 7:30 p.m. except for the Sunday matinee which starts at 2 p.m. in the Shorewood High School arena, 1701 E. Capitol Dr. Visit Shorewood drama's website for ticket information.