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Gayle Gander’s 20th-anniversary production “Don’t Drink the Water” is the show that launched his career

Eden Witt, Times Herald Correspondent

Gayle Gander, right, helps the stage crew make props for the upcoming play “Don’t Drink the Water.” Gander has directed plays at Oconto Falls for 20 years. (Photo by Eden Witt)

While pursuing a major in English education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Gayle Gander was encouraged by a classmate to take a theater education program to help assist his future teaching career.

That program led Gander to a lifelong passion of directing plays. This spring, Gander is celebrating 20 years of directing school plays at Oconto Falls High School.

To honor the milestone, the Drama Club has decided to restage the first production that Gander directed in Oconto Falls — Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Water,” which will be performed April 13-15. To add to the celebration, Gander will be joining his students in front of the curtain in the narrating role of Father Drobney.

This will be his second time appearing on stage since college, and the first time in his own production.

“When my students ask me why I direct and teach theater, I smile and say it was all because of a girl,” said Gander, who took part in school plays while growing up.

The theater, he said, gives a creative outlet to high school students who aren’t necessarily technical, athletic or musical. “They still long and deserve to be in the spotlight and showcase their abilities. I provide this opportunity to them,” said Gander, who is a language arts teacher at Oconto Falls High School.

His tenure as a director has allowed him to set a high standard for his student actors. “I try to expose them to different styles and genres of theater, as well as challenging them in the roles they receive,” Gander said. He also challenges his students by giving them responsibilities that allow them to grow as actors, as well as people.

Gander said much has changed since he first directed “Don’t Drink the Water.” Twenty years ago, the show was performed in what is now the wrestling gym. Relocated to the Falls Area Performing Arts Center, this year’s show promises to be just as entertaining and fun for its audiences, he said.

Gander’s favorite play he has directed over the years is “Twentieth Century,” which was his first attempt at directing a Broadway production. The technical requirements, as well as the historical aspect of the play, forced everyone to step up their game, he said.

Although Gander enjoyed taking nine of his shows to the state competition, he said his favorite aspects of the past two decades have been the relationships he’s made with his actors and stage crew, whom he considers his kids.

“I have worked with some marvelous and talented young people, who I believe have kept me feeling young these past 20 years,” said Gander.

Performances of “Don’t Drink the Water” will be 7 p.m. April 13 and 14, and 2 p.m. April 15 at Falls Area Performing Arts Center. A special reception for the audience will follow the Saturday performance. Tickets will be sold at the door at $7 for adults and $5 for students.