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If you go

What: Fargo South High School Theatre production of "Our Town"

Directed by: Gwen Stark

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

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Where: Fargo South High School theater

Cost: $8 for adults, $5 for students, free for seniors with a senior pass

FARGO - Gwen Stark is marking a milestone this year - both for her theater students and for herself.

Stark, a theater and English teacher at Fargo South High School, is retiring after 40 years in education. She spent the past 31 of those years at Fargo South.

The final play she is directing for the school is "Our Town," an American classic that Thornton Wilder published 75 years ago.

Stark chose "Our Town" because of the anniversary and because it's one of the first plays she directed as a theater teacher. It's also one of her favorites.

"This cast has been great. They're so focused and they love the play," she said. "It's so gratifying to see students from 2013 truly love a play like this, which has such a universal message."

"Our Town" is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 3-act drama about life in the town of Grover's Corners during the early 1900s. The play is a symbolic representation of life, and is Wilder's most renowned and most frequently performed play, according to HarperCollins Publishers.

The publishing company, Samuel French Inc., is compiling an online scrapbook of sorts of "Our Town" productions this year, with cast photos and descriptions, Stark said. It will appear on their corporate Facebook page and in their online magazine, she said.

Stark doesn't only direct plays. She also teaches theater classes at the school. In fact, Stark started the theater program at Fargo South in 1981.

The school had been hiring people to direct the plays one production at a time and decided it needed a consistent program. Stark directed three plays that first year, but told the school she couldn't afford to keep it up unless she also could teach at least one class.

Before moving to Fargo, Stark worked in Two Harbors, Minn., for nine years, where she taught English, speech, communications and theater. She also started a theater program there, she said.

In 1982, under Stark's direction, Fargo South started offering a theater class. It started with 12 students and then doubled in size and then grew into a program with multiple classes, Stark said.

"What I like about it is the kids," Stark said. "I love teenagers. They're interesting. They're compassionate. They have just been wonderful to me in my 40 years of teaching."

Many of her students have kept in touch with her over the years, Stark said.

"It really means a lot," she said.

Stark, who now is 66 years old, started teaching when she was 24 and said her first students are now grandparents, like her.

Stark is married to Steve Stark, a public speaker, writer and cartoonist. They have two children. They also have two grandchildren, with one more on the way.

The Starks met performing in a play together, Gwen Stark said.

Now that she's retiring, Stark said, she might try to become involved in acting again. She also plans to continue working with students in Fargo South's speech program a few afternoons a week, spend more time with her grandchildren and travel with her husband, she said.

"I've always thought I would quit teaching at a point when I still had a passion for it and directing," Stark said. "Not being with kids every day is going to be quite a challenge."

Stark has directed more than 100 plays and musicals over the years. She was named director of the year by the North Dakota High School League Activities Association and has consistently been invited to the Edinburgh Scotland Fringe Festival, Steve Stark said.

"When you do something for 40 years, it's like breathing," Gwen Stark said. "It's sort of like life itself."

Stark said her job hasn't been a career so much as a passion.

"It's always been about the kids," she said. "I really am very grateful for the relationships I've had with students. I feel they've responded to me well and they certainly have made my 40 years memorable and meaningful. I have gotten so much from these students and I understand so much more about life because I was with them."

Fargo South's production of "Our Town" is this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the high school.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526.