Dani Baldwin forges her own path

As her mentor Stan Foote heads into retirement, Oregon Children's Theatre's Baldwin stays committed to her Young Professionals

It was a surprise when Stan Foote decided to retire as artistic director from Oregon Children’s Theatre, but it wasn’t a shock. Foote, who left in September after 28 years with the company, has been one of the most prominent and respected figures on the Portland theater scene. And though his energy and creativity do not appear to have waned, he decided it was time to change. Dani Baldwin, Foote’s colleague, mentee, fellow-soldier-in-the-trenches and all-around best friend, knew the time was coming, just not so soon.

“He initially said he was going to retire when he was 70,” Baldwin remembers. “That’s three and a half years from now. So that was like, ‘Cool, that’s a great amount of time.’ Then he came to me and said, ‘Maybe two and a half years.’ And then he came to me and said, ‘Maybe one and a half years.’ And then it went down to seven months. So, we’ve had seven months to know he’s retiring, which has been kind of a whirlwind and a lot to adjust to in a short amount of time.”

Dani Baldwin, director of OCT’s Young Professionals Company.

Whenever as large a presence as Foote leaves a room, the people who were around him are bound to be aware of the void. But Baldwin gets it. “Why wait until you’re 70 to do something new and to explore possibilities?”

Foote’s leaving and Baldwin is staying. And she’s staying, not as Foote’s successor as artistic director, which might have seemed an obvious step, but in the job she’s come to love, as director of OCT’s Young Professionals Company of teen actors, which produces plays for older audiences. Its three-show 2019-20 season opens on Friday, Oct. 25, with British writer Dennis Kelly’s psychological thriller DNA.

Twenty years ago, Baldwin never would have dreamed that she would stay with one company for so long. “I was working at a high tech PR firm,” she remembers. “My main client was Microsoft.” But Baldwin had a theater degree and an artist’s heart, and there came a time when punching the corporate clock just wasn’t enough for her. “It had no heart, whatsoever,” she says. The problem was, she’d also sworn off theater. That’s when destiny, as they say, took a hand.

“A friend of mine was like, ‘Have you ever thought of children’s theater?’ And I thought, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.” And I submitted my resume to OCT. They got my résumé the day their box office manager quit.” Little did Baldwin know, a brand new career was commencing. “I went in and they hired me as their box office manager,” says Baldwin, “and also, essentially, to organize Stan (Foote), who I’d never met before. Get him organized and run the box office. Stan is funny. Like, he would have a pencil in his hand and just drop it on the floor because somehow that was easier than putting it in a cup. So, I came in and built organizational systems. I built – you know, back in the day — Excel spreadsheets so we could have an organized system we could go back to. I put everything in a way that was easy and detailed to where we could manage the kind of work we were actually getting and the company we were building.”

She didn’t think she’d stay at OCT for very long. “My plan was two years. I wanted to work and live everywhere.  I thought, I’ll just learn a new job every two years. I just thought it’d be cool to like, learn. I figured two years was a good tracker. Move somewhere for two years, get a new job, learn that craft, move somewhere else.”

But like many people, Baldwin found that leaving the Rose City can be easier said than done. “The universe just kind of sucked me into Portland,” she says, laughing. “With work, with Tim, my husband, family, friends, everything was just too good to leave.” Her job at OCT was no exception: It “just morphed into everything – education and beyond. It expanded from there and I really loved the company and loved the people.”

Stan Foote: mentor and partner. Photo: Rebekah Johnson

Among those people, of course, was Stan Foote.

From the outset there was chemistry there. “We just connected,” remembers Baldwin. “We’re goofy together but we also wanted to work our asses off and build this company.” The relationship went deeper than simply colleagues. Whether they were aware of it at the beginning or not, Baldwin and Foote had found a kindred spirit in each other.

“He was my mentor,” Baldwin says. “He directed me in shows. He pushed me into directing and doing things that I wouldn’t have done before. And we’d be hanging out on each other’s porch every other Friday night cuz it was just like, ‘Yeah, let’s go walk over to Stan’s.’ We became really good friends. We traveled together, went to Puerto Vallarta together,” where Foote has now moved.When his partner R. Dee (Haflich) became ill, we could go over there and make sure he was being taken care of while Stan had to go to a work thing. I felt honored that we could help at a moment’s notice. That added a lot of depth to our friendship because we could count on each other.”

Foote also had a profound effect on the direction of Baldwin’s professional life. Though her mother was a teacher, and a good one, Baldwin herself never expected to work with kids. “I watched her in a classroom and she was just magic,” Baldwin says, “ and I thought, ‘I could never do that.’ But something about Foote’s approach to the work spoke to her. “I was excited to learn from him because he, for me, spoke to what I believe about children’s theater. I had this epiphany of calling it ‘the OCT way’, which was each child comes in at their own level and each child is capable of greatness in its own way. And you never doubt that or underestimate that.”

And then there was Foote’s approach to the craft of making theater. “He influenced me a lot in his approach,” Baldwin says. “He is the most organized director I have ever known. I learned from him ‘layering’.” She explains: “I feel like as a director my tendency is, ‘Well, let’s just work this scene and make it perfect.’ Sometimes you need to let go of that and let it mull or give a note and say, ‘We’re gonna come back to that,’ or layer on different directions. [Stan] is really good at – and I haven’t mastered this – he’s really good at having a room of ten actors and talking to each one of them ever so slightly differently. How he gives direction to each is catered to what they need. It also kind of pisses me off because he’ll do it to me and I’ll be like, ‘I know what you’re doing! I know why you’re doing this to me!’ (Laughs) But it’s also a gift. To be able to switch with each person and know, ‘this person needs me to direct them this way, this person needs me to wait until tomorrow, this person needs to figure it out themselves,’ that’s amazing. That’s a gift. I’ve tried to learn from what he’s done. Just watching him has been great and taking things that feel authentic to me. And then respecting other things where I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s not my gift.’

Of course, Baldwin comes with gifts of her own, and Foote was quick to recognize them. “His belief in me was really shocking. Just that alone. I don’t even know how it started. I directed a show and he was like, ‘No, you need to do this.’ He pulled me into directing a mainstage show.”

Though Baldwin has learned a lot from Foote, she’s always been her own artist, taking her own approach to directing. “It depends on the show but I’m definitely more physical-based. I love physical theater. I love using bodies to express.” Her fully realized artistic sensibility was recognized in 2018 when OCT’s production of A Year with Frog and Toad, which she helmed, took home a handful of Drammy Awards, including Outstanding Director and Production of a Musical.

Young Professionals alumnus James Sharinghousen (left) and Charles Grant in the multiple Drammy-winning A Year with Frog and Toad. Photo: Owen Carey

After nearly two decades of being Bonnie to Foote’s Clyde, Baldwin might seem to an outside eye the perfect person to take over his position. But that idea seems never to have been actually on the table.  “I would have to apply,” Baldwin points out. “It wouldn’t be a given. The company as a whole and the board all believed we should do a national search.  We are a nationally recognized theater company. We’re one of the top ten children’s theaters in the nation. We need to reach out and see what’s out there before we automatically fill the gap. We’ve done a lot of work with equity and inclusion and wanted to make sure we’re spreading a wide net and include other voices.” Baldwin expressed her confidence in longtime OCT staff member and interim AD Marcella Crowson: “Marcie is amazing.”

But in the end, Baldwin had other plans. Having been one of the pillars of OCT, Baldwin was already familiar with the long hours it takes to run a theater company.  “I was working 60 hours a week, sometimes 70, trying to do shows in addition to that,” she recalls, shaking her head. “It got to be too much.” Baldwin had deliberately been scaling back her hours the past few years. “What I hope to do,” she says, “is eventually get to do more theater myself. I’ve had to turn down a couple of non-OCT directing jobs. People have asked me to audition and I’ve had to say no.  It would be really fun to do an adult musical or direct a show somewhere, I don’t care. But something for myself would be fun to fit in there.”

Baldwin has another reason for not pursuing the artistic directorship of OCT: She’s already running a theater company, OCT’s company within a company, Young Professionals.

YP’s Jasper in Deadland: Kai Tomizawa (left), David VanDyke, Audrey Lipsey. Photo: Blake Wales

Young Professionals came about because a few years ago, Baldwin and Foote realized that for everything OCT was offering young performers, there was one glaring hole. “Stan and I were talking,” Baldwin recalls, “and we had these kids that had been taking a ton of classes and they needed that next-level help. So, we decided to build Young Professionals. The idea was we’d have a mentorship so that those kids who were real serious about theater would come meet with us, maybe there’d be a couple of workshops or things they could do, but it was very low key and whoever wanted to do it could do it. And we started each year adding more onto it and I started to get excited by ‘Well, I could do this’ and ‘We could have this kind of training program’ and then the board came to us and was like, ‘You have to charge for this. This is like a full program now.’ And my thought was, well, if I have to charge for it, then I want it to be something special. First of all, I want the price to be something everyone can afford. I want there to scholarships involved if needed.”

As Baldwin speaks of Young Professionals, a palpable charge surges through her voice and posture. She leans forward, galvanized. She’s not talking about theater games and exercises. The vision for Young Professionals was – is – much more expansive. “I started developing it into what it is now, which is a college-level training company,” she says. “It’s workshops; it’s shows they don’t typically get to do in high school. I think I mentioned we did Good Kids [Naomi Iizuka’s play that takes on sexual assault in universities] and we were the only high-school-age production of  that script that had been done. Previously, it’d always done by college-age and beyond because of the material and the depth of that content and what those kids had to be prepared for. So, we get to do shows like that. And we do trips. They get to see theater around town at five different theater companies. They get exposure to other types of art out there.”

Young Professionals has evolved into something more than a training program. “The way I look at it is, it was a program up until five or six years ago.” By that, Baldwin means that she was responsible for most of the decision-making. “I was creating everything. I was choosing the shows. I was choosing the workshops. I was doing everything.”

But steadily, year by year, more responsibility fell into the hands of the students.  “It’s developed into a full-blown company,” says Baldwin. “Now, I use them for a lot more feedback. They choose their own plays. They tell me what workshops and what skills they’re most interested in. I try to cater it to individual needs as well. I might have a student who’s not necessarily an actor but has a passion for theater. So, it’s about finding out what that person can do in theater, what their place is, where their home is in theater. They’re responsible to help market their shows; they spread the word about their own play. It’s definitely more driven by the team.” As such, Young Professionals has grown into a unique entity. “It’s its own thing,” says Baldwin. “It’s educational, it’s theatrical and artistic, but it isn’t just one of those, so it kind of stands alone.”

The Young Professionals season kicks off this week with Dennis Kelly’s psychological thriller DNA. From left: Aleena Yee, London Mahaley, Makenna Markman, Josh Bransford, Sylvia Grosvold, Jasper Warhus, Claire Voillequé, Sam Majors, Kieran Gettel-Gilmartin. Briana Cerezo Photography

Even with its parent company’s changing of the guard, the vision for Young Professionals is as ambitious as ever. “I think we have a great season ahead. I think we have a great group of kids. This year we open up the season with a show called DNA. Then we have Impulse 13 – it’s our thirteenth season of improv, which has been amazing. When we started it I didn’t think it would last thirteen years but now we’re performing at Stumptown, which is an international comedy festival. [YP improv actors] compete against adult troupes around town. It’s been really exciting to see that program flourish. That’ll be in January. Then we’re doing a show called The K of D: An Urban Legend in spring. Then we’re developing a new musical which we’ll do a workshop of in June.”

In other words, Dani Baldwin has plenty to keep her occupied in the ensuing months and perhaps years. “It’s enough,” she laughs. That Young Professionals has been largely successful in its endeavors can be measured in the number of kids that come back. “We have a ton of teachers who were Young Professionals,” she says. “We have a lot of people on staff who were young professionals. Blake Wales, Elizabeth Fagan, Zoe Rudman, Lucas Welsh, Hannah Mock, Erin MacGillivray, among others. They come back and work. We have five in the office. It’s really exciting.”

“Exciting” is a word that comes up again and again when Baldwin speaks of Young Professionals and working with children in general. Twenty years later, some part of her is still surprised to find herself working with kids. And loving it.

“I didn’t think I would have an interest in working with kids. And then I started and it was like, Oh yeah, this was it,” she says. “How exciting to see someone’s eyes open up. The little kids who get so enthralled in the imagination aspect of it and find a place. And then like, teens, I don’t think I ever thought I’d work with teens. I love trying to get them to stay open and not shut down and not be afraid to be themselves. I think theater does that. It helps you know that this is a place that you can be weird or whatever it is that you’ve heard complaints about before. I love their intelligence and their ability and they shock me with how they can jump into a script one hundred percent and go for it with positivity. And honestly, you don’t get that out of a lot of adults. These teens are so positive and supportive of one another. If we can nurture that, if we can keep them that way, they’ll become better artists and the world will be better.”

Scene by scene, play by play, actor by actor, making the world a better place is what Dani Baldwin is doing with Young Professionals. “The kids are great. It’s refreshing and wonderful,” she says. “Despite what you hear, there are kids in this world who are going to make this planet better.” Baldwin states this without flourish or rancor. It’s a simple statement of fact. This truth is her mission – at least currently — and she pursues it with conviction, walking in the footsteps of her friend and mentor, Stan Foote, but forging her own path.

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