Stan Foote, at the top

Oregon Children's Theatre's artistic director wins a major national award. Next stop: the brave new world of retirement.

Sometime today, Stan Foote will be standing on a stage in Atlanta, accepting one of the highest honors in the tight-knit creative world of American children’s theater. Foote, artistic director of Oregon Children’s Theatre in Portland, will receive the Harold Oaks Award for Sustained Excellence in TYA, along with Rosemary Newcott of the host Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, at the 2019 Theatre for Young Audiences/USA national festival and conference.

It’s an honor well-deserved and well-timed: Foote, who’s been working for OCT since 1991 and became its first artistic director a decade later, announced in February that he’ll be retiring after the company’s current season. During his tenure he’s directed close to 50 plays and guided OCT through 20 world-premiere productions, including highly acclaimed collaborations with leading children’s authors such as Lois Lowry (The Giver; Gossamer) and Louis Sachar (Holes), as well as prominent playwrights and adapters such as Eric Coble (The Storm in the Barn; Sacagawea; The Giver). He’s co-commissioned plays with companies across the country, firmly establishing OCT as a significant player nationally, and contributing greatly to the repertoire of plays for young audiences: Coble’s adaptation of Lowry’s The Giver has had more than 300 productions in the United States and internationally.

Ross McKeen, who’s worked alongside Foote as OCT’s managing director for a dozen years, says the relationship has been “a gift for me.” “His artistic vision in this field is remarkable,” McKeen said in a statement in February when Foote announced his impending retirement. “More than that, he has given this company a solid foundation of guiding values and vision, particularly in his respect and care for young people and his commitment to reaching every child.”

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Stan Foote, grabbing the microphone and talking to the crowd at an Oregon Children’s Theatre gala. Photo: Rebekah Johnson

LAST FRIDAY MORNING FOOTE SAT DOWN in a meeting room at Oregon Children’s Theatre headquarters off Northeast Sandy Boulevard for a long conversation, including, briefly, about the national award he’s receiving today. “That’s a cool thing,” he said, grinning. “The list of people who have gotten that award is pretty amazing.” He’d just got back from two weeks in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a town he’s been visiting regularly for 22 years, and he was relaxed, well-tanned, and casually talkative, moving easily from reminiscences of his childhood to his life and career in Portland and his plans beyond. Much of his talk was about OCT, which has been his main professional home, and which he began working for early in its existence: Sondra Pearlman founded the company in 1988 as a branch of the old Portland Civic Theatre, and when PCT shut down two years later she took the children’s theater out on its own.

Under Foote’s tenure Oregon Children’s Theatre has developed a reputation not only for producing new works and clever adaptations aimed at young audiences of different ages, but also for maintaining high professional standards and not playing down to its audiences, but respecting their ability to meet the storytelling on its own terms. Theater is theater, Foote says. He objects to the belief “that directing a children’s play is different from directing for adults. It’s directing. It has all the same techniques; all the same elements of telling a story to an audience.”

He’ll be 67 by the time he leaves OCT in September, and until a few months ago he’d been thinking he might retire in three years. But he was coming off a run of three shows – And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, which he co-directed with PassinArt: A Theatre Company’s Jerry Foster; Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience; and, this spring, the original musical The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors – that both exhilarated and exhausted him. He loved working on all three. Rock Paper Scissors, which OCT commissioned along with First Stage Children’s Theatre in Milwaukee, Wis., represented for Foote “that beginning, middle and end of a whole process, which is something I love.” He could match the quality of the work on those shows, he thought, but could he better it? Between directing and managing, he said, he often works ten-hour days, six days a week. “I just felt, my energy level. I don’t have the energy to do this all the time. I was sitting on my couch, and I said, ‘What are you waiting for? What is it you want to do?’”

The Cassius Clay project, which starred the rising actor La’Tevin Alexander as the young fighter who would become Muhammad Ali, in particular satisfied him. “When you enter a rehearsal hall, I’m always afraid I’m going to let the play down, I’m going to let the people down,” Foote said. “And with Cassius Clay, it was just … everything was there.” Co-directing with Foster, whose PassinArt is an African American company producing African American plays, was enormously rewarding, Foote said: “I told Jerry, ‘I don’t know the black experience, but I know how to put this onstage.’”

OCT’s And in This Corner … Cassius Clay. Photo: Owen Carey/2018

Foote can seem far more low-key than a lot of more expressive leaders. He doesn’t push his profile, and he’s not a Ted Talks sort of guy. He can be drily funny and self-deprecating. But he also exudes a quiet confidence in his abilities, one of which is to draw the best work out of other people: “I know I’m not the smartest guy in the room. But I know how to get the smartest guy to give the information we need to get the job done. I think probably my biggest skill is, never knowing everything. I like actors. I like asking actors what we ought to do.”

He praises Dani Baldwin, who started at OCT working in the box office and is now education director and artistic director of the innovative Young Professionals Company of older teen actors; and Marcella Crowson, the company’s associate artistic director, who’ll serve as interim artistic director while the company’s board seeks a permanent replacement for Foote. And he’s grateful for the dozen years he’s worked with McKeen: “Our minds work well together. I watch the budget like crazy. The bottom line is important to me. And art is important to him. So it’s a nice balance.”

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FOOTE WAS RAISED IN SHINGLETOWN, a small logging community in the fire-prone regions of Northern California, between Redding and Lassen Volcanic National Park. His dad was a logger, and the family didn’t have a lot of money. His father, Foote says, was very smart, in a very practical way: He could eye a tree and tell you how many board feet of lumber it would yield. Football was big, in Shingletown and in his father’s expectations for him. Culture in the aesthetic sense wasn’t. School offered music, once a week, and maybe a chance to do a school play if it didn’t get in the way of football practice. “My family never took me to the theater. To any art thing,” he remembers.

Alice in Wonderland: A Rock Opera. Photo: Owen Carey/2010

In the 1960s, when he was in eighth grade, a music teacher took him to see an orchestra in Redding – “and I don’t even know if it was a good orchestra. But it was amazing to me.” That experience helps explain why Foote is devoted to bringing kids from far-flung towns into Portland to see OCT shows, and to sending teams of actors out beyond the city. “I don’t want any kid to grow up in a world where they can’t imagine a different world. I never did,” he said. “Busloads of kids come from Tillamook, Oregon, or Hermiston, Oregon – it’s always been a priority that we have diverse representation onstage. And not just so kids of color can see people like themselves onstage, but so kids from mostly white communities can see a rainbow of culture out there.”

When hordes of kids from different places come together in a theater for a shared experience, he said, you can feel the excitement and hear the roar: “It’s a big damned thing.” And such experiences can make life-altering differences, as they did for him. “I just didn’t want to live in Shingletown, and I didn’t want to be a logger. Not only didn’t I want to be a logger, I would’ve been a dead logger. Because I’m stupid. My mind doesn’t work that way.”

He ended up going to college, he said, “on the eight-year-plan,” working and going to school at the same time, and finally graduating from Sacramento State. Shortly after, he found himself in Portland, and something clicked: “stopped to see a friend, stayed overnight, got an apartment, got cast in a show two weeks after I got here.”

That was 1978, and he just kept working. He was an actor or director on shows like The Fantasticks, Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down, the musical Chess. He played a comical television addict named Boring G. Boring on tour for three years in Professor Bodywise’s Traveling Menagerie, a Sesame Street-like health care show sponsored by Kaiser Permanente. He spent a year as production manager for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He worked with Artists Rep in its early days, when it performed in a tiny upstairs space in the downtown YWCA, and gained an appreciation for “the things you can do in those little spaces; you can reach people’s hearts.”

Greg Tamblyn and Stan Foote in Sugar, the musical stage version of the movie comedy “Some Like It Hot,” at Lakewood Theatre, 1984. Foote played the Tony Curtis role; Tamblyn the Jack Lemmon role.

He’s directed, for other companies, such shows as Into the Woods, Jesus Christ Superstar, Psycho Beach Party, Strange Snow, Pump Boys and Dinettes. He directed The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later as a benefit for Basic Rights Oregon and the Matthew Shepard Fund, and Falsettos in Concert to benefit Our House of Portland, which provides health care, housing, and other services to people living with HIV. Through all of it he’s stored up experiences and built skills.

Shortly after moving to Portland he met an actor named R Dee, a dynamo who was in the company of the long-running hit Angry Housewives and emcee for the legendary Storefront Theatre burlesque Babes on Burnside, among many other shows. “We were together 35 years. We met on a blind date,” Foote recalled. Dee died five years ago after a decade of early-onset dementia, and Foote stayed with him and cared for him through it all. “I was devoted to R Dee,” he said. “That I was able to care for him in the house so long was amazing. He was only in care for seven months. We were a good couple in this community. You know, we loved each other.”

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OREGON CHILDREN’S THEATRE PERFORMS in downtown Portland in the 880-seat Newmark Theatre, an Edwardian-style hall that cups its audience in velvet glamour and plays more intimately than its size, and the flexible-space Winningstad Theatre, which has a top capacity of about 300 and can play like a crackerbox about to explode. But when Foote started at OCT the company was performing in the giant Keller Auditorium, and busing schoolkids in by the thousands: The theater has 3,000 seats, and when they were filled with kids on a field trip the energy in the room could rival the raucousness of an arena rock show. The space called for a lot of big-gesture, declarative acting, but it also could show off set and costume designs, and its broad deep stage could create some splendid epic moments. Foote remembers one magical one, in the first production of Lowry and Coble’s The Giver, which he directed: an isolation, amid the vastness, of the lead character, 12-year-old Jonas, who seemed to shrink against the universe, perfectly mirroring the moment in the book. For all the advantages of more intimate stages, he said – and there are many – it’s tough to create something like that without sheer size.

Ryan Stathos rides like the wind as the 12-year-old hero Jonas in OCT’s hit premiere production of The Giver, based on Lois Lowry’s novel, with a script by Eric Coble. Photo: Owen Carey/2006

The Giver, which OCT premiered in 2006, was the show that gave. “That was the one that really put us on the national charts,” Foote said. “And that was dumb ol’ boy luck.” He’d been asking kids what they’d been reading, what they really liked, and Lowry’s Newbery Medal 1993 novel, about a supposed utopia that turns out to be a dystopia of squeezed-off emotion and enforced sameness, kept cropping up. “I just stupidly contacted Lois’s agent, and said, ‘Is this available?’ and she said, ‘Yes,’” Foote recalled.

Actor Jeff Bridges had held the rights to the book for 10 years, but there was a brief break, and Foote happened to catch it at the right moment. What’s more, what he got was rights to adapt the novel itself, not just to produce an already existing stage script that Foote didn’t like much. That’s where Coble came in. Eventually Bridges did produce and star with Meryl Streep in a movie version, which was released in 2014. But by then the OCT/Coble stage version was an international hit, and Foote and Lowry had established an enduring friendship. OCT’s version of her story Gossamer followed. Foote visited her at her Maine farmhouse; he went to her 80th birthday party. “We are friends,” she told him. “This is not about doing plays for me.”

OCT had also premiered Coble’s 2002 play Sacagawea, which Foote considers another landmark for the company. (Another version of Sacagawea’s story, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Crossing Mnisose, just completed its premiere production at Portland Center Stage at The Armory.) OCT’s show included seven Native American actors – a rarity at the time – and the stage was given a ritual cleansing smudge. It became a national hit, too, eventually getting a production at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

And it presaged a major change at OCT that’s happening now, an increased emphasis on inclusion and equity in everything the company does. “It’s a huge mind shift,” Foote said. Then he put the importance of the shift in personal terms, looking back on his journey from isolated logging town to winning a prestigious national theater award. “I’m surprised and fascinated. Lucky,” he said. He added: “If I was a kid of color in this circumstance, this never would have happened.”

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Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience. Photo: Owen Carey/2019

WHAT NEXT? PUERTO VALLARTA, the beach town of about 200,000 people on Mexico’s Pacific coast, is very much on Foote’s mind. He’s been visiting it for more than 20 years, and it’s an unofficial vacation spot for a lot of Portland theater people. Brian Haliski, a longtime actor and theater teacher in town, retired there three years ago. Come September, Foote’s going to do the same. Part of moving there, he said, is to answer the “What am I going to do next?” question. He plans to work on his Spanish speaking skills. Puerto Vallarta has a large American expat community, and it’s relatively easy to get by just speaking English. But learning Spanish, he says, is respectful – a word that crops up often and naturally in his conversation.

The building he’ll be moving into, he said, has a small, 45-seat performing space that’s sometimes used for community theater shows, and he’s eyeing it. Maybe … who knows? Something small, something personal, something just for the art. He’s got these skills. And when you’re starting over, anything can happen.

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