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Stan Foote, giant of children’s theater, dies

The widely loved Foote, who retired to Mexico after years of helping Oregon Children's Theatre rise to national prominence, was 69.

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Stan Foote, longtime artistic director of Oregon Children’s Theatre. Photo: Rebekah Johnson

Stan Foote, longtime Portland theater figure who played a key role in building Oregon Children’s Theatre into a nationally recognized company, died on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, at age 69. He had moved to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, after retiring as artistic director of OCT in 2019.

Foote had been battling cancer for the past year.

Friends, fans, and co-workers flooded social media sites on Thursday with notes of mourning, shock, and love. Foote, a man of sharp theatrical savvy and wry, upbeat humor, was known and revered not just as a brilliant director and leader, but also as a memorable teacher and, to many both inside and out of the theater world, a good friend.

In Stan Foote, at the top, an interview published May 19, 2019 – the day he was in Atlanta to receive the national Harold Oaks Award for Sustained Excellence in Theater for Young Audiences – Foote spelled out one of his core approaches to doing theater: “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.’”

Foote, whose father was a logger, was raised in the small logging community of Shingletown, in Northern California, between Redding and Lassen Volcanic National Park. He became hooked on the arts when he was in eighth grade and 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.” He eventually graduated from California State University, Sacramento, and moved to Portland in 1978.

Under Foote’s direction, and in collaboration with longtime managing director Ross McKeen, Oregon Children’s Theatre developed a reputation as one of the nation’s top youth theaters, commissioning and premiering many major works. Foote began working for the company in 1991 and became artistic director a decade later.

“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 GiverGossamer) and Louis Sachar (Holes), as well as prominent playwrights and adapters such as Eric Coble (The Storm in the BarnSacagaweaThe Giver),” the May 2019 story reported. “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.”

“Foote can seem far more low-key than a lot of more expressive leaders,” that interview also noted. “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.’”

Foote’s life partner, the dynamic actor R. Dee, died from early onset dementia in 2014. “We were together 35 years. We met on a blind date,” Foote, who cared for Dee in their home as his partner’s health failed, recalled in the 2019 interview. “… We were a good couple in this community. You know, we loved each other.” McKeen, Foote’s longtime work collaborator at OCT, died of cancer in March 2021.

How widely was Foote known and appreciated? On August 29, 2019, Portland officially celebrated him with a day of his own.

“We don’t know if someone’s going to give him the key to the city,” the story It’s Stan Foote Day reported, “but today is Stan Foote Day in Portland, and if there’s anyone we’d trust with the key, Stan’s the man. After a stellar 28-year career with Oregon Children’s Theatre, Foote is retiring as artistic director and headed south to the sun and sea of Mexico. Mayor Ted Wheeler has announced that Thursday is officially Foote’s day in Portland (it’s also his birthday: talk about a two-fer). … For a man who’s devoted his career to creating first-rate theater for young people, this amounts to an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime review: a kind of standing ovation from an entire city.”

Foote loved his adopted town of Puerto Vallarta, a seaside city he’d been visiting regularly for more than 20 years before moving there for good. In his retirement he made good friends there, often spent time with old Portland friends who were visiting there, and even did a little theater in his spare time.

The tributes keep flowing in. “When giants fall the earth shakes,” Portland actor and director Tony Sonera posted Thursday on Foote’s Facebook page. “A giant has fallen, and I feel shaken. Stan Foote has passed.”

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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12 Responses

  1. Bob: What a wonderful, spot on and precise montage of Stanley Norman Foote. (I’ve heard “Stanley Norman Foote” come out of his mouth so many times on medical visits these past few months that he is no longer, “Stanley” to me he is “Stanley Norman Foote”). Stanley talked about you more than you might think. You are an honest person to him. You know your job. You use your skills. You wake up tomorrow and do it again. You sometimes get woven into conversations with complete strangers. I could go on and on. Please know he held you in high esteem. And now using my own nickle-Stanley’s totally correct in his assessment of you. Hmm, I’m not certain whether “Stan’s” means: 1. Stan is. OR. 2. Stan was. As I send this I rather think it doesn’t matter. Again, thanks. Brian

    1. Brian, Mike and I aren’t on FaceBook anymore and we are so glad to have seen your reply to Bob’s wonderful eulogy. We have been thinking of you so much since we heard the news of Stan’s passing. You have been such important friends to each other for so long. I imagine this last year has been so difficult, but we know you were his wingman. What a deep and loving friendship you two had.
      Mike and I and Eleanor, Ben and Beanie send our love and comfort to you and hope we see you before long.

  2. Stan directed me in a number of musicals and comedies in my early days as a performer in Portland. This was before OCT, in the Lake Oswego Community theater and Portland Civic Theater. I was calling myself Katrina. He believed in me, and I remember him fondly with much gratitude. I am surprised he was actually younger then I!

  3. My first meeting with Stan was at LOCT , he and I were sitting together in the basement waiting for our entrance, we were just above a “walk on”. Our time together grew to the last time I worked with Stan I was listed as Assistant Director. I still have a couple of the PERFUMES he always had made up for his shows. I loved him from the first moment we talked.

  4. Thank you, Bob. I know Stan held you in high regard and I think he would love this celebration of who he was and what he accomplished. He and RDee were a magnificent team, and their friendship meant the world to so many of us. I am who I am, onstage and off, in large part because of Stan, and his belief in me, and I think so many of us can say the same. I’m glad Stan and RDee are together again, and back with Robby Buckmaster and Jimmy Caputo…great friends, great artists, all together again.

  5. Brian… I have been thinking about you. I know this is particularly hard for you, Thanks for all the great friendship you gave to Stan and Dee. The three of you are always in my heart.

    And Bob… as always you put into words all the we are feeling.

  6. Bob, this is a beautiful tribute to a beautiful human being. I’m so grateful to have known him. ❤

  7. I was not aware of this incredible leader. Now I am. Thank you for such an incredibly well-written tribute!

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