Oregon Children’s Theatre – 30 Seasons of “What’s Next?”
Editors Note – I originally wrote and posted this article two weeks ago. At the time I thought I was stretching the point a bit. However in light of the tragic and infuriating events that are unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia, I think the ideas expressed here are more pertinent now …
In 1988, Sondra Pearlman approached the Portland Civic Theatre with an idea …
Having a background in education and administration but no formal training in theatre, she presented a plan to join with the Portland Civic Theatre in the creation of a resident company dedicated to Children’s theatre. They hired her then and there to build the program …
In 2008, at the 20th Anniversary celebration someone close to her remarked;
“When Sondra started the O.C.T., her own children were already in college, so she had to look to the faces of the thousands of children coming to the productions to see the joy art can bring to the faces of the young.”
After spending time with the staff at Oregon Children’s Theatre, (we’ll call it the O.C.T. from here on out, it’ll save a lot of time), that comment takes on deeper meaning …
… It doesn’t matter what color your tie is. It doesn’t matter what news channel you prefer. It makes zero difference what your stances are on matters of gender identity, guns, sports, the right to choose, man-buns or marijuana. Sooner or later, you sit down to be entertained. Imagination was our original politics. There was a time none of us cared very much about things like redistricting or Medicaid. And though we all grow up and settle into our lives and our communities, this shared sensibility still bubbles up whenever entertainment brings us all together.
Everyone likes Game Of Thrones. Everyone thinks Hamilton is pretty cool. Everyone watches the Superbowl, everyone watches “Die Hard” each year around Christmas all for our own unique and similar reasons. When it comes to entertainment, we are all connected. Entertainment bridges our tribal affiliations, its messages are universal and basic.
It’s this principle; Theatre is a binding force and can instill in all of us the memory that at one time , when we were playing, inclusion, acceptance and shared experience was a given. That principle has guided O.C.T. as it rolls into its 30th season, driven by the energy and vision of Artistic Director Stan Foote.
A BRIEF HISTORY
While the Portland Civic Theatre officially closed it doors in 1990, O.C.T. continued to grow, Steadily adding more mainstage performances to its season and expanding its education and outreach programs with classes, workshops, and apprenticeships.
Today, O.C.T. is a resident theatre company at the Portland Center For The Arts, with mainstage performances at the Newmarket and Winningstad Theatres in downtown Portland. O.C.T. is now considered one of the top three theatre companies in Portland, (not top three Children’s Theatres, but top three theatre companies period).
The Company has garnered numerous Portland Drama awards across nearly all categories, and it continues to commission and produce at least one original work per season.
It entertains and educates 120,000 people each year, and has surpassed its two millionth patron.
Under another Artistic Director, O.C.T. could simply ride a winning formula; continue to play it safe with popular shows, cookie cutter classes, and banking on its reputation to pay the bills. But under Stan Foote, O.C.T continues to expand its vision, using theatre as an instrument of social change and inclusion and telling amazing stories with universal themes.
AN AFTERNOON WITH STAN FOOTE
I met Stan at the headquarters of Oregon Children’s Theatre, located in a little working class section of Portland. Besides a clean and inviting front door, the one story converted warehouse is unassuming, and blends in with the other buildings nearby.
Inside, the space is divided in two; the smaller administrative and creative offices where 28 year round staff members take care of the business of show and the larger half of the space was devoted to classrooms. 3 in all, each filled with students of all ages.
The only private place we could find was small storage/dressing room in the rear corner of one of the classrooms. As I followed Stan to the room, we had to make our way through a class of at least 20 children, going through vocal drills with the teacher in a Musical Theatre class. The children screamed “Hi!” and I could see Stan Smiling sincerely, waving his arms in slight acknowledgement, to the delight of the students.
“I came in as a Director 28 years ago,” Stan told me, “From there I was hired to be the Education Director, and 17 years ago I became the Theatres first Artistic Director.”
That’s a pretty good run. The first thing I wanted to know was what he thought the secret was to O.C.T.’s success? “The community is a large part of it,” Stan said. “Every child in the region gets an opportunity.”
“We’ve been around so long that people who originally came to us as students and actors are now bringing their children to the theatre, Stan remarked, “We are a part of this community. We keep our quality up, trying to grow and keep up with our audience now, not the audience 30 years ago.”
Stan continued on this track when I asked him what it was that drove him and his vision. “I love being in the rehearsal hall, it’s my favorite place,” he said. “I started out as an actor. Turned out I wasn’t that good,” he laughed, “Then I began directing and realized I could still be around actors, be around the rehearsals. When I get to go onstage for curtain speeches it’s my favorite place in the world: there, between the audience and the stage is just so cool. I’m lucky to do what I do, that’s what drives me.”
Having the chance to speak with the staff, it was apparent that there was a thread of shared goals running through the place. Different perspectives of the same vision, to take Theatre for Young Audiences seriously, treat children and young people as equals in the process.
“I don’t think that T.Y.A, style wise, has to be any different than theatre for adults,” he said, “Theatre is theatre. Bring in the best Designers, best technicians. Train young actors so we can have age appropriate casting onstage, so that the kids see themselves onstage.”
“Theatre’s always been challenging, trying to engage an audience with a budget you need to make look like its 4 times bigger than what you’re spending. But that challenge is also the excitement of it. How do we make a quarter look like a dollar? How do you find that thing the audience sees and says “That was amazing! How did you do that?” And the reality is that you found it in the dumpster.”
“I think if someone gave me an unlimited budget I don’t know if the best art would be created that way. I think artists respond to the challenge, the limitations.”
Which brought me to my next question: how does an organization like O.C.T. go about choosing a season? “I wish there was a magic formula” Stan said, “It’s more like a treasure hunt, you find one play and you start building from that.”
With the 30th season coming up, Stan told me that they would include a little something from every category. “For this season, I wanted to include something that was already successful and artistic, so we put our production of A Year With Frog And Toad in there at the end of the season. That production won awards.”
O.C.T. is recognized as one of the top three theatres in Portland. Right up there next to Portland Center Stage. “Frog and Toad won awards for outstanding costumes, lighting, actor and supporting actor, set design,” Stan gushed, “It was a wonderful experience so we wanted to include it, and then we say what’s next?”
BRIDGES NOT WALLS
Buried within the mission of O.C.T. is a statement about overcoming barriers and inequities. I wanted to know more about this, and brought it up to Stan.
“Well, the inequities aren’t overcome til they’re taken away,” Stan began, “There’s rural vs. urban. We are the OREGON Children’s Theatre, so we have children traveling in from Tillimook, hundreds of miles away, to experience the shows.”
“We are touring Tomas And The Library Lady, to bring theatre to those people. Tomas is bi-lingual, with Spanish language content, hitting that barrier is also part of it.”
“We attack financial barriers as well,” he continued, “We have programs in place with a $5 ticket with an E.B.T. card, we have schools we’ll bring in for free if they can’t afford it.”
Another program Stan mentioned was Ticket To Read; Linking Literacy To Live Theater. “Kids get to see the show for free, and we put a book in their hands, and they get to keep that book. For some of these kids it’s the first book they have ever owned.”
O.C.T. also offers scholarship opportunities for its students. “Again,” Stan says, “not enough of them.”
But serving the community, erasing barriers, is a two way street for Stan. “A lot of barriers are there because we are used to dealing with “actors” but we really try to reach outward into the community, to talented kids out there.”
“We were getting ready to do a show called, The Magic Treehouse in 2013 and I needed someone to play Louis Armstrong as a young man. He needed to be able to sing like crazy with his pals,” Stan began, “Remember we’re age appropriate theatre, and I had no young performer of color to do the part.”
Stan went to the internet, and sent out the search, talking with parents, and located two young guys at a local high school and reached out to them.
“I gave them all the info. “Here’s the audition schedule: Three days in July.” “They came back to me and said they couldn’t possibly take that much time to audition!”
Stan laughed, “I explained that it’s just a fifteen minute slot. Then they came back again and said: ‘We don’t have headshots!’ Stan laughed shaking his head.
“It’s okay, a photo will do fine.”
How did that story end? I asked.
“Got two actors out if it,” Stan replied, smiling.
A similar thing happened during the casting of And In This Corner Cassius Clay. A young man reached out to the theatre to say he would like to be in the show because he was going to be representing the U.S. in boxing in 2020.
“He got coaching” Stan told me “The staff coached him on his monologue, and all the time we had an open line of communication back and forth.”
“Finally I had him in the audition room with adult, professional actors,” Stan said, “I went around the room and introduced everyone, then turned to the kid and said “and we have an Olympic boxing contender here with us. And right then and there the room just sort of connected. He did a great first audition. He’s not ready for the stage but it was a pleasure to include him,” Stan paused a moment, “That’s our job. Our job in the world is to lift people up, to get them to do what they want to do. If this kid wants to be an actor then hell yeah, I’ll help him do that!”
As the interview came to a close, I wanted to ask Stan about todays climate. There is an unmistakable feeling in the air these days, a divisiveness that is inescapable. I wanted to get Stans’ thoughts on this, how theatre, particularly theatre for young audiences, could play a role in addressing this atmosphere.
“Theatre is amazing because, in order to participate, whether you’re in the audience or on the stage, there needs to be this empathy,” he said thoughtfully. “There is a great sense of fairness. I believe the values of truth, of community, of working together are sometimes lost these days. I think the stories we try to tell are settled right in those values.”
He continued. “It does not need to be political. The stories we tell to children are universal. “Charlotte’s Web” the story of life and death. These are great things to learn and to experience. We don’t need to comment on the political climate, we need to talk about the values, how do we tell that story to every child. Will they come into the theatre and see themselves?” “No matter what color they are, how big or small they are, whatever their differences, they look onto the stage and find that character that is them.
And collectively they say “That is fair. That is not fair. That one is telling the truth. That one is telling a lie.”
A FINAL THOUGHT
There is much more to this interview than I could put into writing. B.I.T.N. has produced a video of the full interview with Stan and it will be posted on our Youtube page.
I want to extend my sincere thank you to all of the staff of Oregon Children’s Theatre who made this possible. Their enthusiasm and help while I was there cant be overstated. From helping to set up, to sitting patiently during my very first interviews to chauffeuring me around town and pointing out a good restaurant near my motel, there aren’t enough kind words to say it all. I left feeling like I was, in some small way, an honorary member of their community. I for one, can’t wait to see what comes next.
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