OCT: The Power of Children’s Theater

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Nathan C.

I have not always been a fan of theater, particularly children’s theater. In the past, attending children’s performances has not been high on my list of enjoyable things to do with my time. I remember falling asleep at a dance performance of dancers a little older than myself in 7th grade. I remember going to Shakespearean performances at my former elementary school, and wanting to gouge my eyes out, cry, or both. There’s nothing quite like watching a group of 4th through 6th graders break out into their rendition of “Gangnam Style” midway through a patched together version of The Comedy of Errors that they have been working on for two weeks. That’s right, two weeks. So, why then do parents, alumni, faculty, and friends from around Portland, Oregon continue to flock to such dissonant performances of children’s theater?

The first, and perhaps most pronounced, reason is that the people in the audience are generally related somehow to one of the kids on stage. Grandparents fly in from out of town to watch little Susie pitifully squeak her lines for “Narrator 1,” with her face buried in her hair. Parents come to videotape their little guy victoriously proclaim his soliloquy. Bored siblings come to watch their younger brother or sister, just to say that they were there. But the underlying, maybe even subconscious reason people keep attending children’s theater is something much greater, more important, and profound.

Children’s theater matters, and it makes a difference in the lives of the children who love it (Gardner). My 7th grade self, even as a member of a theater class at the time, failed to recognize that importance completely. Theater helps kids, in ways both obvious and obscure, move forward in the world as confident young adults, ready for challenges the real world can throw at them (Phillips 4). Lyn Gardner, a British author and theater critic says, “Theater, particularly theatre for children, fires the imagination, it gives our children the skills and the creativity necessary to face the world, to understand it and perhaps to change it too.”

These skills are becoming even more vital and important in today’s media-­centric atmosphere for youth. In her book, The Artistic Edge, Lisa Phillips, the founder of Canada’s Academy of Stage and Studio Arts, writes, “Young people today seem to be growing up with more stresses and more challenges than children had to deal with when I grew up. The concerning part is, they seem less prepared to handle the pressure” (Phillips 2). Consequently, it is now more important than ever for children to find outlets such as theater to help grow and stimulate their intellectual and creative curiosity. In a town like Portland, where the public school system is floundering, it is even more important that kids find such outlets in other organizations around the city (Jaquiss).

One such organization is Oregon Children’s Theater, or OCT, which offers multiple programs and classes for youth around the Portland area, as well as having produced 88 shows between the 1988­89 and 2013­14 seasons (“Mission & History”). Currently, OCT shows are produced in the Newmark Theater in downtown Portland; it is a surprisingly grandiose theater with three levels of seating. OCT is not joking around; it is serious about bringing fires of passion and creativity into the minds and hearts of kids, whether that be through participation or sitting in the audience.

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The lobby of the Newmark Theater in downtown Portland is abuzz. Children run to and fro, bumping into people, getting trodden on. Parents stand in the back, faintly observing their children and chatting amongst themselves, sipping on water or wine from the concession booth at the other end of the room. The lights are bright but not overly so ­­ it is a typically overcast day outside and the brightness and warmth offers a reprieve from Portland’s grey monotony. The glass overlooking one of Portland’s dreary city streets absorbs the shrieks and laughs of the children.

All are preparing themselves to enjoy Oregon Children’s Theater’s production of Ivy & Bean, adapted from a popular series of children’s books by the same name. I have never read, or even heard of these books, and the shift in popular children’s literature strikes me as amusing, as I am only five to ten years older than these children tearing across the gleaming marble floors.

I scan the crowd, searching for Stan Foote, the artistic director at OCT, who has held that position since 2001 (“Let’s Get to Know”). Foote started directing for OCT 24 years ago; he has been there since the beginning (“Let’s Get to Know”). His first year was the same year OCT, along with Portland’s other preeminent children’s theater, Northwest Children’s Theater, was pushed out of its home in the Portland Civic Theater (Tebo). However, in college and the early years of his professional career, he had no idea that he would end up going down the route of children’s theater. He started his directing career working in adult theater, but didn’t view the transition of directing adults to children as significant, saying, “To me, theater is theater. It’s just a different audience, so it’s not a different technique. The actors should be working as hard and also be as serious.”

I am reasonably apprehensive to meet him, being that he is such a high­ranking member of the OCT staff, and that adults in children’s theater can, in my experience, be a mixed bag of well­intentioned individuals. I finally spot him across the lobby, talking to a couple of young girls and their grandma, out for an afternoon at the theater. He looks exactly how you want the artistic director of a children’s theater company to look ­­ average height and build with short, gray and white hair, and a genial, goofy smile that doesn’t quite extend to the sides of his face but illuminates all his other features and makes those around him feel comfortable. He carries himself with an air of confidence, but also with clear courteous kindness. He smiles at the children shrieking underfoot and waves back at the parents and other adults who seem to know who he is. It’s clear that he spends a lot of time in this lobby, mingling with theatergoers, and embraces the human interaction part of his job. As he approaches us, he greets us warmly, asks everyone’s names, and then beckons us to follow him on a tour of the Newmark Theater.

Walking around the backstage area, we see all industrial grey cement floors and walls with bits of wood planks and other theater­related items strewn in semi­organized piles around the floor. The area is cold, but not uncomfortably so. A few soda cans decorate various corners in the space ­­ a familiar sight to anyone accustomed to the long hours that come with putting on a show. Foote shows me the pulley system, many strips of grey steel cable used to operate curtains and anything that has to move or fly on stage. It is an impressive and professional looking space; certainly not the image that comes to mind when envisioning the backstage of a children’s theater.

Later that afternoon, the theater will be filled with theatergoers, adults and children alike, ready to enjoy OCT’s production of Ivy & Bean. I have arranged with Foote to watch it the next weekend, but it is clear the girls I am taking the tour with are extremely excited. They “ooh” and “ahh” over the glittery worms that will be seen onstage in less than an hour, held by an actor not much older than they are. And, of course, as soon as someone performs onstage, that person becomes famous, so the worms are, by extension, famous themselves. I am even in a little bit of awe myself; I have toured many stages and nothing looks any different or more spectacular than what I’ve seen before, but something about the idea of kids my own age spending their weekend afternoons entertaining and delighting the youth of Portland, Oregon stirs something within me.

The next weekend, as I settle in to watch Ivy & Bean, I am unsure what to expect. It has been many years since I attended an OCT show; would my interpretation of the play be different or negatively impacted by my age? Foote didn’t seem to think so, saying, “ I don’t think children’s theater is dumbed­down theater.” He thinks that since the actors in the shows are working professionally for an established professional theater, there should be no difference in the way they are treated in comparison to their adult counterparts. Gardner adds to this idea, saying, “We should value children’s theatre and take it seriously and that means treating it with the respect that we would any work of art including reviewing and critiquing it.”

The show, which runs a little over an hour, is good, but is also recognizably and undeniably children’s theater. At times, I can tell that the kids on stage are acting; once or twice, there is a millisecond of a pause in between the delivery of one line and the next, which always prompts the audience to think an actor forgot it, whether or not that is actually the case. It is in those moments, however, that I remember why I’m there, and why everyone else in the audience is there. A five minute drive down the road is Portland Center Stage, which produces shows with seasoned adult actors and heavy thematic devices. However, I, and everyone else in the auditorium, have chosen to spend our afternoons watching children realize their potential for creative and intellectual power.

In the end, it does not matter whether an OCT show is bad or good, even though they are comparatively terrific. It matters that the children, both in the audience and on stage, have had their horizons for empathy and human connection opened even a little bit in the process of the production (Gunderson). In a world where 93% of teenagers prefer to use their cellphones to communicate, it is even more important than ever that children are able to empathize and relate to other people from all different walks of life as they enter the real world (Phillips 94). Theater essayist, Lauren Gunderson, puts it best by saying, “If you take a child to the theater, not only will they practice empathy, they might also laugh uproariously, or come home singing about science, or want to know more about history, or tell you what happened at school today, or spend all dinner discussing music, or learn how to handle conflict, or start becoming future patrons of the arts.”

Children’s theater has a significant and positive impact on the lives of children who are in shows, take classes, or just go to watch other kids their age perform onstage. The reason, according to Gunderson, is that, “We don’t understand each other, and we don’t want to. But theater invites us ­­ no, forces us ­­ to empathize” (Gunderson). When you go to the theater, whether to act or observe, you are forced to connect with the characters and become involved in their lives, whether they are likeable or not. It is easy in today’s technological age to sit behind a screen and avoid human connection and interaction, so the empathy that theater forces viewers and actors to have with the characters on stage is an extremely valuable skill that needs to be developed and honed from a young age (Phillips 94). In this sense, children’s theater in general, as well as OCT specifically, helps to prepare kids to enter the adult world and be successful contributors to society who can understand and relate with other people.

OCT helps children practice empathy through theater through their two main programs for youth around Portland in addition to their opportunities to act on the mainstage. The first program is their Acting Academy, which later feeds into their Young Professional program. Foote describes the programs, saying, “Acting Academy is a skill based program. That’s not to mean there isn’t a lot of fun, but just like a dance program, or if you took a program to learn how to play baseball, you would learn the basics. And at some point, kids start becoming particularly interested, and then we have the Young Professional program, which is a mentoring program for 60 students a year.” All of the programs and productions at OCT are tightly woven together; three of the actors in OCT’s Ivy & Bean are currently in the Young Professional program.

In addition to the opportunities for artistic and emotional growth afforded by these programs and shows, young budding OCT actors are given the ability and confidence to find and obtain opportunities in professional theater and college. When talking about OCT’s actors, Foote says, “They’re award­winning, they go to the best colleges in the country if that’s what they want. But even more importantly they can walk into any job interview for any job and say, ‘Hi, my name is…’, shake hands, hand the resume, and be able to be straight out and confident with what they do.” Foote writes several college recommendations for his students and actors every year, and alumni of either their acting programs, their shows, or both, have gone to such prestigious universities as Stanford, Juilliard, and NYU.

However, to paint a picture of OCT as a bright and sunny place where children are always cheerful and frolic in meadows amongst their unicorn friends would be both misleading and incorrect. OCT productions and programs are real work, and they are hard work. In particular, OCT runs their audition process just like an adult theater company, and thus the high probability of rejection is going to be stressful and emotional for kids. Foote has no pretenses about any of this, saying, “they develop a thick skin, which I think is good for the world, and I know when they don’t get cast they get very upset, but when they do get cast they get elated. And they don’t get cast more times than they get cast, and I think there’s a resilience about that.” As OCT is one of, if not the, top tier children’s theater programs in the Portland area, about 200 kids audition every season. This means, according to Foote, that many more kids are going to be disappointed than elated.

Maya Caulfield, a 14 year old actor with experience at OCT, says OCT auditions are stressful, but not unmanageable. Caulfield, who is in the Young Professional program and has been cast in two OCT shows, says the stress of OCT season auditions is comparable to that of high school finals week. However, she says, “Stan [Foote] and Dani [Baldwin], who are in the room during the auditions, are two of the most supportive people who have helped me grow with theater and as a person.” It is clear that OCT, as Foote said, realizes that the children they are working with as professional actors are intelligent, creative human beings, and deserve to be treated and supported as such.

However, despite OCT’s commitment to providing a constructive environment, it is always difficult for kids to face rejection. As Foote, says, many kids are going to go home upset, which is clearly not Foote’s goal as artistic director, but he says that kids have to try to make the best of it, and learn to develop a thick skin and resilient attitude. The key, essentially, is not to get discouraged, especially because artists encounter rejection and failure frequently, as art is not nearly as whimsical and easy as more right­brain people can make it out to be (Phillips 15). Art is an extremely vulnerable venture ­­ it is easy for a child to put forward a math problem he has done, because there is only one way to complete a math problem. It is much more difficult to put forth an artistic piece or performance because there are endless permutations of what is aesthetically pleasing, and children are trained from a young age to be afraid of failure (Phillips 39). Phillips says, “We tend to tell children more of what we do not like than what we do like” (Phillips 39).

How, then, can the audition process constitute positive growth, or create a beneficial kind of stress? If kids are taught to distrust themselves artistically in fear that they’ll be wrong or look stupid, and if they are then also taught that nothing is worse than failure, then how could a twelve year old participating in an audition he’ll probably get rejected from possibly have a positive experience? The answer is that the process of auditioning and the process of placing himself on the brink of failure will push him out of his learned comfort zone, allowing him to explore his passions and discover what he is actually good at (Phillips 44). Foote says, that although not everyone will be cast, “Theater is very inclusive, so there’s a place for everyone.” Foote’s understanding of theater as a welcoming environment enables him, as OCT’s artistic director, to create a safe space where children will not be so afraid to fail. The opinion of the people setting the tone of OCT’s atmosphere is that if you don’t get cast, that’s ok; you can still be involved somehow, and this involvement is hugely important. Phillips says, “When young people are given an outlet to develop confidence, it opens up new possibilities they did not know were there. They find strengths and talents, and they learn to stretch their capabilities” (Phillips 44).

OCT is this outlet for children to learn what they’re good at and how to apply those skills to the world around them. It is clear from Caulfield’s glowing review of the adults at OCT, as well as Foote’s emphasis on making sure that each child understands that there will be a place for him or her in theater, point to OCT being a safe and inclusive space for children to spread their wings and gain confidence. In a world where children are taught to fear failure instead of reach for success, it is vital to find places where those backwards ideals can be unlearned (Phillips 39). “I’ve had really great experiences with all the adults,” Caulfield says. And as she goes on, it is clear that she is one of the children who has been lucky enough to have someone teach her that the anticipation of success is far greater than preemptive despair.

✩✩✩✩✩

As I prepare to leave, Foote and I chat and survey the lobby of the Newmark Theater in front of us. I look around the room one last time at all the children running around, cutting shapes out of paper, genuinely excited that they’re about to go see a play and lose themselves in the story of Ivy and Bean for an hour and a half. Foote, without knowing any of my history or what shows I’ve participated in, if any, asks me why I’ve never auditioned for OCT. When he asks, the excited little kid inside of me rears his head, and asks me as well why I’ve never taken the plunge. I push the feeling away, and answer Foote that I really enjoy doing plays at my school and that my other extracurriculars get in the way. But I think to myself that the real reason is probably that I am one of the children who never unlearned the fear of failure coming before the anticipation of success.

Works Cited:

Caulfield, Maya. Personal interview. 6 Nov. 2014.

Foote, Stan. Personal interview. 25 Oct. 2014.
Gardner, Lyn. “Why children’s theatre matters.” Theater Blog with Lyn Gardner. The Guardian,

23 Oct. 2013. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
Gunderson, Lauren. “How Theater for Young People Could Save the World.” Huffpost Arts &

Culture. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 19 Mar. 2012. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
Jaquiss, Nigel. “Flunk Factories: The ugly truth about graduation rates at Portland’s high

schools.” Willamette Week. Willamette Week Newspaper, 13 Nov. 2013. Web. 20 Nov.

2014.
“Let’s Get to Know, Stan Foote.” artslandia. artslandia, n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
“Mission & History.” Oregon Children’s Theater. Oregon Children’s Theater, n.d. Web. 22 Oct.

2014.
Phillips, Lisa. The Artistic Edge: 7 Skills Children Need to Succeed in an Increasingly Right

Brain World. Toronto: Lisa Phillips, 2012. Print.
Tebo, Martin. “To Educate, Enrich, and Entertain Young Audiences: Northwest Children’s

Theater’s Foundation in the Portland Community.” Portland: Oregon Episcopal School, 2013. Print.

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