More public forums. Adding a sexual abuse survivor to the board of director. Using art on stage to help heal trauma.
Leaders of the Children’s Theatre Company say they’re considering all those ideas and others as they try to rebuild trust after abuse at the theater decades ago — and after some of their own missteps in recent lawsuits and statements inflamed community outrage.
“We’ve made some mistakes,” said board chairman Todd Noteboom. “Now we just have a better understanding of the trauma.”
In September, the theater held an open forum for the first time since a wave of lawsuits were first filed in 2015. The theater is also improving training and education, including acknowledgment of the abuse, and plans to put together a speakers series and establish a survivor fund once all lawsuits are resolved — one of survivors’ top requests.
“We have acknowledged and will continue to acknowledge that history,” said Kimberly Motes, the managing director. “It’s a dark chapter and a painful legacy.”
Some survivors are skeptical any actions will rebuild broken trust and heal their deep trauma, but others say the actions are a step forward.
“They finally are hearing [us],” said Laura Stearns, one of 17 plaintiffs who filed lawsuits. “They should be a model for how it was done wrong and how to do it better.”
The south Minneapolis theater, which has a $13.5 million annual budget and more than 400 on staff, is the nation’s largest theater company for youths and families, working with nearly 300,000 people a year. But its reputation has been clouded by abuse of boys and girls during the 1970s and 1980s — the extent of which wasn’t known publicly until the lawsuits.
Seven cases have reached confidential settlements, but many supporters of the survivors are dismayed by how CTC dealt with the lawsuits, particularly in Stearns’ case, the only one to go to trial. After a jury found the theater negligent but not liable for damages, the theater’s attorneys sought to have Stearns reimburse about $300,000 in legal costs — a move that prompted protests and calls for a boycott.
At least five teachers quit. Dozens of artists and teachers sent an open letter and launched a website to push for a “humane legal strategy,” including admitting liability. The theater community — from the Guthrie to the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre — issued statements in support of survivors.
CTC later apologized and withdrew its request.
Two other defendants are named in some of the lawsuits: Jason McLean, a former teacher who reportedly fled to Mexico, and former artistic director John Clark Donahue, who was convicted of molesting three boys in the 1980s and admitted to abusing many others and died this year. But the plaintiffs’ attorney, Jeff Anderson, says more than 100 victims were abused by 20 offenders.
“It’s about institutional reform [and] … healing and justice for survivors,” said Marya Hart, who has taught music at the theater since 1999. “I don’t think they’ve handled it well so far. They really came out swinging in the beginning.”
Can they recover?
It’s unclear how the boycott and controversy has affected the nonprofit’s finances. Motes said ticket sales haven’t gone down and subscriptions are up this year. Last year, tickets drew in about $5 million of $16 million in revenue, according to tax forms, with the rest from grants, donations and other program revenue.
Ember Reichgott Junge, who runs a dance nonprofit and pushed to extend the statute of limitations on abuse cases in the 1990s when she was a state senator, said CTC could be a model for others.
“They aren’t the only organization going through this situation,” she said. “Can they recover from these mistakes by doing what is right now?”
The theater has brought in help with public relations and is working with RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault to help with policies and procedures. CTC also convened a community council that drafted a proposal, which includes holding a gathering to honor survivors and a forum to answer questions.
At the Sept. 16 public forum, people suggested starting a youth council, adding a survivor to the board of directors and hosting a forum at a neutral site for survivors. Others said CTC should be more transparent and open about the abuse, renovate the theater to make it less triggering for survivors or add a peace garden.
“We’re really committed to continuing the conversation,” Noteboom said, adding that they’re considering the ideas.
The CTC abuse is also sparking a growing dialogue in the community. For instance, Park Square Theatre in St. Paul plans to improve its policies and hire trained intimacy directors, choreographers to safely stage intimate scenes. This month, the Minnesota Theater Alliance has a session on preventing sexual assault.
“I think most everyone in the industry are following what’s happening at CTC and [are asking] what are we doing,” said C. Michael-jon Pease, executive director of Park Square Theatre.
Stearns also organized a coalition of about 20 arts leaders to put on 10 forums starting Oct. 28 to talk about the Children’s Theatre and sexual violence in the industry.
“The conversation needs to shift to how we deal with sexual assault in the arts community,” she said, adding that CTC isn’t part of the coalition. “I’m not sure they have the trust of the community to lead these conversations yet.”
“Their reputation and status as a world-renowned institution is built on these survivors,” added Wendy Knox, artistic director of Frank Theatre. “It’s had a huge impact on the theater community … but CTC has to take the lead on healing this.”
Too little, too late
For one of the unnamed plaintiffs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, no action by the theater can mend the hurt and trauma of the abuse and this year’s difficult legal process, she said.
“There’s nothing they can do to make me whole,” she said.
Another plaintiff, Erin Nanasi, said that the theater’s actions are too little, too late.
“I don’t trust them. Honestly if it were up to me, there would be no more Children’s Theatre; it would close,” she said.
Nanasi said she thinks the theater is going through the motions and she’s skeptical how victims are treated will change.
“I think it’s really sad it took protest, a boycott and local media attention for them to talk about doing the right thing,” she said. “People don’t like when their hero falls and Children’s Theatre has been a hero in the community no matter what happened to us. In a year, no one will remember this.”
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141
CHILDREN’S THEATRE TIMELINE
1975 The Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) is incorporated after beginning as The Moppet Players.
1984 Co-founder John Clark Donahue pleads guilty to abusing three boys and serves 10 months. In a deposition, he admits to abusing or raping 16 boys since starting the theater. Five other administrators and staff were charged with sexually abusing students or failing to report abuse. They were acquitted or their charges were dismissed. Three victims later sued Donahue and CTC, and the theater settled their cases out of court.
2013: A new law, the Minnesota Child Victims Act, extends the statute of limitations on old abuse cases.
2015: Laura Stearns sues CTC and Jason McLean, a former teacher she said raped her and at least four other students. She’s one of 17 plaintiffs in lawsuits against CTC and/or McLean and Donahue related to sexual abuse at the theater.
2017 McLean sells his properties, the Varsity Theater and Loring Pasta Bar, and reportedly flees to Mexico.
January 2019 A jury finds CTC negligent but not liable for damages in Stearns’ case. The jury returned a $3.68 million verdict against McLean.
March 2019 Donahue dies at age 80.
May 2019 Stearns and other plaintiffs call for a boycott of the theater after CTC applied to have her pay nearly $300,000 in court costs. CTC leaders later apologize and vow not to seek court costs from her. But plaintiffs and supporters hold protests outside CTC.
August 2019 CTC settles six lawsuits and pledges to improve policies and training, assemble a community council, hold a forum and present a speakers series.
September 2019 CTC settles seventh lawsuit and holds a public forum.