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Dozens of predators, 100s of kids: Decades of trained stars and scorched lives at Children's Theatre

Zoe Prinds-Flash

Zoe Prinds-Flash

This following contains references to sexual assault and suicide.

Shortly after Children’s Theatre Company was founded in 1965, critics were calling it the greatest children’s troupe in the world. The extraordinary feats of its cast and crew, bright kids from across America, afforded the Twin Cities a reputation for artistic excellence.

The Minneapolis company was an insular institution with mysterious methods, helmed by the brilliant and volatile John Clark Donahue. He was also a predatory abuser of children. It was common knowledge that the boys in starring roles tended to be those who serviced Donahue sexually.

When Donahue was finally caught in 1984, Judge Charles Porter skewered the Twin Cities arts community for its complicity.

“‘Genius has to be given their idiosyncrasies, or genius has its funny side, and you have to forgive those sort of things. The theater would have collapsed if anything happened to John Clark Donahue, and the Twin Cities could not afford to have that happen.’ I have heard that so much,” Porter said at sentencing.

“Large family and company money, Dayton’s, Pillsbury, etc., supports the theater, and that they would not allow this to happen. The allegations would be squelched to protect their reputations.”

Former CTC students Laura Stearns—whose lawsuit went to trial this year—and Erin Nanasi, a fellow plaintiff, console each other during a Saturday afternoon protest of the company.

Former CTC students Laura Stearns—whose lawsuit went to trial this year—and Erin Nanasi, a fellow plaintiff, console each other during a Saturday afternoon protest of the company. Zoe Prinds-Flash

The judge understood that Donahue was just the spearhead of a larger deceit.

Underneath him were dozens of other staffers who sifted freely through the company’s turnstile of children. Some predators were friends Donahue hired to teach. Others were former students who’d been raped when they were very young, in an earlier decade, and raised in a boundaryless reality to become perpetrators in another.

But because many within the company worked to deflect probing questions from the outside world, the institutional nature of the abuse was hidden for decades. The company survived. It scoured its history.

In 2013, Minnesota created the Child Victim Act, a three-year window to temporarily lift the statute of limitations on sex crimes.

Alumni were now in their 50s and 60s, scattered from coast to coast. Those who stayed in the Twin Cities inherited its arts scene, where survivors and perpetrators work in the same circles. Many led damaged lives perforated with attempted suicides, failed marriages, and unbidden intrusions of post-traumatic stress.

Seventeen alumni served lawsuits, accusing Children’s Theatre of abuse. Their cases reveal more than was publicly known about the company's 50-year history, as well as how many of its former tribe prefer to leave that past untilled.

II. The Village Storyteller

In 1961, John Clark Donahue was 23 and an art teacher at Carl Sandberg Middle School when he was convicted of molesting a 17-year-old boy. Police suspected the teen was being traded in an underage pornography ring. Donahue served three months in jail and went to work as a set designer for a south Minneapolis children’s theater troupe called the Moppet Players.

Moppet’s founder, Beth Linnerson, wanted to provide free classes for Cedar-Riverside neighborhood kids. Donahue had ambitions of artistic primacy. His vision evolved into the Children’s Theatre Company.

As artistic director, Donahue’s eccentric genius delivered the company to the highest caliber of professionalism. He’d communicate the lush fairy tale world of his imagination through allegory and language so strange it bordered on babble, commanding young actors to dance like wheat in a wheat field, and memorize lines he made up on the spot.

Throughout the following decade, Children’s Theatre partnered with Minneapolis Public Schools to offer afternoon drama classes, and opened a summer institute that recruited children from out of state. Staff were hired to coach acting, compose music, paint sets, and write scripts.

Children’s Theatre put on more than 100 different plays, most of which were original works.

One particular Donahue creation left a lasting impression on generations. The Cookie Jar was an advanced parable about the dangers of commercial exploitation. The set was a giant bowl, and the climax a frenetic dance of grab. In the end everyone melted down and died. There were leading roles for black students, which was nearly unheard of. Critics were stunned.

Families aspired to see their children among the stars. Creative kids who were outcasts in mainstream schools gravitated to the stage, which represented a higher purpose. In auditions, hundreds would sing, dance, and tumble, but only one or two could catch Donahue’s eye.

In the 1970s, Donahue would take his favorite boys to dinners and shows, the State Fair and Renaissance Festival. He’d introduce them to the who’s who of the local arts scene. They’d stay overnight in his Victorian house at 2536 Stevens Ave. S., and work in his garden.

University of Minnesota Prof. Jeanette Simmonds, who is also suing CTC, joins her former classmates on the boulevard.

University of Minnesota Prof. Jeanette Simmonds, who is also suing CTC, joins her former classmates on the boulevard.

Lawsuits filed more than a decade later offer insight to how they perceived those encounters. One former child star said Donahue was interested solely in his own gratification, and was never loving or nurturing behind closed doors. He’d tell young boys that adult-child sex was a natural occurrence everyone enjoyed.

When he’d touch them affectionately in front of other staff, no one was fazed, the student claimed in legal filings. Adults rarely interfered when children got drunk and high at the opening-night bacchanals Donahue hosted at his house. It reinforced distorted notions of what was normal.

In 1972 Jacqui Smith, whose five children participated in the company, heard some of their teenage friends discuss “messing around” with Donahue. Concerned, she asked them what they wanted of her. Just to talk, they allegedly responded.

According to Smith’s deposition, she recounted the incident to Debra Anderson, a Hennepin County prosecutor, after Minnesota passed mandatory reporting laws in 1975. Anderson referred a handful of children to Minneapolis Police. But the investigation was discontinued within a month. No charges were filed.

Around 1977, a 15-year-old actor ran away and wound up at the Bridge, a shelter for LGBT teens in crisis. He’d been experiencing emotional upheaval from Donahue’s role in his life. His mother couldn’t get him to come home. A counselor called Donahue, who claimed the nature of their relationship was sensitive and misunderstood.

Ben Kreilkamp, an adult actor in the 1970s, says a 17-year-old boy once tried to confide in him, “John fucks all the boys.” Kreilkamp didn’t know how to react, so he moved away without comment.

“That was of course the moment in which I made my choice,” he reflects now. “I chose not to know.”

Kim Hines had been a child star in the late 1960s and later a Children’s Theatre teacher. Over the years, she says she intermittently spoke with authorities about Donahue’s preference for boys and warned parents not to let their children roam the theater unattended. She recalls some would demur, weighing danger against opportunity.

“So what do you do?” asks Hines, now 63 and in therapy for her lifelong connections to Children’s. “What the hell do you do?”

For 15-year-old Todd Hildebrandt, who says Donahue raped him starting in 1977, the threat was as vague as myth, like a dragon in the basement.

He spent his mornings at Cooper High School, and his evenings learning pantomime, ballet, and acrobatics at CTC. When a cousin who worked in the entertainment industry warned him about Donahue one Christmas, the euphemisms didn’t register in his child’s mind. He was there for the prestige of the stage and the adoration of audiences.

“We can’t conceive of what the consequences of that are until the door is closed, and you freeze and you pray to god that he would send his angels to stop what was going on,” Hildebrandt says. “That’s when reality hit.”

Hildebrandt eventually befriended an older man at a bible study, a filmmaker who worked for the evangelical movie studio World Wide Pictures. They’d talk about distributing movies, and then one day Hildebrandt emoted about his abuse. The filmmaker called the theater within the week and warned Donahue to keep his distance.

For decades gossip shadowed the theater. Yet it was easy to say whispers of “John’s Boys” lacked sufficient evidence.

Female students were called “Bettys.” Donahue was famously cruel to girls, calling them whatever he liked and screaming at them for infractions such as flubbing an accent or failing to “talk like a glass slipper.”

To the public, Donahue presented a different face. The way he spoke of children enchanted donors.

“Children are reverently involved with the human dilemma, for their life is too sweet and the music too neat to take for granted,” he wrote in a 1967 Minneapolis Tribune guest column. “At a time when minds are so free and open, let there be great explosions of confetti and fireworks, great rattles of evil and great moments of sacred beauty, all finely told like the best of ancient storytellers around the fire.”

By the 1980s, Children’s Theatre built a $4.5 million world-class facility, which was one-third of the Minneapolis arts complex that also includes the Institute of Art and the College of Art and Design. Through ticket sales, grants, and individual donations, it reached an annual budget of nearly $3 million. Corporate and political leaders wanted entry to its board of directors.

Como Zoo loaned the theater a jaguar for He Who Gets Slapped, a drama about a circus clown. Rollerblades, patented in Minnesota for off-season hockey training, were used in Mr. Pickwick’s Christmas before the general public could buy them in stores.

Networks taped CTC’s plays for television and VHS. The Smithsonian Magazine featured the theater on its cover. Ted Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, and Strega Nona creator Tomie dePaola allowed it to adapt their books. There was a Margo Jones Award, among other accolades.

Children’s Theatre was like a family. At the center of that universe, Donahue—the self-identified “magician-priest” whose balcony office overlooked the house—was the sun.

III. The Shaving of the Head

Before the 1980s, children who participated in Children’s Theatre divided their attentions between the company and the outside world. Things escalated in 1981 when Wayne Jennings, a St. Paul district administrator, arrived to establish a fully accredited private school.

It was a radical experiment in which students taught themselves whatever they wanted at whatever pace they preferred. There weren’t always teachers for core subjects like math and history. There were no exams or grades. Seniors and 12-year-olds attended the same classes.

Theater was the more serious endeavor. Kids attended classes from noon until 5 p.m., took an hour for dinner, then regrouped for rehearsals that could run until 3 a.m. Everyone was required to crew—changing sets, climbing catwalks, and operating mechanical flywheels—duties that are now the domain of union professionals.

Students spent almost all their waking hours among the same people. Alienated from the outside world, they considered themselves enlightened, equal to their adult peers. There were few age barriers.

Donahue also began to drink excessively. His personality became more erratic and explosive.

Each year, he’d present his philosophy, called the “Shaving of the Head.” According to his 1987 deposition, this was when he’d remind the student body to respect the discipline of theater, to practice humility and devotion in one’s journey as artist, and to respect their instructors as those who knew the way. Then he’d shave his head.

Jennings later admitted to hearing rumors of child abuse prior to joining Children’s Theatre and receiving four general complaints during his tenure. According to police reports, Jennings claimed he confronted Donahue and warned him there would be no “fooling around with the children” by anyone on staff.

The warning was ineffective.

A village rose. Staff and parents moved close to the theater. Students working late slept in storage closets or went home with other company members.

Thirteen-year-old Karen Hagen devoted her life to the theater, where she thought her opinions mattered as much as any adult’s. At parties, she drank as much as they did, and she “dated” almost anyone she chose. She carried a skeleton key to the building.

One night she caught her foot in a hydraulic lift elevator and had to go to a hospital. Afterward, she returned to the theater to recuperate, rather than her parents’ home in Northeast's Hilltop trailer court. In the morning, she sold her Percocets to Children's house manager.

Hagen eventually moved in with a boyfriend, a teacher twice her age, she'd later testify. Sound technician Stephen Adamczak also demanded to have sex with her. She recalled playing strip poker with adult actor Jason McLean, who’d tell girls it was a useful exercise in shaking their inhibitions for the stage.

In 1981 Adamczak, now deceased, offered to drive 15-year-old tech student Erin Nanasi home from rehearsal. It was late. She was grateful. Halfway there, he pulled over and tried to rape her, Nanasi says. She kicked and shoved herself against the door, tumbled onto the curb, and ran home. She told no one.

A transfer from Catholic school, Nanasi says she had no concept of sexual assault. When she spent her 16th birthday with two girls who spoke casually about the fun they had with Adamczak, she felt lost and disoriented. That night she downed two bottles of prescription painkillers her mother kept in the bathroom and went blind for days as she recovered in the intensive care unit.

“When I left, up until five years ago, I believed that being a victim of sexual violence was the price for being gifted and special and privileged,” Nanasi says. “Because that’s what I heard almost on a daily basis at Children’s Theatre.”

Alumni remember McLean as one of the theater’s few heterosexual leads, a handsome man with a decadent manner of speaking. He loved the attention of teenage girls.

In a 1982 revival of The Cookie Jar, 17-year-old Marta Hartman – now Keane – played a chorus member. McLean played a punk rocker whom he interpreted as a sex god. Keane later testified that backstage and in hallways, his approach to method acting included lewd growling at the girls, grabbing their butts, and trying to lick their necks.

Hanna Dworkin was assigned as McLean’s backstage dresser in the show “Puss in Boots” when she was 16. The play called for him to be drenched in water. Dworkin’s job was to help him into a dry costume in time for the next scene.

She recalls struggling to pull off his wet pants, and discovering he wore no underwear when his penis dangled inches from her face. He laughed, waggled it, and pressed his hand against the back of her head, Dworkin says. Unsure of how to react and anxious not to appear childish, she merely carried on.

III. The Tribe is Tested

In 1982, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) turned its sights on John Clark Donahue.

Two Minneapolis men, Patrick Cain and Terrill Hanson, had been arrested on suspicions of participating in a pedophile ring. They implicated Donahue, then a nationally famous artist.

Agents met with managing director Sarah Lawless, told her Donahue was under investigation, and suggested the theater retain a lawyer. According to investigative reports, they explained they were “extremely sensitive to the position the Theatre might find itself in, and stated that the contact was spawned out of concern for the Theatre’s reputation and well-being.”

In return, they requested access to student records in order to identify victims.

Lawless called Bill Powell, chair of the theater’s board. A council was convened of its most important members, including Faegre and Benson lawyer Winthrop Rockwell.

That evening, the group summoned Donahue to a meeting at Powell’s office in downtown Minneapolis’ National City Bank Building. They recommended Donahue have representation, then awaited the arrival of lawyer Mark Gehan from St. Paul. Afterward, they confronted him with the allegations, which Donahue called a witch hunt of a prominent gay man.

“I think we all concurred that there was no basis for believing that any allegations were in fact true. There being no evidence so cited by the BCA, we wondered on what basis they could conduct an investigation,” said Powell in a 1987 deposition.

This small group met frequently the following month, kept no records on advice of counsel, and didn’t inform the balance of the 40-some-member board for fear it would leak to the press. They also withheld student records from the BCA, arguing they were private.

According to Rockwell’s 1987 deposition, Donahue’s lawyer Gehan would call periodically to check if Children’s Theatre was cooperating with the BCA. “Advising him that we had a request for some information was not in our view any interference,” he said.

The board didn’t suspend Donahue, assign anyone to monitor him, or inform parents. All these actions would have obstructed justice, Rockwell maintained in 2019 trial testimony.

The BCA contacted hundreds of mostly unhelpful witnesses. But eventually, four teenage boys who said they’d been assaulted within the three-year statute of limitations agreed to speak.

On April 18, 1984, agents raided the theater, arrested Donahue, and called a news conference. Tips flooded in, some indicating the abuse involved not just Donahue and “John’s Boys,” but additional staff and the “Bettys.”

School records show Children’s Theatre suspended outreach director Tony Steblay, English teacher Stewart Gamble, Stephen Adamczak, and Jason McLean within days of the raid, but didn’t inform parents.

Soon, the BCA arrested dance teacher Bill Harren also. They charged science teacher Scott Creeger and education director Wayne Jennings with misdemeanors for failing to report various child abuse complaints they’d admitted receiving over the years.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office convened a grand jury. Most students repelled the process. Those who spoke were called bitches and snitches. Staff raised middle fingers to them on sight, according to alumni.

Fifteen-old Jina Lucas—now Penn-Tracy—was one of McLean’s victims at the time. He’d singled her out, flirted with her beneath the stage where props were stored, and eventually asked her to his house under the guise of rehearsal.

They were open about their “relationship,” hugging, kissing, and holding hands at the theater, Penn-Tracy later testified. She was led to believe theirs was a meaningful connection, the start of her movie star life.

She says McLean became more sexually violent and paranoid as investigators closed in. He wanted her to deny their sexual encounters and say catty girls were forever fabricating sex stories about the staff they adored. McLean gave her a list of six students. She convinced them all to lie.

“It was a way to neutralize not only me, but other victims and try to discredit the whole community,” Penn-Tracy testified this year. “I lied to the grand jury, and I didn’t stop him.”

By the fall of 1984, most of the cases had broken down, according to lawyer Martin Costello, whose Ph.D. thesis “Hating the Sin, Loving the Sinner” summarized the Children’s Theatre prosecutions.

He’d watched as one student read a statement blasting authorities for forcing her to testify against Adamczak, kicked open the door, and stormed out. She was 14 years old.

Ultimately, the only person convicted was Donahue, who pleaded guilty to raping three boys.

Children’s Theatre’s class of 1984 loved Donahue so much it dedicated its yearbook to him, defense attorney Peter Thompson argued in pursuit of a light sentence, simultaneously blaming the child accusers as unchaste, classically trained liars, and the media for exaggerating the scandal.

Donahue served 10 months in jail and 15 years of probation.

Though he pleaded guilty and publicly apologized for raping three boys, he later admitted in depositions to molesting 16. Some of the boys he denied assaulting have since testified to the contrary.

IV. They Circled the Wagons

Some students had to leave Children’s Theatre after the year of the troubles and make rough reentries into a general population many found alien—public schools that confiscated cigarettes and issued paperwork for bathroom breaks.

Alumna Karen Hagen recalls it was the shattering of her tribe—when she’d been told it was the only one to which she’d ever belong—that cut the deepest. To her, the druggings and sexual assault paled in comparison to the shattering of a magic kingdom so blindingly brilliant, students were ready to do anything to protect it.

“Nobody understood the value that it brought to us,” she explains. “So when somebody did blow the whistle, it was something that had been going on for hundreds of people, all the time, a normal part of the day. Some people had to take a yucky medicine in the morning, some people had to give a blowjob.”

Other students stayed and closed ranks.

Actor Jason McLean was reinstated.

A memo between new managing director John B. Davis and McLean “acknowledges ill-advised and inappropriate behavior on the part of Mr. Jason McLean involving female students,” and set conditions for his continued employment: “under no circumstances will he date or entertain female students of the Children’s Theatre Company and School in his home or outside the Theatre at any time for any reason.”

The memo was insufficient.

A 15-year-old girl—a Jane Doe who recently settled a lawsuit against CTC—returned to the theater after the summer of 1984 and was cast in shows without having to audition—working alongside McLean. She says McLean always seemed to know where she was, trapping and molesting her in private nooks backstage.

“He never threatened me directly, but I was certain I was going to die or go to jail. He’s tall and big, very big and violent. It was a bad time.”

Jane Doe says McLean would make her sneak out to his house in the middle of the night, force her to eat foods she disliked, such as mussels, and read him children’s books naked. If she refused, he’d lock her in his stairwell. Her loss of sleep that year was acute.

CTC administrators knew that staff continued to abuse students following John Clark Donahue’s arrest. Former chief financial officer Jay Bush, now a New Mexico architect, testified in 2019 about several handwritten notes he’d taken during meetings in this period.

“Jason always trying to get into bed with the kids,” Bush wrote of a conversation with a director in 1984. That same year, two students tried to report the sexual abuse of their friends, but Bush did not recall that any effort was made to contact the alleged victims.

He also made note of a conversation with McLean in 1986, when the actor reportedly said he had, “No apologies to offer [for]… the freedom with which I move between age brackets.”

CTC didn’t inform police of McLean’s admission, Bush testified. The school closed in 1986.

Jane Doe wants to correct a misunderstanding about the 1980s prosecutions. Many thought the children were mature beyond their years, that age-of-consent laws were too narrow a lens to judge the company’s nuanced situation.

Rather, children and adults alike had been indoctrinated by an indomitable culture, she says. She counts 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old students who could legally consent among the staff’s victims.

“What does it mean when an 18-year-old voluntarily gets into this, but they’ve been brainwashed?” she asks. “There’s no crime if you’ve convinced someone to be a slave, naked in a room and not moving all day until they come to tell you. What is that crime?”

V. Sunlight

Thirty years passed.

Peter Brosius became artistic director of Children’s Theatre in 1997. Kimberly Motes joined as managing director in 2016. With the exception of “lifetime members,” no individual on the board carries over from the Donahue years.

Under the future-focused Brosius, the company redefined itself by implementing modern child protection policies. Donahue’s plays were retired. The company now stages stories of current events such as the immigration crisis at the border.

Children’s Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015. In a statement, the company called its abuse history a dark moment. Alumni found that flippant. Some felt the formative years they’d given to the theater—the good and the bad—had been erased.

A private alumni Facebook group launched. Hundreds posted memories. Although rumors of abuse had been ubiquitous, many discovered it went deeper than they’d ever known.

Minnesota’s Child Victim Act, effective from 2013-2016, allowed adults abused as children to file lawsuits against their perpetrators. Alumni deliberated it as the window narrowed.

Survivor Todd Hildebrandt was 52 years old when he and his wife went to see Macbeth at the Guthrie Theater. John Clark Donahue walked in just before the show began. Hildebrandt went into a state of disassociation for two hours, and couldn’t remember a word of the play by the time it was over.

That reaction echoed the amplified panic signals he’d lived with since leaving Children’s, Hildebrandt says. He’s never had a business lunch with another man where a small, vigilant voice in the back of his brain didn’t search for an exit route just in case.

A few years ago, Hildebrandt underwent divorce proceedings and a rough patch with his daughter. When he also lost his job, he looked in the mirror one day and decided death would be preferable to pain, so he took a bottle of sleeping pills and went to bed.

He was hospitalized for 20 days. At the time, Children’s Theatre wasn’t on his mind. So when he finally went to Jeff Anderson and Associates, the law firm famous for suing the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts, he brought along his psychological evaluation, a brochure about adult symptoms of child sex abuse, and a sheaf of playbills from his career at Children’s Theatre.

“Is this all a coincidence?” he asked the lawyers.

Around the same time, Laura Stearns began to relive her years at Children’s. She was cast as Jason McLean’s love interest in 1982’s “Mr. Pickwick’s Christmas,” when she was 15 and required to kiss him. Next, she was in “Trial and Jury” and “Wind in the Willows.”

One summer day she performed in both plays, and was invited to a party across the street at Donahue’s house afterward. Alcohol flowed. Stearns got so drunk McLean almost carried her back to his house, where he forcibly raped her. The next morning, she walked back to the theater, sobbing uncontrollably yet telling no one.

Over the years she’d also battled alcoholism, and such aversion to sex that it would take her days to prepare for intimacy with her ex-husband. A whiff of body odor—McLean didn’t wear deodorant—would detonate panic attacks at the grocery store.

She’d read Facebook posts from her old classmates and cry, feeling guilty for shrugging off investigators when they tried to interview her in 1984. Her son reminded her she was just a child. Her ex-husband said it was time to evict McLean from her head.

Eventually Stearns filed suit and became the first plaintiff to identify herself.

By then, McLean had become a prominent Minneapolis businessman, proprietor of the Loring Café, Loring Pasta Bar, and the Varsity Theater. He issued a statement declaring Stearns a liar and vowing to clear his good name.

Annie Enneking, a stage combat director, found McLean’s denial ludicrous.

At 14, she had the titular role in Alice in Wonderland. McLean was the caterpillar. He abused her over the course of three months when she was 15, she says. But she wanted to be a loyal solider to the theater and kept quiet, even as she developed an eating disorder and clinical depression due, in part, to McLean. She carries shame around that still.

Enneking believes Children’s Theatre built its success on the bones of her generation, but wasn’t ready to name the institution in a lawsuit. She won a $2.5 million summary judgment against McLean in October 2017 when he failed to participate in court. As lawsuits piled up, McLean quietly sold his properties and left town. He moved to California, where he founded the restaurant Small Wonder, a clone of the Loring Café. Then he vanished.

A Cabo San Lucas resort broker named Gert de Herrera met with McLean in 2017 after he made a $1.3 million offer on a hotel. According to his affidavit, de Herrera researched McLean online, found a City Pages article about the Varsity’s empty concert roster, and informed Anderson and Associates of his last sighting in Mexico.

When Stearns went to trial in January, the only defendant in the room was Children’s Theatre, which didn’t dispute survivors’ stories, yet argued that individual perpetrators bore all responsibility.

Alumni testified on Stearns' behalf, corroborating the endemic sexual abuse, the parties, the culture of exceptionalism, and the “family’s” ability to silence its members.

Former students who’d been assaulted after Stearns’ attack in the summer of 1983 weren’t allowed to testify. But Stearns was asked to recount several rapes she experienced throughout her life after leaving the theater.

From the gallery, PRIME Productions founder Elena Giannetti found it difficult to watch Stearns relay those events.

Mental health practitioners now describe the concept of “re-victimization” as rape survivors’ tendency to reenact abuse by associating control and coercion with normal relationships.

Yet jurors may have been led to believe that Stearns’s experiences were due to something that is inherently wrong with her, Giannetti says. “For me to see Laura in that much pain, having to go through that and relive that, was really hard.”

The theater’s witnesses were retired board members and former staff, now considered revered elders of Twin Cities theater.

Local stage manager Mary Winchell, who wrote the district court a letter of support for John Clark Donahue in 1984 and waited tables for Jason McLean’s Loring Café over 10 years, claimed total ignorance of the abuse. Actor Wendy Lehr, Donahue’s former housemate, also denied seeing or hearing of anything inappropriate between staff and students. Neither responded for comment.

Ultimately, the jury found Children’s Theatre negligent, but not liable for damages. It determined McLean owed Stearns $3.68 million – an empty judgment so long as he dodges the law.

Children’s applied to recoup nearly $300,000 in legal fees from Stearns, which included taxi fare for witnesses and $4.54 binders for lawyers.

The remaining plaintiffs considered that a threat.

VI. Truth and Reconciliation

This summer, survivor Erin Nanasi stood outside Children’s Theatre every weekend with protest signs, encouraging passersby to inquire.

Laura Stearns called for a boycott.

“It’s amazing to see, after 30 years, people finding their strength, because that’s how long it takes to put a rational brain to the things that happened there,” said protester and former CTC student Stacey Allen one Saturday.

In the 1980s, she’d envied the students who got leading roles and special attention from esteemed teachers, wondering why she wasn’t chosen, and never suspecting the total extent of the cost. Though Allen was never assaulted, she carried deep feelings of inadequacy long into her adult years, she says.

Children’s quickly issued a video apologizing to the public. Nevertheless, vitriolic messages flooded its Facebook page. Stage parents had to explain why to their children.

Damon Runnals, owner of the talent listings Minnesota Playlist, locked down Children’s Theatre’s account so the company could no longer post casting calls. Wanting to refocus responsibility on arts leaders, he asked local theaters to declare where they stood on survivors’ cases.

“Most of the companies replied to my request without wanting to do a phone call. They just wanted to send a statement,” Runnals says. “I do think those actions speak to the reticence of not wanting to own any part of the potential guilt around it.”

Shame runs deep in the Twin Cities.

Peter Brosius was working in Los Angeles when Donahue was arrested. But when he arrived in Minneapolis 20 years ago, no one explained the full scope of the abuse, and he too failed to probe, Brosius said in a statement.

“Donahue had served his jail sentence, but I was frankly shocked to see him working at other theaters, in community gatherings at the university, and welcomed by at least some in the theater community.”

The year Donahue was released, Jack Reuler of Mixed Blood Theatre allowed him to direct a show about the prison experience. Reuler recalls that people either heralded his bravery or condemned his gall, but he thought himself just naive enough to believe justice had been served. “We all learned so much in the years since it happened,” Reuler says now. “That was among my greatest regrets, looking back over time, because I never sensed the remorse.”

Frank Theatre’s Wendy Knox used to run into Donahue at the Loring Café, an intersection for many artists. She’d found him a fascinating fount of knowledge, and hired him in 1996 to design a set.

“But it was problematic. All the things that plagued him throughout his lifetime – there was alcohol involved, he was demeaning to people – it was all that was said about him.”

Jungle Theater founder Bain Boehlke, a former Children’s Theatre actor, collaborated with Donahue until he died in March at the age of 80. Boehlke didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Children’s Theatre’s teaching artists, who work with public school students on storytelling and critical literacy skills, began to feel conflicted about their work, says Chris Griffith of Z Puppets Rosenschnoz.

Taking issue with the institution’s legal tactics and internal instruction not to discuss the cases, a broad group of employees filmed a video to encourage survivors, which evolved into standingwithctcsurvivors.com, now used as a receiving pad for statements of support from across the country.

This August, Children’s Theatre settled with six male students from the 1970s and one woman from the 1980s. It promised to set up a survivors’ mental health fund.

“It has been eye-opening to go through the legal process, which is difficult, complicated, emotionally draining, and frustrating for everyone,” said managing director Kimberly Motes in a statement. “The hope of everyone at CTC has been to reach a conclusion on these cases through settlement.”

The remaining plaintiffs are in pre-settlement talks.

In September, Stearns led a Guthrie conversation about sexual assault. Trauma, she says, is no stranger to the entertainment industry, with its nomadic workforce and concentration of power in the hands of the few who hire.

She’s working with Michael-jon Pease of Park Square Theater and others to set up a series of “truth and reconciliation” gatherings this fall. Like South Africa in 1996, they believe local theater needs a medium through which all those affected by Children’s can step forward.

In the meantime, survivors and perpetrators work side by side on Twin Cities stages, largely without discussing their thread.

“The collective denial in the theater community in Minnesota, if you look back on it, just feels literally insane,” says survivor Annie Enneking.

More than anything, Enneking says she wants to understand the dynamics of what happened – why some students went on to abuse others, why adults allowed the behavior.

“I would welcome that conversation. Because the only way we will ever know the truth about everything that happened is to know all the perspectives.”

For crisis counseling, contact RAINN at (800) 656-4673.