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Writer, editor, activist. Featured at HuffPo and MSNBC.com.  Creator of the original We Are Woman. Married mom. 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Focus on the Art, Ignore the Trauma: The Shame of Children's Theatre School

Image of Children's Theatre from Star Tribune

Last week, a jury found Children's Theatre negligent but not liable for the rape of Laura Stearns by Jason McLean. Laura was a minor, McLean was an adult. Because the sexual assault did not take place on the grounds of Children's Theatre, the jury chose to believe Children's Theatre's defense, which is the same defense they have used for almost forty years: it's not our fault. Here is the statement released by Children's Theatre after the verdict, from MPR:

The jury found that CTC was not negligent in supervising and retaining Jason McLean. The jury also found CTC was not liable because CTC did not directly cause the assault of Laura Stearns by Jason McLean. As a result of this verdict, CTC owes no damages in this case. We accept the jury's verdict and wish Ms. Stearns success in her efforts to collect the jury's award from her abuser.

For those of you unfamiliar with Children's Theatre and their decades of enabling, promoting, and protecting, sexual predators, please allow me a few moments to explain. Children's Theatre Conservatory School, as it was known when I was a student, was run by a convicted pedophile. The board knew he was a pedophile, and they gave him a school. John Clark Donahue continued to abuse, molest, and rape young boys, and with the support of the board, created an environment where it was unsafe to be a student at Children's Theatre.  

There were many adults other than Donahue abusing children. Jason McLean raped a number of young girls, as did sound designer and instructor Stephen Adamczak. Stephen Adamczak tried to rape me in his car, and did rape at least one other girl. But we were taught this-the rape, abuse, trauma, terror-was the price we paid for being chosen to attend Children's Theatre. 

Donahue held "meetings" in the experimental theater on the fourth floor, during which he would sit on a makeshift throne from the prop department. He would surround himself with his favorite students, mostly young boys, and in a mesmerizing voice, tell us Children's Theatre was a womb. It was the only place we would ever be safe. And even though we were children, we would be treated as adults because we were so "special," so gifted, so privileged to be in this extraordinary environment. 

We believed it, we took all of his words to heart, so much so that, when we were raped, abused, molested, and terrorized, we said nothing. Some of us tried to end our own lives (myself included), some of us turned to drugs or alcohol, some of us simply left.

And through it all, Children's Theatre maintained they were not responsible. It wasn't their fault they hired a convicted sexual predator, it wasn't their fault they ignored students who found the courage to tell, it wasn't their fault they ignored parents who came to the board with concerns. The message was clear: Ignore the trauma, focus on the art. That was the message we received on a daily basis. The theater mattered, we did not.

We still don't, at least to Children's Theatre. The institution that allowed children to be raped and abused refuses to take any responsibility for any of their actions. The institution that to this very day enjoys a stellar reputation and attracts tens of thousands of patrons every year. It's not just Children's Theatre, however. When John Clark Donahue was released from a minimum security work farm, he was welcomed back into the Minneapolis theater community with open arms. Jason McLean made millions updating a neighborhood known as Dinkytown, and was written about in an oped that compared survivors of Children's Theatre to ISIS:

So what I would suggest is this: Follow the story, sure, but do not rush to tear down these iconic establishments — these poems to Minneapolis — like some ISIL mob destroying tombs in Palmyra. Visionaries with talent (flawed, tempestuous, rebellious) are not born every day, and their work is not easily replaced.

This is what we have faced for almost forty years. Our trauma doesn't matter, because Children's Theatre creates such magical experiences, Jason McLean is a "visionary," John Clark Donahue is a genius. Focus on all those wonderful things, ignore the pain, the suffering, the terror. Forget that when you stand in the main house of Children's Theatre, turn your back to the stage and look up, you are seeing Donahue's old office, where he raped and molested little boys. Forget that the carpets, the walls, the very foundation of Children's Theatre, are all tainted with the suffering of children.

Focus on the art. Ignore the trauma. 

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