Local theater maker, Laura Stearns, filed a civil lawsuit under the MN Child Victims Act in 2015 against the man who raped her as a child, Jason McLean, and the theater institution that protected him, The Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) in Minneapolis. A total of seventeen lawsuits were filed because of abuse endured by students at CTC, and dozens of sexual predators were identified through the investigation that ensued. To learn more about what happened at CTC from the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties, you can listen to the multi-part series Innocence Lost done by Marianne Combs for MPR News. Laura is the influencer who initiated the establishment of the Minnesota Theater Accountability Coalition (MNTAC.org); the collective of theater makers who created The Minnesota Theater Foundational Standards for Safety and Accountability, and The Minnesota Theater Standards for Education and Learning Spaces. She also sits on the Board of Directors of the CTA Wellness Fund, established to support the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of those like her who were impacted as children at CTC in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. (CTAWellness.org) You can follow Laura’s work and blog at Paladinadvocacy.com
I’ve spent the better part of my professional theater life in Minnesota. Stints on both coasts gave me enough information to know that being close to family in a community that supported the arts was on the top of my list of priorities, so I landed back in my hometown of Minneapolis, and here I stayed. Though there is a supportive theater community here, it’s also flawed. Minnesota boasts more butts in theater seats per capita than any other state except New York. We also have a deep history of abuse that taints the foundation of the theater scene. From sexual harassment to child sexual abuse, exploitation to humiliation. It’s an ugly à la carte menu.
When I arrived at the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) as a child actor and theater student at the age of thirteen, the bar was set very high, and I threw myself into my education and the work like an Olympic diver. The adults around me gave mixed messages of artistic growth and freedom linked to abusive behavior. The standard of control through shame and humiliation by the theater’s founder, John Clark Donahue, and the truth behind the rumors of his sexual abuse of students were palpable. But no one in charge, or in the theater community, dared look too closely or stop abusive behavior. Donahue’s reputation as a teacher of extraordinary young performers and the theater’s production design esthetic that paralleled that of theaters in New York was too important to mess with. Some of the adults willfully ignored the blatant abuse happening around them or reported to them—the product was more important than the well-being of the children. The preeminent children’s theater in the country and gem of the city brought prestige to our little theater town. It was also a safe haven for Donahue and other sexual predators. Harm went unchecked at CTC for two decades.
As a child I saw what was happening around me at CTC, why didn’t the adults? Their example of tucking their chins down and ignoring abuse, or enabling it, taught me life lessons, and not in a good way—I learned to stop trusting my gut. Flags were raising in me, instincts that something wasn’t quite right flared up, but because I was surrounded by people who were ignoring abusive behavior, I followed suit. What I was taught there framed the way I saw the world and how I would participate in it for decades. I learned some valuable things as an artist in my time at CTC, which contributed to the success in my career as a theater maker, but it also set my course in tolerating abusive behavior. What happened there was so damaging to some of the children, it drove very talented young artists away from the field entirely because it was so psychologically wounding, their dreams of a life in the arts were squashed. Those of us who stayed in theater carried our learned behaviors forward into our lives and our relationships.
Most people don’t know about the dark history of the Children’s Theatre Company and School, and over the years CTC has put a lot of energy into keeping it that way, but for those of us who were abused there as children from the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties, that history lives in our bodies. Accepting unacceptable was ingrained in us. And we are the people, the wounders and the wounded, who still populate this town. Harmful behaviors were cultivated, passed on and perpetuated. The cycle of abuse became part of the tapestry of our theater community, and the natural tendency for people to look away from bad behavior, or freeze in the face of it, has allowed problems to go unaddressed and fester.
Then there’s the issue of “Minnesota Nice,” which creates a breeding ground in our theaters and education programs for covert racism to thrive (yes, MN, underneath our polite veil of acceptance there is a serious problem with racism), overt sexism and homophobia to go unaddressed, and child sexual abuse to be normalized. I could go on and on, but you get the point. No one wants to see bad things going on around them, and most of the time people won’t say anything and by doing so it creates a perfect storm for abusive behavior to propagate. It’s part of what allowed the legacy of Donahue to endure. And if you think problems like what happened at CTC are ancient history, think again. The scope of what happened at CTC is rare, but Anoka School for the Arts teacher Jefferson Fietek pled guilty just this year to three felony counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with theater students. These are real time problems.
When I came forward publicly with a civil lawsuit against CTC in 2015 it brought attention to the need for child protection in theater. At that time I was working at the Guthrie and was told by artistic leadership that they didn’t have a child protection policy in place. My lawsuit had caused the higher-ups to examine the theater’s policies, recognize the lack of protection, and within a week a new policy was instituted. Before that, no one saw it as a critical need. It took a survivor of childhood sexual assault in a theater to come forward thirty-two years after the fact for the flagship regional theater in the country to recognize the need for a child protection policy. It seems like it should be a no-brainier, but it obviously isn’t or a protective policy would have existed already. Just another reason that breaking silence about sexual violence is important—sometimes it’s the key to change that could actually help prevent harm from happening to others. We need these policies so the Donahue’s and Fietek’s of the world have a harder time gaining access to children.
The problems in MN theaters aren’t limited to child protection, not by a long shot. I grew up with “Minnesota Nice” and the adage “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” pounded into my head. And as a female, the tendency to disregard inappropriate behavior is hardwired in me, I don’t always recognize how wrong something is until much later, so advocating for myself in the moment is rare. The layers of learning through societal norms and an unhealthy education of theater hierarchy led me to epic levels of self-deprecation and a work ethic of perfectionism at the cost of my mental well-being—a workaholic with unrealistic standards. And it kept me in an unhealthy cycle of thriving and burning out throughout much of my career in theater.
I had reached my stride as an adult while on staff at the Guthrie. My personal standard of “work till the work is done, and nothing short of perfection is acceptable” fit in nicely in an environment where the expectation was to make miracles happen without the proper support and resources. And because it is The Guthrie, only the best will do, so you make it work. The problem is, when you’re capable of pulling rabbits out of your ass, the expectation is you’ll keep producing at an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10, when all you really should be doing based on time and resources is a 7. I left the Guthrie not because I didn’t like the people. Just the opposite, the people were why I stayed as long as I did. I left because I needed to release myself from “the golden handcuffs.” That’s what staffers called our jobs. It was work-life imbalance on steroids, pushing beyond healthy limits was the norm.
Institutional leaders come and go, but behaviors and practices often stay the same. Unless someone is willing to throw a wrench in the machine and do a complete overhaul, not much will change. Christina Baldwin and her team at The Jungle Theater are a shining example of how an organization can shift away from its legacy. Their elimination of the 10 out of 12 and Safe Workplace Policy is a step in the right direction. The problem here isn’t simply leadership—though that’s definitely a factor—it’s the standard of expectations that holds us all in unhealthy patterns. Because theater culture holds antiquated notions such as “the show must go on” and “you must suffer for your art” as badges of honor, we’re stuck in a cycle of abusive behavior where everyone must “pay your dues” in order to be given what’s considered an earned status. It’s a triple decker sundae of harm. Throw in a little “MN Nice” as the cherry on top and you have a poisonous concoction of abuse and complicity.
The notion of paying dues isn’t unique to theater, however it feels like a rite of passage built into an inherently abusive structure. And we recite our resumes in casual conversations so the listeners will know just how much we’ve paid into those accounts. This is the nature of theater. But does it have to be? Can those of us who “paid our dues” let go of these antique ideas and embrace that it’s no longer considered acceptable to suffer in order to do the work? Can we view the industry as one we want to make better than how we found it? I say yes, there is a way, and here’s how: Sign on and endorse The Minnesota Theater Foundational Standards for Safety and Accountability. It’s not just a step in the right direction but a leap.
A blessing in disguise
Still, policies don’t protect people—people protect people. Being trauma informed or creating a harassment free environment isn’t about saying you’ll do a better job; it’s about doing the hard work of actually matching your actions to your intentions. Until we accept that reality, inappropriate behaviors and unhealthy practices will continue to cause harm to theater makers and students. We must be willing to say, “Enough is enough!” Leaders need to be willing to cancel the show, to fire the lead actor who puts others' emotional stability at risk, to call out the “handsy” donor or the board member who doesn’t understand what personal space is at a fund-raising gala. We need to name what’s happening because if we don’t there’s not much we can do about it, the dysfunctional and abusive elements of theater will continue. The system is broken and needs an overhaul. For those of you who disagree, my guess is that’s because you’ve never had anything happen to you personally that caused you to feel ignored, unheard, unseen, mistreated, taken advantage of, harassed, or emotionally, physically, or sexually abused while working at a theater. If that’s the case, you are an exception. I suggest you look beyond your own personal experience and listen to those who are finally sharing their truth about how they’ve been treated historically. Just because you didn’t see it, or they weren’t talking about it, doesn’t mean it didn’t or isn’t happening.
How do you fix something that doesn’t work properly? You take time to figure it out. When your car’s engine needs repair, you turn it off and open the hood. You do a thorough investigation, pull parts out and inspect them for faults. It’s impossible to fix a car while driving it. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the theater industry to shut down. The theater machine had been in motion for decades without repair. It was as if we were in a mode of collective willful ignorance, hoping that rattle we all heard would go just away, some ignoring the sound of it altogether. But once the machine shutoff we heard what quiet sounds like and recognized just how loud things had gotten. It gave us the opportunity to really look at how that machine was working, to open the hood and figure out what the hell has been making those horrible sounds.
The brutal loss-filled shutdown from the pandemic did provide something useful—time. Although none of us have known when we would get back to work, everyone I’ve been in conversation with agreed that when we did, we wanted things to be better than when we left. It was a blessing in disguise, and some of us jumped at the opportunity to pull the pieces apart, to figure out what elements we wanted to stay, and which pieces no longer served us in our work.
Those of us who were committed to addressing safety and accountability, and writing our own theater standards for MN, took advantage of the pause in our work and went about the task of a thorough investigation. We examined all the pieces, even the little cogs in the giant machine we often take for granted, like ushers and volunteers. We even looked at how large Boards of Directors have traditionally engaged with arts organizations, why they often feel so disconnected from the people making the art and how that relationship can be better.
As we start this machine back up, there is great care and precision in the task of keeping theater makers safe from COVID19. The rules have changed because the game changed. Items that are touched by multiple people are doused with sanitizers to help prevent the spread of disease. We’re told to stay home, even if we have only a mild symptom, to prevent others from getting ill. We tell the person who isn’t feeling well to get rest. There is no, “I’ll just go in anyway.” We’re forced to take care of ourselves.
What if we focused on safety and accountability in the same way we’re committed to prevent the spread of COVID? I recently stage managed for Six Points Theater. We had a trained COVID Safety Officer who followed the protocols set forth by the union to keep everyone safe from the virus. When I arrived, she took my temperature and asked how I was feeling. What if we took the same care to check in with every single person and do a daily emotional temperature check? What would that be like if the standard was to see and be seen every day by someone who is focused on our well-being, even if only for a minute? It might just get people to understand that not only is it nice to be seen and treated as if our well-being matters, but to believe it, and know that we deserve it.
Reframing the way institutions are run, changing outdated practices, giving theater makers agency in their own well-being, placing the needs of the human beings ahead of the product they’re producing—the art—is what The Foundational Standards are for. Whether you’re an actor, a student, a carpenter, or a theater patron, do yourself and all of us a favor and go sign your name and endorse the Standards at MNTAC.org