About 30 people picketed on a grassy boulevard in front of the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company on Saturday, protesting the theater administration’s response to child sex abuse lawsuits by former students — including an attempt to recover court costs from one of the victims.
The protesters included some of the 17 plaintiffs who have accused five former members of the theater’s staff of sexually abusing them in the 1970s and 1980s. A jury awarded Laura Stearns, whose case was the first to go to trial, $3.68 million in damages from her former teacher. It found the CTC negligent but did not hold it liable for damages.
At a hearing last week, CTC’s attorneys argued that Stearns should reimburse them for $283,000 of their court costs.
“I’m not even close to wealthy,” said Stearns, who oversees the wig and makeup department at the Guthrie Theater. The defendant, Jason McLean, has apparently fled to Mexico, leaving Stearns’ ability to collect the award in doubt.
Protesters said the CTC’s request was intended to intimidate other plaintiffs. “It was a message to all of us,” said Jina Penn-Tracy of Minneapolis.
Theater managers issued a videotaped public apology to Stearns on Friday, but it did not placate the protesters.
The apology wouldn’t have been necessary “if they hadn’t made that morally repugnant decision in the first place,” said plaintiff Erin Nanasi, calling the video “condescending.”
Protesters said the sexual abuse 35 to 45 years ago was far more widespread than the number of current suits would indicate. They described a culture within the theater in which sex between adult staff and teenage students was an “open secret.” Students were “groomed and manipulated,” told they were special and should be treated like adults, Nanasi said. The praise wasn’t explicitly tied to sex, but it seemed part of the arrangement, she said.
Jeanette Simmonds of St. Paul, another plaintiff, said she wrote in her diary at age 14 that one of the accused former teachers had stood on the stage and loudly said, “I know Jeanette’s good in bed. I have personal experience.” Penn-Tracy said one of the teachers gave her a copy of “Lolita” — a novel told in the voice of a pedophile in a sexual relationship with a young girl — for her 12th birthday, a gift Penn-Tracy interpreted as a message from the teacher that she’d become too old for him.
Andrew Erskine Wheeler of Minneapolis, a current teacher at CTC who joined the picket line, spoke highly of the current staff and called the theater’s current environment “incredibly healthy.” But he said its leaders are mishandling the lawsuits.
“The administration and the board of directors are kind of in a bubble,” he said. “They’re jeopardizing their future by failing to be responsible for the past.”
Opponents have called for a boycott of theater shows and classes. The nonprofit suspended casting for its shows after actors questioned whether they would continue to work there.
The protesters had agreed to stay silent and keep their signs “family friendly.” Although they got honks and waves from people driving past, they interacted little with audience members filing into a 2 p.m. CTC matinee, speaking only to those who approached them to talk.
Theatergoers expressed a range of awareness of the issue.
Teresa Wobbema of Burnsville, a season ticket-holder attending with her daughter, Amanda, and granddaughters ages 9, 11 and 6, said she’d heard about it from her daughter that day. Though both women sympathized with the protesters, they said it was pointless not to use tickets already paid for. Besides, Amanda’s 9-year-old daughter, Sloane, attends classes at CTC.
“It’s like the happiest place on Earth down there,” she said.