John Clark Donahue first was heralded as a genius, and then became notorious as a monster.
The playwright who co-founded Minneapolis’ Children’s Theatre Company and built it into one of the nation’s most esteemed companies became a central figure in its 1980s sex abuse scandal. He was convicted of molesting three boys and admitted to many other sexual assaults on children.
Donahue, who suffered from liver cancer and was in hospice care, died Friday in the Twin Cities. He was 80.
“He was magnetic. He was genius. And he was as perverse as any I have seen in 35 years,” said Twin Cities attorney Jeff Anderson, who has 15 pending lawsuits stemming from the theater scandal. Seven of those cases were filed against Donahue and the theater, and will continue to make their way through the legal system despite Donahue’s death, Anderson said.
Although the abuse occurred more than 30 years ago, the civil cases were made possible when Gov. Mark Dayton signed the Minnesota Child Victims Act in 2013, extending the statute of limitations on past sex crimes.
Donahue, who served as the theater’s artistic director from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, pleaded guilty in 1984 to molesting three boys and served 10 months in jail. In a court deposition in 1985, Donahue had admitted to abusing or raping 16 boys since the theater’s founding in 1965.
“He was one of the most serious serial predators and one of the most cunning … I’ve encountered,” Anderson said.
He got a mere “handslap,” said Laura Stearns, who was 13 when she joined CTC in 1981.
Last month, Stearns won a $3.68 million judgment against a former CTC teacher accused of raping her and four other students. The teacher, Jason McLean, was never criminally charged. He fled to Mexico in 2017 after selling his Twin Cities properties, the Varsity Theater and the Loring Pasta Bar.
“The wake of destruction that [Donahue] left behind is palpable and deeply disturbing,” Stearns wrote in a letter Friday. “John was not what most people would consider a good person. Some would call him a monster. And yet, others refer to him as a genius with an artistic gift that compared to Mozart or Picasso.”
She abhors the abuse he inflicted. Many of his students in the 1970s became his employees in the ’80s. “They all knew what was going on and they looked the other way,” she said in an interview.
Predators like Donahue often are given freedom to do what they want, she said. “They aren’t called out on their other behavior because they’re so lauded. We don’t want to believe that these people, who are so talented, are hurting people. But they are.”
Stearns, who now oversees the wig and makeup department at the Guthrie Theater, hopes Donahue’s death allows his victims to move to a different level of healing. “My biggest hope is that as a community we can all come together and find healing, appreciate the things we loved about being at the theater and acknowledge the harm,” she said.
Michael Campion was lead investigator for about a year on the CTC sex abuse case and now works for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to ensure a safe environment for young people. Campion remembers the 1980s as a “very dark time” for the Children’s Theatre. “I trust that it came out of it much stronger over the years,” he said. “It still has a wonderful reputation.”
CTC has since adopted background checks of staffers, a ban on adults socializing with children outside official activities, and a “rule of three” requiring that no staff member or volunteer be alone with a student in a private space.
Jungle Theater founder Bain Boehlke, who knew Donahue for more than 50 years, acknowledged his complicated legacy. “He wrote the most incredible plays for young people, for teens and adults, and he created work at such a high level,” he said. “John was tried and felt he had served his time. The thing that makes it all so tragic, so Greek, is that there’s no redemptive moment there for anyone.”
After prison, Donahue re-entered the theater community, working at Mixed Blood Theatre, the Jungle and the old Loring Playhouse.
In a statement, the CTC acknowledged his role as its founder and his legacy as an artist. But those attributes are overshadowed by his betrayal of trust, the statement said.
“We continue to stand first and foremost with Mr. Donahue’s victims and in support of their efforts to find peace and healing,” the statement said.
For many of Donahue’s victims, his death is a reminder of the pain they carry, Anderson said. “For so many survivors, the wounds are evergreen,” he said. “The sentence he imposed on their lives continues beyond his death.”