“Touch,” the groundbreaking Minnesota-made film that gave 1980s schoolchildren permission to talk about sexual abuse — and the vocabulary to do so — is getting a reboot for the digital age. Created by Minneapolis-based Illusion Theater, “Touch for the 21st Century” has wrapped filming and is now being edited, with plans for a 2018 release.

“The work we started a long time ago grew beyond what we could have imagined,” said Illusion Theater producing director Bonnie Morris, one of the originators of the “Touch” concept. “All around the world, children use the language of ‘Touch.’ We made it easy to talk about, without ever being sensational or horrific.”

Originally released in 1983, the film — and it was a 16-millimeter film transferred to video — went on to become the most purchased educational video of 1985. Actress Lindsay Wagner, fresh off her role in the 1976-78 TV series “The Bionic Woman,” served as narrator.

The 34-minute video also featured a cast of teens who acted out scenarios that illustrated what Illusion Theater called “the touch continuum” — a pioneering way for children to distinguish between good, confusing and bad touch.

“It was a simple but profound way to reach millions of kids,” explained Michael Robins, executive producing director of Illusion Theater. “The message was, then and now: Kids, you know the difference between good and bad touch. Trust your instincts. If something happens, it’s not your fault. Tell an adult you trust, and if they don’t listen, keep telling.”

The film found audiences in thousands of schools, religious organizations and youth centers, where “Touch” left deep impressions on young viewers.

“I remember how everyone kind of giggled at first,” said Janelle Erickson, now 36, whose teacher at Woodbury Elementary School popped the tape into the classroom VCR. “But I also remember the message — it’s my body and nobody can touch me unless I say OK. I don’t think I had heard that before.”

Digital updates

The “Touch” educational video enjoyed a long life span, but the hairstyles, clothing and slang proved painfully dated during the past decade.

So did the scenarios facing the characters. The original movie contains no mention of sexting or online predators, dangers that were unimaginable when a team of theater artists and child abuse experts wrote the original script.

But “Touch for the 21st Century” confronts perils lurking on the internet. For example, the new video includes a slumber party scene with tween girls laughing as an older boy sends them a shirtless photo — before falling for his request to reciprocate. There’s also an expanded spotlight on male victims and female predators as well as a shift away from old-school stranger danger.

“We now know the random stranger represents a very small percentage of offenders,” Morris explained. “In the new version, we put the spotlight on adults who know kids and groom them, who make kids feel safe so they can take advantage of them.”

The updated video version can’t come out soon enough for Emily Palmer, principal at Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis, where some of the new scenes were shot.

“This is curriculum for health class that supports teachers; they will welcome it like they did the first time around,” she said. “As educators, we must offer real-world topics for our students. We want to give them the truth, but provide it in a careful, thoughtful way that prepares them for the world.”

Community theater

Before “Touch” was a movie, it was a play. Starting in the late 1970s, a small troupe of performers from Illusion began performing “Touch” on Twin Cities area stages. As the provocative production grew in popularity, it traveled around the state. Eventually it hit the road for a national tour.

Starting in 1981, Illusion Theater began licensing the script to local school districts. Teaching artists from the Illusion Theater still go on the road, partnering with teachers, social workers or nurses in various U.S. communities. They then use the “Touch” curriculum to train and cast local teens to produce their own live versions for school assemblies, Scout groups and other community audiences.

Twin Cities theater director Peter Rothstein still remembers the thrill of performing “Touch” in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Minn., where he was chosen to be a teen peer educator in the mid-’80s.

“I had been involved with high school musical theater, but this was the first time I saw theater as a tool for social change and how I could use my skills and passion to do good in the world,” he said.

Rothstein ruefully notes that even the best theater has limited power. As an idealistic teenager, he thought raising visibility about sexual abuse and exploitation would end it altogether.

“Sadly, the work is still relevant and still needed,” he said. “I’m glad they’re committed to re-creating it for a new generation.”

Legal backing

Most theatrical works are underwritten by foundations, corporate sponsors or deep-pocketed patrons. But the angel that brought “Touch” to mass audiences was the Hennepin County attorney’s office.

Its partnership with Illusion Theater dates back 40 years, when the county attorney’s office recruited the troupe to give children new tools to talk about sexual abuse and empower them to understand their rights. Morris and Robins created the original play with Cordelia Anderson and Deborah Anderson from the office’s Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Project.

In 1979, the Illusion troupe happened to be touring the Pacific Northwest at the same time that the National District Attorneys conference was meeting in Olympia, Wash. Then-Hennepin County Attorney Tom Johnson brought the performers in to present “Touch” for his colleagues.

If the performance had been reviewed, it would have been called a hit.

“A lot of prosecutors were struggling with child sexual abuse,” remembered Morris. “All of a sudden they saw ‘Touch’ as a way to talk about it. They all wanted us to come perform in their communities. We knew we had to find a way to get the content out there without us physically taking it to every church basement that wanted it.”

And now the Hennepin County attorney’s office, pivotal in generating the “Touch” concept and promoting the original video, is backing the reboot.

“The scenarios in the new film came right out of our case files,” said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

“We’ve allocated some of our forfeiture money — cash we seize when we bust drug dealers — for the new film. I get a kick out of taking money from drug dealers and using it to teach kids how to stay away from perverts.”

Freeman serves as president of the National District Attorneys Association and promises to promote the new video among colleagues.

“I would like to take finished video to the national meetings and show it, then make it available for the other DAs to use in their jurisdictions,” he said.

That means that “Touch for the 21st Century,” due for digital release next year, has the potential to reach more children than ever. 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.