Several former students suing Children's Theatre Company for sexual abuse are calling for a boycott of the theater after the organization applied to have nearly $300,000 in court costs reimbursed after a lawsuit by one of the victims.
Laura Stearns is one of 17 plaintiffs who have filed suit against the CTC and its instructors since 2015, saying there was widespread sexual abuse at the Minneapolis theater in the 1970s and 1980s. In February, a civil jury found that the CTC was negligent in Stearns' case, but not liable, and did not have to pay damages. They ordered the man Stearns accused of the rape, Jason McLean, to pay her $3.68 million. McLean, she said, has likely fled to Mexico.
Stearns said in an interview Tuesday that the CTC is using her to send a message to others filing suit. "This is way bigger than me," she said, adding that she would have no way to pay such an amount. "They're using me as an example."
At a hearing last Friday, the CTC's attorneys argued that because they were the prevailing party in the trial, they should be reimbursed for $283,000 of their court costs.
If the CTC prevails, those costs would have to be borne by Stearns, according to her attorneys.
"It is the last straw for me," Stearns wrote in a Facebook post calling for the boycott. "I ask that you not buy tickets, send your kids to their classes, audition for their shows, accept jobs or support them in any way until they do the right thing by the survivors. If you work there, ask yourself if you want to work for an organization that would do this to the survivor of sexual assault who brought the truth to light."
In a response the CTC published Saturday on its Facebook page and later in a similar statement, the theater said, "We support [Stearns'] desire to have the truth be known and justice done." But, they added, her legal efforts "impose obligations on the CTC."
"Minnesota law makes clear that the prevailing party 'shall be' awarded its costs by the court. And CTC was the prevailing party on all counts by every measure, just as Laura was the prevailing party against McLean," the statement read.
The CTC said that it has not asked Stearns to pay the costs, but rather "asked the court to determine what the proper costs are in our case."
Stearns' attorney, Jeff Anderson, said she will have to pay if Judge Francis Magill agrees with the CTC, Anderson said.
"Their motion means that whoever loses should bear the burden of the costs," he said.
Anderson provided an itemized breakdown of the reimbursement the CTC is seeking. The theater asked for $214,000 for an expert witness they hired to show they weren't negligent. The theater also wants about $66,000 in reimbursement for depositions.
CTC Senior Communications Manager Melissa Ferlaak declined a request for an interview, but confirmed the theater "has the resources it needs to complete the legal process in these cases and to do so without affecting our day-to-day activities or our production schedule."
She did not respond to a question asking whom they would pursue for reimbursement should the judge side with them.
"Our preference has always been — and remains — to settle these cases. We are always available to continue talking about a fair and just resolution of all of these cases, including Ms. Stearns' case even though her trial is concluded," Ferlaak wrote in an e-mail.
Anderson said there are more than 100 victims who were abused by 20 offenders at the Children's Theatre.
Other former CTC students who have filed suit said the theater has sent a chilling message. Jina Penn-Tracy said she was abused from 1983 to 1985 by McLean and its co-founder, John Clark Donahue. Donahue died in March. Penn-Tracy said the CTC knows that Stearns can't pay.
"It's clearly meant to intimidate not just Laura but the rest of us," she said.
Erin Nanasi, who reported being the victim of an attempted rape in an instructor's car in 1981, said she's planning protests at the theater every Saturday. She called the CTC's statement on Stearns a threat that was "morally repugnant."
The majority of responses to posts by both Stearns and the CTC supported Stearns' boycott.
Sonja Kuftinec, who teaches theater at the University of Minnesota, wrote that she is taking her young son out of classes at the theater.
Wendy Knox, founder of Minneapolis-based Frank Theatre, said that with its actions the CTC is "minimizing or not talking about the deep pain and trauma that people have."
"I don't know if money will make any of that trauma go away but I do know that CTC can do things right."
The boycott represents a turning point for some of the victims filing suit, who have been careful to criticize the theater's actions of the past but not the present leadership.
Stearns, Nanasi, Penn-Tracy and other survivors said Tuesday that has to change.
"If you still donate money as a corporation, still partner with the CTC, bring children on a field trip, what you are saying that you don't support survivors," Nanasi said.
In its statement, the CTC asked the community for patience as the lawsuits go through court.
"We acknowledge the pain the victims feel and have carried with them for decades. We have offered our apologies to each victim directly, and we are continuing to work with them respectfully and empathically to find a resolution to their cases."
In response to Stearns' post, Emily Gunyou Halaas, one of the stars of CTC's current "Matilda the Musical" show, described herself as "horrified and paralyzed."
"I just want you to know that I am digging deep in myself, and trying to ask the questions of the right people from inside the building."
"I know this is hard," Stearns replied. "I really don't want artists to suffer, but I (can't) stay silent any longer."