Innocence Lost: From inside and outside CTC, friends gather to support abuse survivors

People standing in a circle around a circle of flowers.
Allies and survivors stand around flowers placed in a circle to signify their connection to each other. The gathering, held Monday at Park Square Theatre, was organized by Standing with CTC Survivors.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 7:40 p.m.

On a recent Monday evening, the night of the week when most theater lobbies are dark, about 30 people stood in a circle at Park Square Theatre in downtown St. Paul.

Most of those present had some connection to Children’s Theatre Company. A couple of them were survivors of the child abuse that occurred there in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Chris Griffith introduced himself to the group as a former CTC teaching artist. He said he quit this past spring and won't work there again unless management changes its treatment of survivors.

"I've discovered, in talking with people who are survivors and talking with people who are victims,” he began. “It becomes clearer to me each day how important it is when your voice has been silenced — when you have been shut down and shamed for decades — how important it is to hear other people speaking against the silence."

Griffith is one of about 60 people who are part of a group called Standing with CTC Survivors. The group organized in response to theater management's treatment of survivor Laura Stearns, whose case against the theater is the only one to go to trial. She's one of 17 men and women who filed claims in recent years for sexual abuse they suffered as students at CTC.

A woman wearing a blue winter hat and coat sits outside.
Emily Zimmer
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Emily Zimmer has taught at the theater since 2002. She said she wrestles with how to continue that work while maintaining her integrity.

"I was deeply conflicted about how to work for an institution when I felt like survivors were not being honored,” she said.

“The scope and scale of what happened is so horrifying that I feel like we need to respond as a community in a supportive way that matches the breadth and depth of the injury."

In July, the group crafted a video statement voicing its support of survivors. Here's an excerpt:

"We acknowledge that all of us who work at CTC have profited from an organizational culture of silence around sexual abuse, and that complicity in this silence is a form of ongoing violence. We can no longer distance ourselves from CTC’s history without meaningful collective action toward justice."

The statement asked CTC management to change its legal strategy to make compassionate and humane treatment of survivors the priority; to host a community town hall; and to create a fund administered by an independent party to compensate all survivors, whether or not they have met deadlines for filing for damages under the law.

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I recently sat down with about 10 members of Standing with CTC Survivors and asked how they felt their work had been received by CTC management. After a moment of silence, the group erupted in laughter.

Initially, its members said, they felt they were making some headway. Lately that progress has stalled.

One of the facilitators, Molly Glasgow, said the group has proposed continued meetings but gotten no definitive response from CTC. She said a community forum that CTC held in mid-September wasn't nearly as effective as it could have been.

"Children's Theatre has the opportunity to engage in a meaningful process of healing and accountability,” Glasgow said. “This is deep work, this is important work and this is necessary work. And this is work that cannot be done by going through the motions and using talking points."

She added that the work doesn't end when CTC management settles with the plaintiffs. Leadership needs to invest and engage in a healing process led by the community, she said, not by the theater company, and management should take its cues from the survivors.

The ceremony at Park Square ended with survivor Jina Penn-Tracy, who spoke about what CTC was like during the tenure of artistic director John Clark Donahue.

"As children were being groomed, coerced and raped at Children's Theatre, the staff and artists not only turned a blind eye, but in many circumstances actively facilitated and protected the abusers,” she said. “After John Donahue was arrested in 1984, the remaining victims were aggressively silenced. The remaining abusers and staff moved on with their lives and out into the Twin Cities theater community.”

Penn-Tracy told the attendees that, while they may not feel like it, they are the Children's Theatre's best allies.

"You are leading them to a new way of truth-telling about the past, and you are modeling how to treat survivors,” she said. “Personally, your voices have healed deep and old wounds in me.

“Stepping out of the darkness of silence and into public truth-telling is not easy. It's painful and it's scary, and your voices give me strength.”

Children's Theatre managing director Kim Motes declined an interview request for this story.

Two women with their arms around each other while standing in a circle.
From left, survivors Laura Stearns and Jina Penn-Tracy embrace during the gathering where allies and survivors learned healing techniques and shared words of comfort and support.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Illustration of unnamed children

Were you a student at the Children’s Theatre Company and have a story to share? Contact reporter Marianne Combs to share your story.

Edited by Eric Ringham and Laura McCallum. Photos by Christine T. Nguyen and Evan Frost. Illustrations and production by William Lager.

Editor’s note (Oct. 29, 2019): A previous version of this story misstated Molly Glasgow’s role in the group Standing With CTC Survivors. This story has been updated.

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