Beyond the Lights - The Sexual Predators of the Children's Theatre Company
Beyond the Lights is a investigative column that's only mission is to make theatre better and safer. If you have any information you feel would be relevant to this column, email me at email@example.com
What follows is a column that features the accounts of, both, victims and alleged victims of sexual abuse at the hands of staff and performers at the Children's Theatre Company during the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's. This column in no way directly or implies that those named, are guilty in any way, unless convicted by the court system. This column is strictly based and according to the statements made by the plaintiffs as well as legal documents and therefore should be treated as such.
"I'm probably going to need a glass of water..."
Laura Adams says as she stands at the podium. In front of her are several members of local media. She visibly nervous but unmistakably resolute. You might look the same if you were about to reveal a thirty year old secret that's been eating away at you since the day it happened. Now imagine doing it in front of a room full of media.
She begins, "It's time to tell our stories....We have held this secret for far too long...."
"The #1 children's theatre in the nation." - Time magazine
As was the case with most youths growing up in the Minneapolis area during the 1980's, if you wanted to make it on stage, all roads led through the Children's Theatre Company(CTC). A highly successful regional children's theatre, the CTC had become the flagship location for young performing artists in Minnesota since its founding in 1965.
Formed by John Clark Donahue and Beth Linnerson, the CTC had quickly risen in stature in the 1970's, thanks largely in part to their acclaimed adaptations of children's literature such as Pippi Longstocking, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Cinderella and How The Grinch Stole Christmas. They became an annual fixture in national publications such as Children's Theatre Review.
By the early 1980's, they had evolved from a regional children's theatre to an accredited school. Students were taught regular academic curricula for the first half of the day and then studied performance arts for the second half. That's when a teenager named Laura Stearns arrived to the school.
Laura's fist big role with the company would be in Mr. Pickwick's Christmas, where she would play the role of Emma.
Even though Laura was only 15 at the time, she was tall for her age, so she was cast in a role that would be usually played by an older woman. Cast as her love interest, Sam Weller, would be a company actor named Jason McLean. This paring would be significant for two reasons.
One, because McLean was almost twice the age of Laura. Two, because six months later, Jason McLean raped Laura Stearns.
Studies show that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were sexually abused before the age of 18 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006). This means there are more than 42 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse in the U.S.
According to legal documents, before John Clark Donahue formed the CTC, he was a teacher at Carl Sandburg Junior High in Golden Valley, MN. In 1961 he was charged and convicted of sexually abusing a 17 year old girl. He pleaded guilty to indecent exposure. News of his conviction was published in the news and he resigned from his job at Carl Sandburg. A year later he was hired by The Moppet Players, a new children's theatre in Minneapolis.
In 1965, the Children's Theatre Company was formed with John Clark Donahue as Artistic Director. Over the course the next five years, John Clark Donahue allegedly sexually abused five boys involved in the theatre ranging in ages from 15-17 years old. In the early 1970's, Donahue allegedly abused two more boys who were involved with the theatre, one as young as 13 years old.
In 1972, Donahue began living at a residence across the street from the theater itself. He would frequently host parties there for staff and actors as well as students, most of which were minors. It would be during this time where Donahue would be accused of sexually abusing three more boys.
Between 1972 and 1982, when he was finally arrested, Donahue would go onto sexually abuse four more boys, including one 12-13 year old for a period of three years. During this time Sean McNellis, a 21 year old apprentice at the school, sexually abused a 15 year old girl. Most of their contact actually occurred in Donahue's basement.
In 1982, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension(BCA), notified the Children's Theatre Company Board of Directors that they were going to launch an investigation into claims of sexual abuse at the hands of John Clark Donahue. When confronted with this information, Donahue denied any wrongdoing and was allowed to continue his duties as Artistic Director.
In 1983, John Clark Donahue, allegedly abused his 13th victim. This time a 15 year old boy involved with the theatre.
When the BCA had concluded its investigation and charges were filed, the number of alleged victims, to come forward, was more than 15. Those charged, in addition to Donahue and McNellis, were a sound technician, an actor, a dance instructor and a man not involved in the theatre but had raped a student at the school. McNellis pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year probation in addition to his charges being dismissed in one year if he commits no further criminal violations.
Donahue pleaded guilty to having sex with three 15-year-old male students at the theater. He served a year in a workhouse and was on probation for 15 years until 1999, during which time he was to have no contact with the theater or unsupervised conduct with children. Despite admitting to sexually abuse three teenage boys, Donahue never spent a day in prison and was not placed on a sex offender list.
At his sentencing, Donahue pledged to do everything possible, through writing, research and public speaking, to help prevent child sex abuse. Beyond his court appearances, however, Donahue has never spoken publicly about what happened at CTC or about child abuse.
A child sexual predator knows that in order to sexually abuse a child without fear of discovery, he/she must be able to condition the child not to tell another adult. This process is known as “grooming.”
Before Jason McLean began to groom Laura Stearns, he had allegedly sexually abused another 14-15 year old female student at the children's school. That abuse lasted for a year and half. However in the fall of 1982, McLean began to set his sights on Laura.
"When Jason turned his sights on me, I recognized that he was interested in me because I had seen him interested in other girls", Laura Stearns, now Laura Adams, said.
In the coming months, Laura would be cast as McLean's love interest in Mr. Pickwick's Christmas, once again despite being half his age. During that time, McLean's grooming continued.
Roughly six months later, McLean raped Laura Stearns.
In the Fall of 1984, McLean would allegedly set his sights and abuse another victim, this time a 15-16 year old student at the theater. However following the news that John Clark Donahue had been arrested, McLean, orchestrated with one of his victims, to assist him in talking to all of his victims to convince them that what had happened was consensual. One of the victims was as young as 13 years old.
McLean would never be charged with any wrong doing and remained employed at the Children's Theatre Company for another two years.
Following the arrest and conviction of its staff members, the Children's Theatre Company changed several policies and has since then thrived. In fact, despite the BCA's investigation and subsequent arrests, in 1984 their grant from the National Endowment for the Arts was being increased this year to $170,000 from last year's $140,000. Funding from other sources changed very little and only increased.
In response to trying to fix the predatory culture that they either were unaware of or allowed to occur, the CTC added classes in human sexuality, sexual abuse and students' relationships with those in authority to their curriculum. It's unclear how long those classes were offered at the CTC.
The CTC never admitted they were negligent in allowing convicted and alleged sexual predators to abuse their students over the course of two decades.
“I didn't tell my parents until 2 months ago..." - Laura Adams
Laura Adams says while she stands at a podium. 30 years from the 15 year old girl raped by a an adult male cast mate. Today, along with a victim of John Clark Donahue are, through their attorney Jeff Anderson, filing a class action lawsuit against Donahue, McLean and the Children's Theatre Company. Donahue and McLean are named in the suit do to their alleged abuses against the victims and the CTC because of their negligence.
Adams is able to pursue this through the Minnesota Child Victim's Act. According to the Star Tribune,
"The new law lifts the civil statute of limitations for child abuse cases, opening a three-year window for people to sue over older cases...
For nearly 20 years, Minnesotans sexually abused as children had until age 24 to sue their abusers. Child advocates, however, argued that some victims took decades to come to terms with their trauma, and that the time limits for filing claims thus needed to change.
Minnesota is the fourth state to approve a temporary window for filing older lawsuits. Similar legislation is pending in three other states, said Marci Hamilton, a New York law professor and national advocate for such changes."
John Clark Donahue has refused offers to comment on this case as well as all cases related to him.
Jason McLean, now a well know restaurateur in the Minneapolis area, released a statement,
“Jason McLean was sued yesterday by the office of Jeff Anderson. Mr. McLean is very surprised that allegations made against him 35 years ago when he was an actor at the Children’s Theater have been raised again in 2015. These same allegations were made in 1982 and were investigated by the BCA and by the Children’s Theater at that time. After the allegations were investigated in 1982, he resumed his work as an actor at the Children’s Theater. No complaint of any kind has ever been brought against Mr. McLean. Mr. McLean had no involvement in or knowledge of the activities for which John Donahue was convicted in 1984. Mr. McLean intends to defend against this lawsuit with all his might and to clear his name.”
The Children's Theatre Company, who have, since then, completely revamped themselves and have become a model for children's theatre, also released a statement,
“Any abuse of a child is a terrible act; it goes against everything we believe in as professionals and as human beings. We stand with the victims of abuse in their desire to see justice done and to have the truth be known. The crimes and misconduct of Mr. Donahue and the allegations against Mr. McLean date back to the 1980s, but there is no time limit on our abhorrence of such actions.
“Over the last three decades, we have created a comprehensive set of practices designed to keep children safe. Those practices have worked and they continue to be a centerpiece of our culture and our day-to-day activities. This is an area in which we will never say ‘Enough’ but will instead strive to be better today than we were yesterday and even better tomorrow.
“At the same time, however, we have a responsibility to defend the Theatre from allegations that we think are misdirected. Such is the case here. Based on what we know today, we do not believe that the Theatre was negligent in its conduct. We will advocate for ourselves and our point of view as this case proceeds, yet we will do so with the knowledge that individuals in pain are at the heart of this matter and with respect for those who believe other than as we do.”
Despite the abuse she says she suffered, Laura has never stepped away from theatre. She even stayed at the CTC for more than a year after she was raped. As of last April she has been the "wig-master" for the renowned Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and has performed Minnesota Jewish Theatre.
Adams isn't seeking much in her suit - $50,000 and admissions of guilt and negligence. CTC's operating budget as of 2013 was $11 Million.
In closing Adams stated,
"I hope others will find strength...Not everybody has the ability and strength to come forward and speak like this, I got ya....I'm doing it."
The sexual abuse that occurred at the Children's Theatre Company, while horrific, is not a rare occurrence when you look at the numbers of sexually abused children all over this country. Since this all came to light, there have been plenty of other cases, at other theatres, to be revealed.
Last year, Alpha/Omega Playhouse director Mark Allen Drey, pleaded guilty to molesting and sexually contacting two boys who were in one of the group's youth productions. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison followed by seven years of probation. Drey was also designated a sexually violent predator and ordered to register as a sex offender.
Earlier this year in Fort Worth, TX, Jubilee Theatre Artistic Director, Declois Garrett Beacham, turned himself in to authorities. Police said Beacham tried to convince children to perform sexual acts with the lure of money.
Sadly, as heinous as these acts are, there is no sign of them stopping any time soon. Theatre is meant to be a place of exploration, creativity and fun. Not to be preyed upon by monsters like these.
If you need help, contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's Cyber Tipline at 1 (800) 843-5678
For more information about Child Sex Abuse, visit:
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) - rainn.org
American Humane Association - americanhumane.org
Parents Protect - parentsprotect.co.uk