Abuse allegations prompt boycott of Mpls. nightspot

Lawsuits against Jason McLean, who owns Dinkytown’s Varsity Theater and Loring Pasta Bar, are prompting a social media-fueled boycott of the locations, and a suggestion that collateral damage may hurt the innocent.

The suits allege McLean sexually abused minors when he was a member of the Children’s Theatre Company.

DJ Jake Rudh posted on Facebook last evening that he’s pulling his Transmission dance parties from the Varsity.

The announcement followed a Facebook posting by choreographer Rosy Simas earlier this week who said she was one of the victims of abuse at CTC.

My friends who love Bowie (as much as I do) and are considering going to the Bowie tribute at the Varsity Theater on the 12th (tonight) – please don’t. Please do not support Jason McLean (owner of the Varsity Theater) by attending or promoting events at the Varsity. There are now three women who have filed cases against McLean who is a sexual abuser of children. I am sure there will be more cases against him in the near future. I was a witness to his abuse – and a survivor of abuse at CTC. I am asking you to make an ethical choice and do the right thing.

Here again is my letter to the arts community and the Twin Cities regarding the sexual abuse at CTC in the 70s and 80s:

Violence is all around us right now. I am wondering how and when this escalation of hatred will ever end. I fight every day for equality and justice with my words, my art, and through advocacy.

Recently my attention and heart has turned to an old wound and to my brave friends who are seeking justice for violence they experienced as children at the hands of trusted authority figures.

One of the most effective ways for us to prevent violence is to stop the cycles of abuse. We need to stop the abuse of children who are then scarred their whole lives by the mental, emotional, physical and sexual violations they endured.

Because of the bravery of those who have spoken up about sexual abuse in other institutions and places, it seems Minnesota might finally be willing to recognize the devastating abuse of children that occurred under the rule of John Clark Donahue at The Children’s Theater Company and School (CTC) in Minneapolis in the 70s and 80s.

Because of the Minnesota Child Victims Act, some of my classmates from high school are finally able to sue those responsible for the sexual abuse they endured while at CTC. It takes immeasurable courage to bring this to light now – 30 years after it should have been. I am proud and amazed by their bravery.

The Minnesota Child Victims Act allows for victims to sue individuals and entities. CTC is being sued. CTC denies that it played a role in the prevalence of abuse. The media is focused on the two individual perpetrators currently being sued, Jason McLean and John Clark Donahue.

I am writing this open letter to the community to tell a larger story that must be made visible to the public as these cases are revealed. We need to view the bigger picture and take responsibility for it. Minnesota needs to own our piece of this violence. Through that ownership we can allow healing to begin and help prevent such violence in the future by recognizing the signs of institution-wide child abuse before it happens.

I am also telling this story because I am a survivor of abuse at CTC and like several of my brave classmates I too want to finally be heard. This won’t be the first time I have spoken out about this. As many of my friends and family know, I have been vocal about the abuses at CTC for the last 30 years. But in the light of the truth others are revealing about their abuse – I think I might now actually be listened to.

I am hoping that I can speak not just for myself, but for many who experienced similar abuse and for those who were so incredibly wounded by abuse that it’s impossible for them to come forward. Others have been silenced forever by the tragedy of suicide.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), The Children’s Theater Company and School (CTC), and the Twin Cities performing arts community played a role in the covering up of the child abuse that occurred at CTC in the 70s an 80s.

The culture of 80s allowed the media, the arts community, and the public to actually project views to the world that the children were to blame. The BCA had a general attitude that the students were unwilling to cooperate with the investigation which eventually lead to the failure of most of the abusers to be prosecuted. These comments can be seen from the BCA in the media of the day.

This “blaming the victim” was an easy way out. The BCA never took responsibility for not having the foresight and knowledge to deal with the complex cult-like culture that was created by John Clark Donahue at CTC that would have made it very difficult for the children to testify about the abuse and emotional manipulation they underwent.

And so, incredibly, a climate was created in which Donahue could eventually be seen as the victim. Poor Donahue who lost his empire because he slipped up after having too many glasses of wine and kissed a teen boy who had been flirting with him.

He served ten months in the work house, on work release (meaning he was allowed to go to work during the day) for three counts of sexual misconduct. And to this day many people in the arts community believe he was seduced by teen boys and that he paid the price by losing all the genius he had supposedly created.

How could a community, an institution, an arm of our state government hold these views?

I am a survivor — a survivor of systematic brainwashing, emotional manipulation, and mental and physical abuse. When Donahue was arrested, I like all of my friends was in mourning for the loss of our leader. I was angry – because he represented all that I worked for as young artist – and I would lose that because of the BCA.

But by the time of the grand jury investigation, I was ready to tell what I saw and experienced. But the BCA never asked the right questions – about CTC company member Jason McLean who had multiple sexual relations with my teen friends, about Donahue, or any of the other (still nameless) abusers at CTC.

I have witnessed countless acts of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse of children at CTC – but the BCA in their questioning never seemed capable of uncovering the truth. It was almost as if they didn’t really want to know. There are two possible truths. They didn’t want to know or the local justice system was incapable of dealing with such a complex cult-like abuse case.

The Children’s Theater Company and School was founded with good intentions of creating an innovative arts organization for children. And I would argue that some aspect of that intention was realized even while the abuse was occurring. But it came at a very high cost, which reverberates in our arts community through to today.

Was the alleged success and genius of CTC worth the life and health and happiness of one child, much less the dozens who have been permanently disfigured?

I can speak only to the four years in which I was a full time student at CTC which was both an accredited high school and afterschool theater arts training program for children and teens.

I entered CTC in 9th grade the very first year of operation of the Children’s Theater Conservatory School. Unlike the public schools I had attended, the academic structure was open and responsive to students needs.

I met educators and theater faculty who were truly devoted to this dream — a different kind of academic and theater training institution in which young people were treated with respect and their opinions, views, and desires to learn were guides in their education.

Some of these people, playwright Tom Olson, educator Dan Conrad, and actor Ollie Osterberg drew out in me my love for performing and challenged me intellectually. These and others worked with students with genuine care and through their attention protected some from harm.

Our theater training took place in the the afternoon. This school – although supposedly the same institution– was structured in the opposite way. We wore uniforms and followed strict guidelines with rigorous discipline.

Each day we were educated in contradictory ways. We were told we were unique individuals at the beginning of the day – and by the end were expected to do whatever we were told without question.

CTC was ruled, not lead. Being a good leader requires much more than just having a vision. Real leadership requires a unique set of skills – integrity, good judgment, self awareness and an ability to improve oneself with feedback from those around them.

Leadership is about empowering others to create an environment or community in which all people thrive. Dictators rule through intimidation, humiliation and violent power.

CTC was controlled by one person – John Clark Donahue. Donahue used verbal, emotional, mental, physical, and sexual abuse as his tools.

Donahue’s message was engrained in us: the world outside of CTC (including our friends and families) wouldn’t be able to grasp who were were becoming or understand the art of the theater we were a part of. In this way he was able to create an environment of secrecy in which he and others could do as they pleased.

We were a part of creating something that had never been created before – an innovative hands-on theater arts training institution for children. Although there are many aspects of that which were true – all of the creativity, magic, innovation was overshadowed but one person’s need for power.

Donahue was successful at manipulating the outside world to support and fund his vision. He was also successful at creating a world inside the theater in which he could then wield supreme control over those he wished to.

For most young people, being within Donahue’s inner circle signified that you were talented and would potentially be a famous artist. Not everyone bought into this – but many did – and for many it came at a very high cost. Donahue established a misogynistic hierarchy in which CTC was run: men – boys – women – girls.

Most think of the CTC sexual abuse scandal of 1984 as how young boys were prayed upon by a pedophile. But this is only a part of the story. Women and girls suffered emotional, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of men at CTC – regardless of their sexual orientation. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with pedophilia. Pedophilia is about power.

Most of the sexual abuse I witnessed and was told about (by those who were abused) was perpetrated by men towards girls. Donahue created an institution in which men were to wield their power over children.

There are at least four men (teachers and staff) who sexually abused girls, and at least one other man (besides Donahue) who sexually abused boys. More widespread throughout CTC was the emotional and mental abuse. Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior directed toward a child by an authority figure in the child’s life that attacks his or her emotional well being.

In my limited experience with neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and four years of experience with Donahue as a teacher, I believe Donahue was skilled at NLP type programming. This type of programming can lead to panic attacks and emotional breakdowns that leave lasting psychological scars which I (and others) have experienced as a result of being in constant contact with Donahue.

Donahue taught others to gain power through intimidation. He verbally attacked by belittling, rejecting, cruel teasing, constant criticism and insults. It has taken me years to undo the psychological damage. I have healed through the support of my strong Native cultural background, my family, my devoted friends, and gifted mental health therapists.

I recognize that I was lucky. These support systems were not available to all victims of the emotional and mental abuse endured at CTC.

There was and never will be any restitution from CTC, Donahue and the others for the emotional and mental abuse that was inflicted on children.

The results of this less obvious form of abuse are just as real as physical or sexual abuse, and they effect children through their adult lives. Many of my former classmates show symptoms of this abuse, including depression, substance abuse, distractive behavior, panic attacks, and anxiety. Some have been entirely lost to suicide.

What can happen now?

Children’s Theater can take responsibility for it’s part in allowing such an environment to thrive in which children could be ritually abused for years at a time. CTC claims that it put in safe guards 32 years ago (1983) to prevent such atrocities. Yet in fact the opposite is true. These abuses were allowed to continue until the conservatory day school closed its doors in 1986.

The State of Minnesota BCA can acknowledge that it erred in its handling of the cases in 1983-1985.

Members of the performing arts community today can examine the way Donahue and the victims have been viewed in their eyes all these years – and correct those views which have contributed to many victims fearing to come forward and to staying silent.

The last thing we need is people suggesting that this is somehow “dredging up old scandals” that have already had their day in court. That day is back because this case was so badly mishandled and the justice so inadequate and the pain far more widespread than has ever been acknowledged – until now.

The Star Tribune reports a spokesperson for the Varsity Theater said the employees would be most hurt by the boycott.

Lynn Nyman, senior manager at the Varsity Theater, issued a statement that emphasized the fact the venue’s employees would be hurt most by any boycott.

“The Varsity has 60 employees who depend on their jobs for a living,” Nyman’s statement read. “No one alleges the employees did anything wrong. They are the people who are most harmed by a boycott of the business.

“The allegations against Jason McLean are more than 30 years old and are not related to the Varsity or its employees. I ask that the patrons let the legal process take its place which will happen in due time. I ask the patrons to stick with the Varsity, in the meantime, for the sake of the employees.”