by Ben Kreilkamp in 2016, in response to the lawsuits filed against CTC, and the growing number of stories being told amongst the theatre community.
I’m writing in support of the former students from the Children’s Theatre Company who are now bringing charges against the CTC staff and administration of the ’70s and ’80s. I can only tell my story. I came to Minnesota out of the army in 1971. CTC was a magical place to me. John Donahue’s vision, which I first witnessed in a production that summer, “A Wall”, with a cast of over fifty and a small live orchestra crowded on the floor in front of the stage (no real pit there) and a vital physical realization on the tiny auditorium stage in the old MIA … well, it re-awakened my own theatrical dreams which had been drained dry by the general misery of army life … but that’s another story.
I acted in a few plays in that company in the ’70s. My own vision took me in a different direction, but CTC remained a fixture of visionary inspiration, highly original and vital in a family sort of way, and therein lies some of the problems that developed. The family I knew and loved included Steve Rydberg, author of those beautiful posters, George Muschamps, Chris Mulkey, John Jenkins, Carl Beck, Jim Stowell (comrade of many adventures of our own), and of course the central creative trio of John Clark Donahue and Bain Boehlke and Wendy Lehr, as well as many now gone, like Tom Dunn, Gene Buck, the gentle if often drunk giant Karlis Ozols… the list is much longer. It was a tribe with extraordinary theatrical accomplishments, of original adult plays as well as classics like Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Gorky. Frank McGovern, production manager, would go get real bums off the street in Fair Oaks park to appear onstage in the Lower Depths… things like that. The company I knew also included many children and young adults who grew into very accomplished artists and technicians, nourished by an extraordinary atmosphere of high expectations by all those gifted adults, young people like Myron Johnson and Rick Thompson and Mary Winchell, George Sutton, Kim Hines.
Several years after the scandal broke I got a call from one Kay Miller, who was doing a recap story, published as “A Story of Denial” for the Star Tribune. She had called me, near the bottom I’m sure of a very long list. I thought about it and decided to be completely honest, to assuage my conscience. When John was arrested in 1984 I had asked myself the questions: How had I not known? and What did I know? What I said to Kay Miller in 1990 was that I didn’t know anything and I would tell her everything I knew. I helped her fill out her picture of what it was like to be on the inside of the outermost circles of the many circles that made up that vivid company. I had been twice in two plays, first in 1973, unpaid, and then later in 1978, paid. I had also lived in John’s house one summer, upstairs, house-sitting for his long-time tenant Wendy and her husband, my friend Jim Stowell. I had also acted for Bain Boehlke in Chekhov’s Seagull at the Walker Church with several CTC actors, Paulie Smith, Pat McNellis, Maureen Teefy, Chris Mulkey. I had also known several of the kids, both young children and young adults, raised in that very nurturing, and as it happens also the very dangerous and damaging, environment. One child I’d known as a beautiful little girl (five? six?) in the coop scene and I saw her achieve real strength and success as an actress playing lead roles in truly magnificent productions. Many of us in the theater world have such stories of starstruck kids who make good on their dreams and the old CTC was full of such stories, of young girls and boys who found their artistic identities there. One such played my son in a brief scene in Johnny Appleseed: Oskar Eustis, now Artistic Director of the Public Theater in New York. The list is endless, all from a locally grown company that achieved national and international fame. This was the CTC I knew.
So I told Kay Miller all about those experiences, the pluses and minuses as I saw them of the theater and school’s philosophy of treating kids as if they had the capabilities of adults. This was a real strength there and this, as everyone now recognizes, also contained a flaw. The sixteen-year-old running a giant cast of ninety as stage manager is one thing, good for her (maybe) and good for the organization for giving her the opportunity, but sexual predation is another thing. It’s clear to me now that one of the several confusions operating in that atmosphere (gay/straight, sober/drunk, child/adult, trust/secret) was the one of “consent”: who can give it and who can’t. Today we’re much clearer on that question as a society. Kay Miller and I talked through all that and I really thought I’d cleared my conscience. I had told what I knew, and I paid some price for it too. Some friends who loved John thought I shouldn’t have spoken. This was already several years after his arrest and trial and I had admitted I knew really nothing. One good friend who also loved John called me a blabbermouth to my face, and I felt some chill from others, mostly in the theater world. So be it. I felt I had told my story. I had been honest enough.
Then recently, some 25 years since I’d spoken to Kay Miller and thirty years since the scandal broke and more than forty years since I’d met the whole rambunctious crew, more stories came into my view. I heard more details of all that, how it had happened, and what happened, and who had known, and questions about what should have been done and by whom? All my questions of myself resurfaced. Hearing the new details of what had happened, I re-examined my memories again, and my conscience. What had I known? How had I missed what was so very obviously happening among so many people I thought I knew so well?
In particular, one conversation came to mind. A young actor, seventeen I think at the time, had been talking to me about the world of CTC. He said, “John fucks all the boys…” He then went on to make clear that he didn’t let John touch him and how he got along with John by putting him off. I remember hearing him say this and wondering what to say and moving on without saying anything. That was, of course, the moment in which I made my choice, without knowing I was making it. I chose not to know. I was at that point in my mid-twenties. Now, today, in the light of what I know now, it’s clear to me that he was opening a door to me, a young man questioning an older guy, looking for… what? validation? advice? comfort? help? It was a door I didn’t go through. I could have said Really? And then I could have found out more, maybe. I semi-remember that I didn’t believe him, that I thought he was bragging or… I’m not at all sure what I thought or what he meant or why he said that to me. In any case, now more than forty years after that conversation, in 2016 it’s clear to me that I didn’t know more because I didn’t want to know more. I never thought I was in denial because I thought that I hadn’t known. How could I be in “denial”? I didn’t “know” anything. I hadn’t seen anything. How could I deny something I didn’t know? But now I see clearly that that is one of the ways denial is maintained, one avoids knowing what one doesn’t want to know. I had several reasons for not wanting to know, for failing to follow up on that conversation. For one thing, it’s a very unpleasant thing to know about, stories I’ve now heard about John in the showers with the boys. That’s not something I want to know about, and there’s worse I’m sure. But now from what I’ve heard I believe that did happen, John in the showers, leering, one of several details now coming to light for me. And yes I see too that there were professional advantages to not knowing. I was able to be in some very exciting productions, be part of a very inspiring and inspired group of artists working at a very high level. So, I didn’t want to know, and I avoided knowing. Not in “denial”, simply ignorant, looking away so as to maintain that ignorance.
And there were further elements to my ignorance. Whenever I thought about the rumors around Donahue and his company, I ran up against a great wall of trust and respect. My trust and respect for them, as artists and as people, helped me maintain my ignorance and the general secrecy. I had soon got over my infatuation with John’s aesthetic. It lost its vigor in my eyes and became entirely too precious and contrived for my taste, but still and always I very much trusted some of the people close around him in the innermost circles. These included Wendy and Bain and Jim and others. If I thought of it at all I figured maybe it’s just a piece of the gay lifestyle, younger men, that’s being exaggerated as a piece of the sort of gossip that is common in every theater company. Because I really very much respected and trusted those in the very center of the many circles of the CTC company. Bain had opened the door to a whole new level of artistry when he directed me in the Seagull. I worshipped Wendy for her magical abilities onstage. She was, and remains, truly a wizard performer, a shape-shifter, with depths and expressive skills, and such humility and intelligence as an artist, as a person. I learned so much from her example. Her husband at the time, Jim and I created our own revolution at the Palace, an experimental theater is deeply involved in a wild sort of danger that involved its own complex and difficult creative marriage. And John himself, I still have great affection for him, in spite of all the despicable things I’ve heard. Implicitly I trusted them all, not to do anything wrong, and it was my trust in the ones who knew John best, the ones closest, that helped keep me ignorant, helped me believe that I didn’t need to question the rumors. Even if I didn’t entirely trust John, and had lost interest in his art, yet I still trusted the ones around John. So that circle of trust was one mechanism of my denial, not knowing, keeping the secret. I trusted them, so… I didn’t need to know, and yet…
Now it’s clear my trust was misplaced, and I see further implications of my own denial and others’ denial. One tangential result of that community of many secrets, the conversations not completed, the confusions that were exploited is that no one ever knew who knew what. That was true at the time and remains true even now, these many years later after the trials. Who did know? What did they know? And no one knows who did what. Who did what and with whom? The result is all of us who were in and around that company at that time are now under suspicion. Once I saw that I saw too the only way out of that cloud is to tell your story. Once again it is the survivors now these many years later leading the way, and for me, it’s easy enough to support them the only way I know how, by telling my story. This is what I say to all the comrades and others of those years: If you don’t tell your story, in whatever detail is possible for you, you remain entangled in the confusion of those questions, of who knew what and who avoided knowing, and the further questions of who did what and what sexual activity is OK and what is not, who can consent and who can’t, what is criminal and what is simply questionable, why we didn’t know and why we didn’t find out.
It’s very hard to write this. I’ve really avoided it, for months now thinking about it, since the stories surfaced again last summer. And it’s easy enough for me because in fact I am not implicated, not personally, not criminally, not at all, except… evidently, I was a part of the secret. So now I’ve told my story. I chose to name names, but you wouldn’t have to. Many names I’ve left unnamed. That’s a personal choice. Much of what happened is no one else’s business. But it is important that some general picture is formed, of how all this happened in the middle of a society that claims to care very much for its children and their creativity and their hearts and minds. This is a society that poured millions of dollars into a theater for children, a theater that included children in its productions, a theater that developed a school dedicated to educating whole humans. Our community is implicated in what went wrong there, the whole city, from board rooms and power-brokers and funders and educators to stages and booths and technicians and artists. So it is important that as many stories of as many experiences as possible come out, for forgiveness and healing as much as criminal charges.
Someone should do a play of this. The theater is the perfect place for such a societal examination of such topics, consent, creativity, denial, crime. It could be a documentary play of many voices, like The Laramie Project, or it could be a biting satire, like Tartuffe. Present-day CTC could do it, or any number of local theaters could undertake it. Illusion, Blank Slate, the History Theater, Wonderlust, they all have missions compatible with developing such a play, telling such a story, these stories, of all of us who were swept up in that whirlwind of John Clark Donahue’s Children Theatre Company. And meanwhile, I encourage everyone to support everyone who tells their own story, including especially, of course, the survivors, once victims as children, now survivors as adults once again showing us the way forward as a society. You don’t have to bring charges or name names to tell your story. Speak, everyone, tell your stories and thank you all for your courage.