Before I started at CTC , I was from a different city and already involved in theatre, which was the only thing that mattered to me in my life. At CTC I was amongst others who were singularly focused on theatre above all else, many of them so dedicated that they were willing to sacrifice many other things in their life, working their asses off in the service of theatre, but not just any theatre, CTC, specifically. The productions, it’s company members and the school were a world unto themselves. Because I was from out of town, it was mystifying to me that it created so much fervor and dedication in the community.
John Clark Donahue (JCD) was the founder, mastermind, director, leader of the entire theatre and school. I had never heard of him, or met him before my audition. To many people, including himself, he was God. He required that we all wear uniforms in the theatre school (separate from the academic program in the mornings). This was explained at a gathering commonly referred to as “the Shaving of the Head speech.” At the beginning of the year, he sat on a chair, raised on a dias, (literally put himself on a pedestal), with his enthralled students surrounding him, at his feet. He preached his mission, his philosophy of why we were there, and his expectations. I learned that we were required to wear uniforms in order to shed our individuality in service of the work, much like monks shaving their head when entering a temple. It represents dedication and giving over of self. How could we focus if we were distracted by our, or other’s, expression of selves? Any alteration of the uniform, such as cutting the collar as was the fashion then, was unacceptable. It was a private school and we were paying for this privilege. We were paying to sit at his feet and recognize his ultimate vision, his power. I was tremendously uncomfortable.
Second only to JCD, were the theatre company members/teachers. They were the disciples. The stars of the productions dazzled and created magic. Many of my classmates were introduced to the school through teams that traveled to their schools, where they held special workshops in theatre. They carried the message of the magic. They worked to foster that sense of magic in the children they were teaching. They held out the promise of being a part of the magic, if only the child could go to school at CTC. So many of the kids there had stories of pain that left them vulnerable. It was bonding. It was a relief to not feel so different, so separate, so misunderstood, so alone. The disciples spread the word, “come join us, you will shine and be a part of an exceptional family”.
At CTC, one of the requirements for graduating was that each of us needed to be involved in at least one production. Students, who spent their long days in classes, went to rehearsals at night. The shows were mostly elaborate productions, requiring a large cast and crew. Because of the size and scope of these productions, rehearsals would last late into the night/early morning hours, sometimes making it difficult to get home. Some students ended up sleeping at the theatre. The rest, that had made it home, would arrive at school the next day, not necessarily on time, exhausted from the night before. At professional theaters around the country there are rules about how long people work, especially children, and how much they must be paid. But not at CTC. This was an insular world, protected from society and its rules. They told us we were exceptional, more talented, more mature and misunderstood by the world, which saw us as mere children. The staff, the teachers, the company members, they all saw how special we were. Working so hard with them was proof.
That was the environment I stepped into my junior year of high school. I had no context for it because before that summer I had never heard of CTC and it’s gods. They weren’t magic to me. I was missing something. It seemed cult like, and I wasn’t going to join, which meant I automatically felt like I was a total outsider.
I moved to Minneapolis with my boyfriend from out of town. He had already attended summer school and had told me that JCD was making passes at him. JCD even started to flirt with him in front of me. I went from feeling alone and outside the group, to also feeling challenged by the head of the school. He treated me like I was in the way, and I felt that he was determined to steal my boyfriend.
Eventually other boys talked to me about JCD. The stories were told with a range of reactions and emotions. A boy was invited to JCD’s home for dinner, where he sat drinking wine and having serious conversation. He told me he felt that JCD saw him as special. It sounded like a date to me. Sometimes stories were told in a way that seemed like a boy was bragging. One friend laughed at the arrogance of JCD actually thinking he had a chance. I felt contempt for the boys who appeared to feel flattered, or seemed to not mind the attention. Then a friend started telling me about incidents in the locker room, where JCD would shower with him and “say and do things “, and how much he hated it. Somehow it seemed, to me, like he was hating it the way I hated math. I absolutely believed what I was hearing. I had been hit on by sleezy men enough times that I just thought there were a lot of them in the world, and JCD was just another one. The power structure wasn’t on my radar, except as mutual. I thought we had power over the adults as well as vice versa. I didn’t believe we were children.
Many students expressed crushes on the actors, the way kids have crushes on movie stars. And here they were, side by side, not only learning from them, but being noticed by them, being treated as an adult. They were creating magic together. And everybody knew it. They could see it.
First thing every morning the school met together in opening circle, for announcements and discussion of school issues. I would sit, watching people trickle in and practically fall asleep on the floor from exhaustion because they had been at rehearsal so late. There were stories about who said what, who JCD had lashed out at (because he always did), and how bad it was, and what they did when it happened. Talk in the halls outside of classes was always full of flirtation, public displays of affection, gossip, and drama, just like at a regular school. But now it wasn’t just who was dating who in the student body, it was who was having sex with who amongst the entire theatre company, teachers and students. The thing is, at the time, it didn’t phase me. It seemed a natural outcome of the fact that we were exceptional. I did not see us as children.
I have strong memories of a particular 13 year old classmate. She wore a lot of makeup, dressed provocatively and smoked. I referred to her as my nemesis because in class said and did things that seemed to be meant to rattle me, push my buttons. I felt like she enjoyed it. Outside of class, she liked to talk me, especially about sex. I remember her telling me she had “probably fucked” more men than me. It was a running theme with her. She seemed proud. She indicated some of the men were even from CTC. She eventually told me she had one of the teachers wrapped around her little finger, as if she were in control. Inside my head I felt contempt. Even to me 13 seemed too young to be that way, but I didn’t blame the men. I thought she was trying to compete with those of us who were older. I believed her, but I dismissed it. I truly found it weird that a teacher would fall for the manipulation, as if she were the one in control. I didn’t understand why she was telling me, of all people, these things.
There were also outlandish rumors. More than once, a story came up (like a legend) that there had been, at some point, a party at JCD’s house where he had painted some naked boy gold, from head to toe, and had him wait on everybody all night. Had it happened? Who knew? I never talked to anyone who said they were there, but I totally believed it could have happened. Why not? The vision of JCD and his disciples and their guests, drinking wine and having deep philosophical conversations, around a naked boy painted gold, made perfect sense. But it never occurred to me that I, or anyone else, should say or do something about it.
When I was in JCD’s class he often sat next to me in the circle, for some inexplicable reason. There I sat, while he drunkenly preached,coerced and preened. Every day his breath reeked of alcohol and his belly roiled loudly with his lunch. It was hard for me to respect him. Everyone else seemed so serious. These people believed in art. We were all there to become better at our craft and learn. But he was gross to me.
There were kids I perceived as being in the inner circle, untouchable. They seemed privileged and feted in ways I would never experience. I told myself that I wouldn’t want to be, because I would have to worship the company members like the other people. I raised my eyebrows and rolled my eyes a lot. I avoided people. I’ve been told I was cold. I spent a lot of time in the stairwell of the building, writing, journaling, crying, and hiding. I hid a lot at CTC.
Even so, I made friends. All these people loved theatre the way I did. They immersed themselves in it. We bonded over that, and over things like feeling like an outsider, even, or especially, at CTC. No matter how much we were black sheep, we were still a part of the family. The family of exceptional people. Doing exceptional things. Being above and beyond the world that was separate from CTC.
Halfway through my first year I began to act with community theatres outside of CTC and developed really strong friendships with the people involved. That was where my energy focused. I felt loved and respected. They accepted me as an equal and included me in their lives. I developed lasting friendships that I hold close to my heart. They were also all adults. The age difference never seemed to matter to any of us. It was yet another experience in my life ( outside of CTC) where there were blurred boundaries between adults and children.
The best friend I had at CTC, Jina, began a relationship with Jason McLean when she was fifteen. He was a star actor at CTC. I didn’t even really know who he was at first. My picture of him was formed through her eyes. Someone dashing, sought after, charming, perhaps too much of a flirt. She and I talked about our relationships endlessly. I had begun seeing a boy-man (I was seventeen and he was 6 years older than me) whom I had met outside CTC. (I ended up marrying him and divorcing him 11 years later). Both of our relationships seemed constantly in turmoil, which also gave them an element of passion and drama. We talked about love, and we talked about sex. She was often hurt and confused, but determined to make her relationship work because she believed they were truly in love. Before I had ever met Jason, I disliked him. It didn’t have anything to do with his age (he was 30) , or his status at the theatre (which gave him power). Those things didn’t register to me as red flags. I just didn’t like that he caused her so much pain. She told me stories about things he said to her, other girls that were meant to take her place, things he asked her to do and how helpless she felt. On one of the rare occasions that he was around in my presence, when she left the room for a minute, he suggested a three way would be fun and that, if it was me who asked, she would do it. I wanted to spit at him, but instead I raised an eyebrow and said something about how we both knew that wasn’t true. I don’t know if I told her then. I might not have. I felt like I complained about him more than a friend should.
All of this was just the life around me. The theatre life. Outrageous, flamboyant, sexual, challenging. There was freedom from the outside world. The adult-child relationships may have been illegal, but they didn’t strike me as morally wrong back then. We were exceptional, therefore beyond the normal rules of society. Even as much as I disliked many things about the culture of CTC, I believed that was true. I believed it even before I arrived. I judged everybody for buying into the cult-like culture, but I didn’t recognize that there were perpetrators and victims. I didn’t understand that adults were using their power and influence to manipulate children into sex. I didn’t believe we were children.
During the middle of my senior year, the hallways were alive with whispers about men in suits following students home, trying to trap them into talking, asking students to betray their mentors. The outside world was threatening to assert its conformity laws against our exceptional world. How dare they? Everyone started to circle the wagons. But one boy had had enough of the abuse. He decided he was willing to talk to those investigators. I heard there were a few other kids, but I didn’t know who they were.
JCD was arrested. The school was in turmoil. Most of the kids were devastated. “The boy-who-talked” was seen as a traitor. There was a state of anger and grief that I do not know how to convey. The general feeling was of deep loss, and fear of what CTC would become without it’s god. The board put another man in the position to replace JCD. He seemed creepy in a whole different way, robotic and non-creative. I was graduating, and I couldn’t wait to be done. I wanted the hell out of Dodge.
Jima was frightened of losing Jason, knowing he had been accused by someone. I had graduated, so I was at somewhat of a distance, but I wasn’t gone yet. We were still friends, and we still talked about our lives, which now included the drama of the investigation, and the grand jury proceedings. Jason manipulated her into things she would not have done for anyone else. She was afraid of losing him and willing to do what he asked of her. He sent her to make sure the other girls told the grand jury that they had been unsuccessfully pursuing him. It felt like she was sort of reminding them that it wasn’t Jason’s fault, and to say otherwise would condemn him. It was up to them to save him. I didn’t necessarily think otherwise. I saw her as an adult, trapped in a world convinced she was a child. It was exactly the opposite. I had no idea.
My world separate from CTC had all its own dramas, triumphs and tragedies. As far as I was concerned, CTC wasn’t really my problem. After the scandal blew up and it was public I graduated. During the following year I only saw a few students that were still at CTC, including Jina. I heard about the investigation, grand juries and fallout. I had little patience for it all. A year after I graduated, I moved to New York City. I was gone. It was over.
Several years later, Jina and I remained close friends. She began to tell me stories she had never told me back in school. It was all so much worse than I ever understood, worse than anybody knew. It was more than a few adults using children for sex. She told me events that I now see as sex trafficking, but her experience is hers to tell. She said the “boy-who-talked”, and a few others who had spoken up, had saved her life by telling the truth. I believed her. I felt ashamed, hearing her stories. I still do. I wasn’t angry when we were at school, but one of our friends was, and remains angry now. She knew it was wrong, that these were violations she witnessed, and she spoke up. She told the truth to the grand jury. People turned away.
I’ve had decades to sit with this. I’ve been in therapy so long, for so many reasons, I almost can’t remember not being in therapy (that’s a joke, sort of). I’ve been through marriage, divorce, and have been happily (and healthily) remarried with children. My history at CTC has never come up as a major subject in therapy. I haven’t really examined the effect this all had on me.
I don’t feel responsible for the damage. I do wish that, back then, when my classmates talked to me, that I had heard their pain and understood that it was wrong. Now, I want to help them tell their stories and be heard. Finally.