I spent several hours the other day reading the transcript of my trial against Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) from January of 2019. I’m doing some writing about my experience and it feels necessary to revisit this part of the process. It’s taken me this long to come to the point where I am able to stomach it, and I’m certain that my ability to stay emotionally removed will be challenged as I go. I only got through one and a half days of testimony and I needed to be done for the day. Knowing what is to come makes it difficult to stay centered, like watching a bio pic of the life of someone you know has a terrible outcome, but you want to see how things got from A to B to C.
The trial did not end the way I had hoped, but that is not what is upsetting. In fact, what has happened as the result of the outcome is far better than anything I ever thought could happen. The public finally knows at least part of the truth about what happened there, and there is a sliver of justice in that. More will be revealed as time goes on. What upsets me as I work through those pages is knowing that not one single person who was an adult at the time of the abuses at CTC was able to speak the truth on the stand. Not. One. In most cases, they outright lied.
Knowing what I know today, understanding how the theater was designed in part as a lure for trafficking children, I can understand on some level the way people protected John Clark Donahue (JCD) back then. To be clear, this understanding doesn’t excuse their offenses! JCD was an evil genius in his way of grooming an entire community to support his efforts. Some feared for their jobs, their livelihood. Some were groomed to ignore their instincts and saw harm as normal, sexualization of children as "the way it was". Some saw the power bestowed upon them as deserved, and others were willfully ignorant to the reality of what was happening around them. It was a perfect storm of fuckery, and countless children were harmed.
These people threw us under the bus. We were sacrificed for their gain. The Board of Directors valued the institution more than the children it was built to serve. I’ve come to terms on some level that there was little else that could have happened, given all I know about the system that was put in place, how JCD used art as a weapon, how he trafficked children, and the powers in this city that existed to hold that system in place.
What really hurts the most is that now, decades later, those that could have taken this opportunity to own their shit, didn’t. They still chose to protect those that don’t deserve to be protected, or save their own asses instead of do the honorable thing and be accountable. They called us liars, those of us who spoke truth to power, and that hurt as much as anything the lawyers threw at us.
This is not a new phenomenon, people walking away from accountability. It’s as old as the hills. It’s the way arts organizations and those that have risen to power within the field of the arts have always conducted themselves. It's the main tool of those that sit in power. Cry ignorant, or cover up the truth. And there is nothing in place effective enough to stop it.
Human Resources departments are an anomaly in the art world, and when they do exist, just as with all HR departments, they exist to protect the organization, not the workers. They are there to make sure all the paperwork is done properly and to provide the proper channels for communication. But when push comes to shove, they side with the employer. That is their purpose and to expect them to function otherwise is a fantasy.
To further the problem, the affluent have been our benefactors, and have been supporting the efforts of artists for thousands of years, and artists were at their mercy then and still are. It's a very old system, and systems like this one are made to perpetuate themselves. Artists beg at the feet of those that can deem them worthy of support, and those in power can conduct themselves however they want because they make up their own rules. And there is absolutely no oversight to these exchanges, save for their own self-imposed guidelines. But we all know that policies mean nothing if there isn’t someone holding people to those standards. People keep people safe, not policies. They are just pieces of paper that can be tossed in a drawer and forgotten. And that is what the system wants. It wants us to forget, to get comfortable in our pain. To accept the unacceptable because fighting it is exhausting.
In the Twin Cities theater scene in Minnesota, Theater in the Round Players (TRP) is the latest institution exposed for their part in this town's ugly legacy of willful ignorance and upholding the patriarchy at the cost of marginalized artists. This ugliness is woven into the very fabric of our arts culture, and we are not at liberty to cast off this harmful veil of patriarchal dominance. It isn’t going anywhere. It's a history that can’t be erased. What there is to do is make lasting alterations, to change the shape of it, adjust the fit, put things in place so that it will not revert back to its former shape. And now is the time to do it, while we are all in a collective pause. COVID19 is a nightmare for our industry, but it also gives us the gift of time, something we have never had to spare in the past. Now IS the time.
I do not believe that non-profits arts organizations have the ability to change at their core. They are too dependent on those that have the true power, the power of the mighty dollar, and that means donors, and the Board of Directors. They are the ones with the true power, they can hire and fire Artistic and Executive directors. The core of the problem is that these people are not artists, they don’t know what they are looking at. They are lawyers and doctors, financial managers and entrepreneurs, the ones who understand tax codes. Not that artists aren’t capable of understanding tax code, but that certainly isn’t our strong suit or we would have gone into a different field.
Artists are driven by vision, not finances. They are the ones who look directly at humanity and are charged with the task of reflecting that humanity back to its audience, whether that be through theater, dance, paint, music, whatever way that artist has chosen to attempt to arouse the curiosity of its audience. That is what we do best. Those who sit on Boards have little to no clue about what we really do. So this partnering of artists, who mostly don’t care about money because if they did they wouldn‘t be artists, with CEO’s and those that are more comfortable with binary code than human connection, is a horrible marriage. A marriage destined for unhappiness at best and outright abuse at worst.
So how do we fix this problem? It certainly isn’t going to be by insisting that those in charge follow the rules. The system they oversee was built long before, and that system is designed to autocorrect itself when something pushes it off balance. Got a problem with an actor, get another one. Got a corrupt Artistic director? Get rid of them and find another. The problem is, there is absolutely no guarantee that who comes in next will be any better than who they replaced, because the system is designed to re-set. The only way to change it is to put something in place that will permanently disrupt the system, and that means oversight.
I was speaking to a friend that I highly respect who is not an artist, and when I told them there really isn’t any structure in the arts that focuses on oversight, he was astonished. Every arena I can think of, medical, corporate, military, education, even religious, have some form of oversight. They may not always be effective (*cough, catholic church, cough*) but they exist. There is nothing in the arts. Zippo. If someone abuses someone in the arts, there are no structures for making sure they don’t do it again. There is no Better Business Bureau for artists. Abusers can just go on doing what they do, especially if they are considered valuable by a community who thinks they can do no wrong (JCD), or they can go to the next gig and re-offend with no barriers. No paper trail follows them, they just get hired by the next place and go on their merry way, behaving however they want.
Statistically, what we have is mostly white men running arts organizations, as well as the companies that fund and sit on Boards, and more often than not these men do not want to call out someone who has been reported to have behaved inappropriately. It’s a boys club, to be honest. Often, they protect each other, because if they don’t that would mean they would have to look at their own behavior as well. Until the #MeToo movement called bullshit a few years ago, they were free to continue to abuse marginalized artist at will, and protect each other from the consequences they should have been feeling. When you don’t feel the consequences of your actions, you will keep doing the harmful behavior. Just ask a teenager.
So, what’s the bottom line? Oversight. It comes down to that. Where is the BBB for artists? Where is the HR department that will protect them and not the institutions? It must come from below, from the people who need the protection. Sadly, it is up to us to show them how to do it right. We need to insist upon change like our safety depends on it, because it does.
This theater town has a reckoning coming that has been building for decades. We need to rise up and insist that arts orgs do better. I don’t want to read another story about something happening at a theater like what just came out about TRP, or TU Dance. Artists need to draw a line in the sand and say “No more”.
Arts organizations are suffering right now because of the financial crisis, and when the lights come back on, they will need us very badly if they want to survive. Now is the time to build in the disruptor. We need to embed the system with permanent balancers that live on long after we give our final bows. We owe it to ourselves, who have accepted the unacceptable for far too long, and for the young artists who deserve to create their art in safety. Oversight needs to get embedded into the system or we will just be up for more of the same. Yes, there are lots of Respect in the Workplace Documents, and policies for best practices, but they mean absolutely nothing if there is no consequence to the policy being broken. How do we do that? Let’s figure it out together. Go to the Theater Artist Leader Coalition website to see what we are doing to be part of the solution.
In the big scheme of things, I don’t believe that true justice is possible. There is nothing that can return what has been taken from a person who has been wronged. Intent is irrelevant if the outcome is harm, and the scars of impact can’t be erased. In every way, small and large, what there is to do is to be accountable. As an individual, I try to own my part, to commit to do better, and when I fuck up, because I do, walk towards the problem with humility. I believe it’s time we insist that the leaders of our arts organizations do the same, and that includes Boards.
I will leave you with these thoughts: If boards are the ones who hold the power, why do you look to an artistic director for answers? Do you know who is on the Board of the non-profit theaters you work for or attend? Are there any artists represented on the Board? Do you know which companies are present in that power structure? Are there ethical companies that are committed to humility, accountability, sustainable living?
If we don’t know the answer to these questions, I think it’s important that we ask ourselves “why”? It’s something I’ve been wrestling with, and I think you should too.