Reeling from accusations of inappropriate behavior by its former artistic director, Boston Children’s Theatre has abruptly canceled all its classes and stage productions and said it will cease operations just before its annual holiday performances.
The theater group filed for bankruptcy protection in federal court Wednesday night, and its interim president said in a letter to parents and students that the organization that has provided acting instruction to children for decades is in a “precarious financial situation.”
“We are sadly left with no choice but to file for bankruptcy while we investigate the factors that led to our dire financial situation,” Jim Solomon, who leads the board of directors, wrote in his letter.
The collapse of the organization came quickly, just a few weeks after a group of former students accused longtime artistic director Burgess Clark of inappropriate behavior. The explosive allegations, including accusations by some students of touching and kissing during private lessons or while they were at his second home in Vermont, rocked the theater group and has triggered an investigation by police. No charges have been filed.
The investigation began in late October when former students alleged that Clark’s acting classes included physical risk-taking exercises that sometimes culminated in students kissing or touching each other in sexually suggestive positions. Some students said Clark asked them about their sexual experiences or gave them massages during private lessons, the e-mail said.
Solomon has said the organization did not know anything of Clark’s behavior until receiving the students’ complaint.
Clark resigned in late October, just before the students sent their anonymous complaint, and the organization subsequently cut ties with Clark’s partner, Daniel Blake, after the Globe reported that he and Clark had been reprimanded in 2004 for their behavior with students at a youth arts camp in Colorado (though there was no evidence of criminal conduct).
The nonprofit has also had financial difficulties. Teachers and other employees said they were often paid late, and only after repeated requests.
“Part of the reason why I stopped working with them in more frequent capacity is because they couldn’t pay me, or pay me in a decent amount of time. And I heard that from many other teachers as well,” said Stephanie Charlton, a former instructor. “We would just have to keep asking and following up and following up. It would take a few months sometimes to get fully caught up.”
In its bankruptcy filing, the theater group said it had assets of no more than $50,000, and liabilities of between $100,001 and $500,000; it estimated its creditors at between 100 and 199.
The most recent available tax filing shows that as of Sept. 30, 2016, the theater had more than $200,000 in debt. It had collected more than $1 million in revenue during the previous 12 months.
The bankruptcy filing indicated the BCT will move to close down instead of reorganize. In his letter, Solomon said “we hoped to provide” refunds and urged parents to contact the organization by Dec. 3, or submit a request to bankruptcy court.
The theater suspended a planned production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” after its executive director, Toby Schine, resigned in mid-November, saying they “simply do not have the staff or funding to support the quality of performance for which our company is known, and we owe our children nothing less.”
“Their finances have always been run this way,” said Marci Johnson, whose 15-year-old daughter had been involved with the theater for about five years. “They get behind, and then they do a show and they get ahead, and then they pay everybody, and then they get behind again. . . . Had ‘Charlie Brown’ been able to go on like it was planned, they would have been financially fine, I think.”
Johnson’s daughter had been cast as Lucy and the family had planned its holiday travel around her rehearsal schedule, Johnson said.
“She was counting the days until it started, it was a dream come true for her,” Johnson said. “So she was pretty disappointed.”
Johnson said her daughter loved her time at the BCT. But she had resigned herself to the end of the theater group as she knew it when Clark, Schine, and another employee left the company this fall. Those instructors had formed meaningful connections with their students, Johnson said — connections that would be hard to replace.
“There’s nothing of the caliber of BCT, unfortunately. There’s great community theater, but it’s not the same level,” Johnson said. “I wish that there could be something of the quality of the Boston Children’s Theater for all the kids who are now left without a preprofessional training program. . . . It’s a special group that was involved. I don’t know if they can replicate that.”
A show choir holiday concert, planned for Dec. 15 at the Old South Church in the Back Bay, will go on without the theater; parents are raising money to pay for rehearsal space, conductors, and the church,
Solomon wrote Wednesday night.
In interviews with the Globe, promising acting students who were recruited for small-group advanced lessons described an intense environment of uncomfortable intimacy that Clark reinforced by insisting on keeping the details from their parents. Several students said that in retrospect they found the situation abusive.
In his letter to parents and students, Solomon said that in addition to cooperating with investigations by law enforcement authorities, members of the theater group have partnered with a children’s protection organization “to raise awareness and educate the public about making child-serving organizations safer for kids.”
According to its website, the children’s theater was founded in 1951, but its roots go back to a 1920-era charitable group.
Solomon told the Globe he hopes BCT parents will work with longtime advocate Jetta Bernier of the organization MassKids “to create a new children’s theater, which we hope will be a model of children’s organizations across the country.”
“While it is incredibly sad, I do hope that there is some future for a Boston children’s theater,” said Charlton, the former instructor. “Maybe not the one that has been around, but maybe this is time for a new group or a new family to form.”
Zoe Greenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@
globe.com or at 617-929-2043.