Curtains Closed: Peter Brosius Looks Back on Time at CTC

After 27 years with Children’s Theatre Co., artistic director Peter Brosius leaves behind a legacy of bold works
Peter Brosius at stage left
Peter Brosius at stage left

Photo by Nate Ryan

It’s a bright, chilly evening in south Minneapolis, and Peter Brosius’ office is a moderately tamed mess of slanted books and slumped toys.

Going on nearly three decades with Children’s Theatre Co. (CTC), the artistic director combines Pinocchio energy (spirited, youthful) with a Geppetto pedigree (seasoned, renowned). He’s the type to smile, full, after speaking, and the phrase “of good cheer” comes to mind. As a young theater talent in New York, he went through a clowning and physical theater period that sputtered from lack of inspiration—to rev up, instead, amid the collaborative highs of directing—but today he thinks about a puppeteer, Autumn Ness. Her work on a particular CTC show was so effective that it stuck with him. He plucks a tissue from a box on his desk, pantomiming her work. Kids in the audience, after the performance, remembered the puppets but not her face. “Take that as love,” he recalls telling her, “rather than, they didn’t notice you showed up!

That preschool-age show, “The Biggest Little House in the Forest,” debuted in 2010 and marked a high of his time with CTC: “a beautiful piece about a butterfly who finds an abandoned house,” he explains. “It’s all dusty and crummy … and the butterfly sets about to clean the house up and make it perfect.” The show imparts to kids the value of making room, even for a hazardously large bear. “It’s about how we take care of each other. It’s about all kinds of things.” It could allegorize his tenure, too.

In June, Brosius departs after 27 years. He now wonders, “What’s another way to make work? What’s another way to be of service?” His wife, playwright and fiction writer Rosanna Staffa, with whom he lives in Edina, has introduced him to “the world of fiction.” But, at press time, no one path had cleared. 

“I wanted to go out while I still love it with all my heart and love everybody I work with, and I didn’t want to overstay my welcome,” he says. The move ushers in a new era for CTC, the Minneapolis institute founded under a different name in 1961, which bills itself as the largest theater serving young and multigenerational audiences—the nation’s “flagship” for kids.

“Peter is one of the most passionate human beings I’ve ever met in my life,” says Reed Sigmund, company member and star of CTC’s “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” “I’m really going to miss his quest for—I don’t want to say ‘perfection,’ because perfection doesn’t really exist. But he doesn’t settle.” 

Since taking over CTC in 1997, Brosius has helped the theater sparkle. In 2003, it became the only children’s theater to win a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. That year, the tender-hearted “A Year With Frog and Toad” netted three Tony nominations, including Best Musical—the most of any Minnesota show, CTC claims. Season by season, Brosius balanced more than 70 new productions with ticket-sellers like the beloved annual “Grinch,” which, he says, made record sales last year.

His time has been about expansion, too: Under Brosius, CTC reports it more than doubled its annual budget, from $6 to $13 million. He has rolled out ticket subsidies for families facing economic challenges. With a famed local fairy tale expert, his mentor Jack Zipes, he started a “critical literacy” program for kids that has gone national. Most recently, CTC launched a project to develop 16 works by Black, Indigenous, Asian American, and Latinx writers, in partnership with St. Paul’s Penumbra Theater and three coastal companies.

But not all has glimmered. The theater’s precocious ingenuity soured to infamy when lawsuits arose in 2015 over child abuse at CTC during the 1970s and early ’80s, before Brosius’ time. He was called upon to deliver reparations.

In July, Rick Dildine takes over, hailing from Alabama. Dildine describes Brosius as someone who brings “all of himself” to relationships. “Peter is one of those lions of American theater,” he says by phone. “What I think he has been so good at, that I also value, is the importance of getting the right people at the table.”

Peter Brosius leaves Children's Theatre Co. after 27 years
Peter Brosius leaves Children’s Theatre Co. after 27 years

Photo by Nate Ryan

Must Go On

In Brosius’ office, golden hour floods the windows and exposes all his laugh lines. He had recounted CTC highlights by phone days before. Attuned to local history and current events, Brosius has a reputation for commissioning “difficult” stories. Kid protagonists spar with colossal topics blundering in from the politically fraught world of adults. Suitably, if also strangely, he dwells on a lack of directorial control.

Two and a half years after he started work on a play about a farm family scraping through a drought, it opened the day arid agricultural conditions filled Minnesota headlines. “We had farmers coming from two and a half hours away,” he says, noting the 2003 play grappled with higher suicide rates among farmers. “They’d heard about the show, and they needed to see it.”

Other times, it’s more orchestration than fortuity. He read up on Sudanese refugees in Fargo, North Dakota, before commissioning 2007’s “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” about an “epic journey” through Midwest weather and culture.

But the random hits of electricity enthrall him most. In previews for “Spamtown, USA,” a play matching kids against southern Minnesota’s bitter Hormel strikers and execs, the humor fizzled. The commission opened early 2020, and suddenly the audience went “delirious.” The actors locked in. At intermission, Brosius stayed quiet, lest he jinx it. “There’s something about the alchemical nature, that human nature, of this artform.”

Growing up in Riverside, California, he started out in theater by way of his mom. She worked as a secretary and tapped her joys—her social life, her excuse to leave the house—through acting, he says. His father, an Air Force officer, had died in a training accident when Brosius was 2. He recalls a youth booming with independence. He had free rein to, for example, travel through Canada and Mexico in his teens. Acting in school or community plays could provide a “surrogate family” feeling, and a high school-age castmate singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” could “rock the theater” and evoke pride and togetherness. That ability to move people—it “gives you incredible power as a kid.” Hard work, meanwhile, could garner adult respect. All that excited him.

Years later, he would puzzle over his “voice.” He consumed a lot of theater upon moving to the East Coast, where he earned an MFA from New York University in 1980: the “groundbreaking,” California-sprung Chicano work of Teatro Campesino; the “beautifully made” queer aesthetics of Ridiculous Theatrical Company. “There’s something about that theater, that’s speaking to a community, allied with a community,” he says, “that’s very, very beautiful to me.” He wondered, ‘OK, I’m a straight white guy from Southern California. Like, where does that fit for me?

One summer night, the piers were on fire in New York, and he and two former NYU classmates were putting on “The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria”—“about class, about colonialism.” The premiere drew a downtown hipster crowd. “And I remember thinking, ‘I hope they like it.” Then, he stopped. “‘That is such a low reason to make something.’” For a good time. For idle enjoyment. He walked out. “And it was like I walked into Hell. The sky was orange, and it was 1,000 degrees.”

After having toured children’s theaters in Europe, he realized nothing amazed him in the U.S. market. In Europe, “what was happening was bold and political and provocative and beautifully done.” For kids, he thought, there was potential. “I can be an ally. I can help their voice have respect.”

Before CTC, Brosius directed a theater project for more than a decade in L.A., then ran a children’s theater for two years in Hawaii. At a festival during his L.A. chapter, he saw a revelatory, high-energy show for preschoolers from a Swedish company. He later visited that company, Dockteatern Tittut. It helped him frame preschool work as activistic: “Neural pathways are being formed between 2 and 5. If you don’t exercise them and you don’t activate them—these are real losses to developmental abilities.” Under him, CTC launched trauma-informed preschool programming, much of it “highly subsidized.”

Some other takeaways from his Dockteatern Tittut partnership: outlining the show before it starts and handing out custom booties to audience members. “You’re instantly transformed when you’re wearing these booties.” He sounds inspired. “Instantly!”

The high of directing, for Brosius, “is when you’re in a moment, and you’re working with actors, and their ideas are flowing, and your ideas are flowing, and you don’t know exactly where you’re going, but you’re investigating something, and it is so much fun.” 

Amid today’s joys—in remembering, in analyzing—mention of the lawsuits appears to pain him. Blue shadows have seeped in. He shuts his eyes, taking a sharp breath through his nose.

“He inherited a nightmare,” says Laura Stearns, who filed the first of 16 civil suits against CTC following the passage of the Minnesota Child Victims Act. She called for institutional accountability and faults CTC and Brosius for what she describes as a “This wasn’t us” stance. An early CTC release stated, “While this development is unwelcome in the sense that it returns to the forefront events from a difficult chapter in our history, we stand with any victim of abuse in his or her desire to see justice done.”

Stearns now leads a nonprofit that finances aid for survivors, and she says the $500,000 therapy fund CTC pledged in 2019 amounts to “a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed to really, truly help people.” Details of the court settlement were confidential, and CTC is refraining from comment, explaining in an email that “saying anything could be triggering and painful to those who continue to suffer from past abuse.”

“Now, we’ve just been doing our work,” Brosius says—strengthening and disseminating policies. He and Stearns say relations withered after CTC appointed its lawyer to the board. Following blowback, CTC removed the lawyer, Brosius says. But for Stearns, “it was very, very damaging” to stay in relationship.

“We don’t want any family to go through this,” Brosius says. “We don’t want any organization to go through this, because … You know, I’m a dad.” His son studies TV writing, and his daughter practices law, both out East. “You want to protect your kids.”

He allied himself to young audiences, so has he ever created with his child self in mind? At first, Brosius says he isn’t sure and seems reluctant to consider it. “I like to think about work in which young people have agency,” he offers. In his productions, kids often piece things back together. They are Cindy Lou Who, or the children of strikers in Austin, Minnesota, or the defiant Morris Micklewhite in a tangerine dress. “I was always conscious of, when you create a community, how are you welcomed?” Here, he thinks back: As the kid of a single mom—who would remarry and divorce, he says, making his the only family of separation at school—he thought a lot about hospitable spaces. A theme seems to emerge here: to “create both a room to make the work and then a story that says to the audience, ‘You’re part of the story.’”

Also: Children’s Theatre Co. has announced its 2024-25 season.