Brian Jacobson
Skylight cuts Artistic Director Theisen, key staff roles

Beal resigns from board in protest

By - Jun 22nd, 2009 07:20 am
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bill thiesen

[June 22, 2009, 8:07 a.m.]

Most know the story by now. The Executive Committee of Skylight Opera, without board discussion or vote, last week eliminated key staff positions that many supporters believe lets flow freely the lifeblood of this traditionally family-like company. This morning Jonathan West posts the full text of the resignation letter of long-time supporter and board member, Robert L. Beal, on his blog, Artsy Schmartsy. Read it here. But after innumerable, calls, emails and a Friday morning protest, the question remains: will there be meaningful dialog on the subject? And if so, when? Because now would be a really good time. - Jon Anne Willow

[Original text, posted June 17, 8:44 a.m.]

Citing a 2008-09 season financial shortfall of $200,000, the Skylight Opera has announced the release from service of long-time Artistic Director Bill Theisen, Company Manager Diana Alioto, Box Office Manager Kelley Arlt, box office staffer Jason Hames and the night janitor. The decision, as announced, was made jointly by Managing Director Eric Dillner and the Skylight’s board of directors.

(From Performing Arts Editor Brian Jacobson, an afternoon update: Marketing Director Kristin Godfrey clarified to Jonathan West the following on his blog via an email: “Jason (assistant box office manager) and Kelley (box office manager)’s positions were eliminated as salaried positions. They were offered hourly positions which they chose not to take. I am taking over the box office operations and have had many conversations with both companies to ensure I am dealing with their needs and learning everything I need to know to make sure their service doesn’t suffer.”)

News of the shakeup – which could be devastating to any organization – is especially so for a small and close-knit arts group with a common mission who’ve already sacrificed good pay and regular schedules for the love of their work. If the social mediasphere is any indication, this move has deeply shaken the already-wary staff and friends of the Skylight, and the larger implications have cast a pall over an already-nervous local arts community.

Bill Theisen came to the Skylight as Artistic Director in 2004. He directed the just concluded run of Skylight’s Pirates of Penzance, and also appeared in various productions there in such roles as Max Bialystock in the 2008 run of The Producers.

On Wednesday morning, in his Artsy Schmartsy blog, offers an illuminating examination of the Skylight’s situation and his own suggestions for how things could have turned out differently. He also posts the email addresses of the entire Skylight board and urges a letter-writing campaign to question the reasoning behind such drastic cuts.

Tom Strini of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel broke the news about Theisen late Tuesday evening on his blog.

Dillner came to the Skylight in the summer of 2008 from the Shreveport Opera, where he served simultaneously as General Director and Artistic Director. Although Dillner has operatic background both as singer and stage director, his role at Skylight has remained administrative. With the elimination of the Artistic Director position at the Skylight, Dillner will assume those duties as well. More information about Dillner’s background was published in the September 2008 issue of VITAL Source Magazine.

Excerpts from a press release sent out to the media from Skylight:

Skylight Opera Theatre today announced a major administrative change as part of an organizational restructuring in response to the economic downturn. The position of Artistic Director, held for the past five years by William Theisen, has been eliminated due to the economy. All future productions at the Skylight will be directed by contracted stage directors from across the country. Artistic coordination and administration will now be part of the responsibilities of Managing Director, Eric Dillner.

“For the past five months the Board, the staff and I have been exploring every possible means of cutting costs and finding efficiencies in our operations. We had hoped to avoid personnel cuts, but a projected $200,000 shortfall in our 2009 – 2010 budget could not be addressed any other way,” said Dillner. “With the UPAF campaign goal down 15%, our own annual campaign seeing a similar fall-off, and our endowment significantly impacted by the decline in the markets, we needed to become a leaner organization.”

Additional staffing changes were made throughout the company to better align the organizational structure with our current business model. During his tenure, Theisen provided artistic and stage direction on numerous Skylight productions while continuing his active work as a free-lance director and actor with companies nationwide. Highlights of his Skylight work include the stage direction of The Mikado (which was televised on PBS), La Bohème, and The Pirates of Penzance; and appearances in lead acting/singing roles in Tintypes and The Producers.

“We wish Bill all of the best. He is a brilliant stage director and has been a charismatic leader of our artistic department. He has a huge following in Milwaukee. We are currently in negotiations concerning his possible return to direct productions planned as part of the 50th anniversary season. Our goal remains to deliver the high quality music theatre productions that audiences have come to expect,” Dillner says.

[5:14 p.m., Wednesday, June 17] Response from Skylight Opera Board President Suzanne Hefty:

June 17, 2009

The organizational restructuring announced yesterday by Skylight Opera Theatre is in direct response to the current national economic downturn and a projected deficit of $200,000 in the 2009-2010 season.  Five positions were eliminated at the Skylight to bring organizational expenditures in line with anticipated earned and contributed revenue.  The positions of artistic director, company manager, box office manager, assistant box office manager and custodian were eliminated, reflecting cuts across departments and seniority levels.  Having struggled with an operating deficit last season and having already cut $400,000 from the 2009-2010 budget, the only option remaining was to eliminate staff positions and impose a furlough.

This was a very difficult decision, which was not made in haste or without recognition of the history many of these staff members have with the Skylight.  This is an emotional time for everyone.  We understand that there are some very strong feelings and comments that have been expressed about the restructuring.  While we cannot address each and every comment, we appreciate those who have provided support and constructive criticism.

When Managing Director Eric Dillner joined the Skylight last year, he inherited a series of serious financial challenges.  His goal continues to be to maintain the Skylight’s artistic excellence, but to do so in a financially responsible manner.  The restructuring decisions were made by the Executive Committee of the Board, not by any one individual.  The personal threats that have been made against Eric are inappropriate.

We want to express our sincere appreciation for Bill Theisen’s work as artistic director.  Bill is a brilliant stage director and discussions are underway to contract him as a stage director in the 2009-2010 season.

The Skylight’s mission remains to deliver world-class music theatre productions to the Milwaukee community.  The Board is confident that Eric and the staff are well qualified to meet these challenges and carry the Skylight’s organizational and artistic vision forward.

Suzanne Hefty
President
Skylight Opera Theatre Board of Directors

Original article by Jon Anne Willow, with updates and detail by Brian Jacobson

(production stills from Skylight Opera’s stagings of Pirates of Penzance and The Producers, courtesy Skylight Opera’s Facebook site)

production stills from Skylight Opera's stagings of Pirates of Penzance and the Producers, courtesy Skylight Opera's facebook site
Official Productions stills from 2008's The Producers and 2009's Pirates of Penzance, courtesy Skylight Opera

7 thoughts on “Skylight cuts Artistic Director Theisen, key staff roles: Beal resigns from board in protest”

  1. from a great comment posted on tuesdaysblog –

    There comes a time to say “NO. Enough is enough.”

    Those who care about the Skylight have waited a week for a response from board and management regarding the firings of key staff and restructuring of the senior staff. To date there has been little to no substantial response to the chorus of criticism that has resulted.”

    more here:

    tuesdaysblog.com

  2. Bruce Lynch says:

    Where is the Board? Who is the Board? Who is the Executive Committee? Why aren’t they taking responsibility for their organization. It’s their responsibility to secure funding to work in tandem with the MD and AD to manage operations, attract a wide range of patrons — not just the aging Milwaukee audience. Yes — some innovations in programming as Kevin points out would have helped. How many times can one see their favorite — even if it’s “Pirates of Penzance.” In the end, it’s the board’s who has made these decisions and thrusting the hapless Mr. Dillner
    in the role of messenger. At least Suzanne Hefty is stepping up to the plate. But it is the Board that is responsible to raise $200,000. It’s not actually that much money. 20 board members raise $10,000 each and we can damn well put on a show!

    We must also remember that any organization that depended up
    the largess of private sector generosity (foundations, corporations, wealthy folks, and
    nominal givers) has been underfunded for over a decade — since the Calatrava sucked private funding sources dry. It’s time to point out that private philanthropy in Milwaukee — was throttled by the Calatrava, but the money is long gone and the collapse of the US financial sector obviously doesn’t help. So Skylight, joins the Public Museum among the casualties. But, it’s unfortunate that personalities have run amuck here in addition to financial short falls.

  3. Donia Desautels says:

    In response to marketing person Kristin Godfrey, who will now also be running the box office: While it is true that the box office folks were offered hourly positions, please let us know what exactly they were going to be paid. I have been told it was a greatly reduced hourly rate. So, why not reduce EVERY employee’s salary? I’m sure doing that would go a lot farther for morale than just picking on a few who already are working for peanuts.
    Also, isn’t the marketing department having access to subscriber/donor lists of the other two companies just a tad suspect? And a conflict of interest? A response would be greatly appreciated.

  4. Ben Turk says:

    I disagree. I think the biggest problem is not in how this was handled, but in the fact that a successful artisic director (clearly he’s very popular with audiences) lost his job to an unsuccessful managing director (clearly he’s not keeping the company afloat).

    When arts organizations need to cut, the last think they should be cutting is artists, that undermines the whole purpose of the organization. But, then, that’s the problem with corporate theatre, any company that runs under this model seems to either lose sight of it’s artistic purpose, or close. We need to find an arts-business model that doesn’t fall into this paradox.

    There are local companies working towards this goal (and i’m not talking about my own company, we’re working toward a bunch of other goals that are pretty incompatible with Milwaukee, with musical theatre, and even with what most people consider “art”) but these other companies (alchemist, bad soviet habits, etc) cannot exist in a vaccuum. The future of theatre depends upon a transition from the broken non-profit corporation model to a new approach. Other communities are managing that transition with transparency, resource exchange, cooperation. In Milwaukee’s theatre community, everything goes on behind closed doors and with a rigid outmoded condescending hierarchy and paranoia.

  5. Sarah Kover says:

    I think the biggest problem lies not in the decision to cut Thiesen, but in the way the cut was handled.

    Sure, downsizing is an unpleasant but often necessary step when dealing with a decreased budget. But when letting go of a major company leader like Thiesen, the community needs to be informed of the decision and given a reasonable explanation with more details than “the economy made us do it.” Explanations have been getting better, but should have been offered initially.

    Slightly off the topic, I’m going to miss Ralph, the custodian who was let go. I work in the building occasionally, and he was always very kind to me. Good luck, Ralph.

  6. Karen Pogorelc says:

    I have seen many productions at the Skylight in the past 3 years, most recently, “Pirates of Penzance”. The performances I have seen have been very well attended, with a cross section of people. I’m 44, I attend with my daughters, and I see many people younger than me at the productions.

    The person that left the previous comment seems to know little if anything about The Skylight. Productions like “The Producers”, “Spitfire Grill”, and “White Christmas” are not opera, they are musical theater. I think Bill Theisen has done a fantastic job of picking shows that appeal to a large cross section of people. Kevin….do you realize that next season includes a production of “Rent”? How much more hip can an opera company get?

    Furthermore, the people that don’t like opera are the people that don’t take the time to like it. Doing a little background reading about libretto does wonders for understanding a show. I have two daughters, ages 11 and 13. We have been attending Skylight and Florentine shows for a couple of years. They love them. We were fortunate to see this past season’s La Boheme. It was so beautifully done. Bill does a wonderful job of updating shows and keeping them fresh.

    I get so frustrated with comments like the previous one. Sometimes art takes a bit of work, but the payoff is so wonderful. Don’t be so pedestrian to assume that you don’t like opera. Spend a little time and educate yourself, and then try going to a show again. You might be surprised. If my 13 year old can go to see Handel’s “Semele”, and say, “That is the best show I’ve ever seen”, I think an almost 40 year old might be able to understand and enjoy an opera.

    I am very sad to hear about the changes at Skylight. I think Bill Theisen has done an absolutely wonderful job in all the capacities that he has performed at Skylight. He has fostered a great community of local professional actors and singers. One of the things I am going to miss most of all about Bill, is seeing him in the lobbey after a show, with a huge grin and a great big hug. His enthusiasm for great theater is infectious.

    Too bad the guy who left the previous comment just doesn’t get it.

  7. Kevin Keltner says:

    I do not believe this is Bill Thiesen’s, or any of the other Artistic Managers, fault. I believe “Opera” is losing it’s popularity…does it really have popularity? I am almost 40 years old and attended one event at the Skylight. My wife and I were the youngest people in attendance, as far as I could tell.

    If the Skylight is going to survive, they need to bring in new customers. I do not see where they are bringing in new customers…and I am not sure they can. With the media focusing on what is new and hip, how can the Skylight continue to bring in new generations of customers?

    That is a difficult problem to solve.

    But with a $200,000 shortfall, what can the Skylight’s Board do? Options are limited. Salaries are often the first to be cut, just like any other organization. Is it reactive? Absolutely. But I think the Skylight has no other options for the short term.

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