The Case of Skylight Opera Theatre: Brave Board Tactics or Waterboard Tactics?


Talk about leaving a disaster in your wake: I returned to New York from Milwaukee not two weeks ago and now there is a full-blown crisis in the more-sizable-than-you-think theater community there, with plenty of rancor to go around. Hit as hard by the fiscal downturn as many other not-for-profit theaters, the board of Skylight Opera Theatre has taken the draconian and, many say, odd and counterintuitive step of terminating its artistic director, William Theisen. Here are excerpts from Playbill’s coverage of the story:

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…Theisen was let go “as part of an organizational restructuring in response to the economic downturn,” according to a statement from the Equity company that produces musicals and English-language versions of classic operas.

Skylight’s “artistic coordination and administration will now be part of the responsibilities of managing director, Eric Dillner, who assumed the managing director position at the Skylight in 2008. An opera singer, he was previously the general and artistic director at the Shreveport Opera. Milwaukee native Theisen reportedly began his association with Skylight as a teen actor.

…Theisen’s friends and colleagues, including Skylight resident music director Jamie Johns, are protesting the decision by contacting board members, donors and subscribers. On June 18, Johns told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he had been fired for insubordination. Johns has organized a public protest set for June 19 at Skylight’s home at the Broadway Theatre Center.

…Skylight’s Dillner said in a statement, “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…we needed to become a leaner organization.”

…Dillner said, “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.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Skylight company manager Diana Alioto and two salaried box-office employees also got fired. Dillner told the paper that the company has a $100,000 operating deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30 and a projected $200,000 deficit next year. The Skylight’s annual budget is about $3.3 million.

A fairly dispassionate, objective story this is, right? I think so. But as I read it and re-read it — having had the events at Skylight brought to my attention by Jonathan West, my Milwaukee-based friend and colleague who played host for me while I visited — something kept gnawing at me. It was a sense that this action against Theisen, yes, was surely driven by economics, but it feels or reads like some orchestrated, insidious coup. Is it not the case that a managing director and an artistic director are meant to work as a team? In some companies, sure, it’s the artistic director who stands out more — he or she, after all, is responsible for final programming decisions, and receives the blame or claims the credit when productions are poor or great. But I’m hardpressed to think of many not-for-profit theaters where the business person, whether called the executive director, producing director or managing director, is the dominant face of the organization, where the artistic director is subservient, for all intents and purposes, to the business person’s will.

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Over at Jonathan’s blog, the whimsically titled Artsy Schmartsy, this is all hitting a little close to home. His wife, Paula Suozzi, was the artistic director of Milwaukee Shakespeare, which folded not long ago when its main income source, a foundation with, I hear, a rather autocratic head, abruptly concluded that Milwaukee didn’t need to bring the Bard of Avon to the masses. Jon is always clear-eyed, I have found, even if the truth hurts. He’s a crackerjack actor, writer and director, but frankly he would have made one hell of a journalist. Here’s some excerpts from his post on Skylight:

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…I entered this discussion because I believe it is a community discussion. I don’t believe it is a discussion about one person being better than the other. I don’t believe that there is an evil plot at work.

I do believe that a change that a group of people wanted or needed to make was handled poorly. Perhaps as poorly as you can handle this kind of change.

It may be heresy to even suggest this, but we’ve not really brought up the possibility that the people who were fired at Skylight may not have been good at their jobs. I’m not suggesting that they were, and frankly I don’t have an opinion about that. But the current history might be a little revisionist due to the monumentally bad handling of this change and how people who are just simply really fine and wonderful people were let go in the worst possible manner in a very delicate arena.

…The real tragedy of this situation is that there was an assumption on the part of the Skylight board that the community was ready for (and had been prepared for) the news of this new restructuring plan.

We don’t yet know anything about how The Skylight plans to thrive under a singular management leadership structure. At this point we can all just assume that the plan is locked away in someone’s desk drawer at 158 N. Broadway, and as soon as someone finds the key, they’ll let us all know how it’s going to work. If indeed the conspiracy theorists are right and Eric Dillner has plotted to become the Artistic and Managing Director of The Skylight, then I say he is to be looked at with awe and wonder for the major set of balls he has in his belief in being able to do both jobs well. I’ve tried to do that with a much smaller company, the former Bialystock & Bloom, and it is an all consuming job that will kick anyone’s ass. Clearly my balls were not as big…

…I must point out that there has not been complete silence from the internal players regarding this off-stage drama. On my own personal front, a Skylight Board member contacted one of the Board members of the organization I serve with great honor, The Sunset Playhouse. That Skylight Board member leveled displeasure with some of my comments as a blogger in regards to my position of authority within another arts group in the region. I am lucky to work alongside a fabulous Board at The Sunset Playhouse full of members who constantly exhibit a refreshing amount of candor and open communication with me, so this conversation was immediately brought to my attention.

My response to this Board to Board tete a tete was to listen to my Board member, acknowledge the Skylight Board member via e-mail correspondence and invite that Skylight Board member to communicate directly with me in the future.

…I hope the rhetoric can find a way to rise above the personal accusations and character attacks that even I have started to feel.

The truth is, what Skylight is upset about, and perhaps with some good reason, is that Artsy Schmartsy is reporting that Skylight’s most important personnel — the audience — is banding together, threatening to cancel subscriptions over this PR disaster.

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And now, as if all this wouldn’t strike you as deeply unfortunate all the way around, the local press, in the form of the formidable Damien Jaques, who has covered Milwaukee theater since I was being toilet trained (sorry, Damien), has admirably and memorably joined the fray. His issue is Skylight’s handling of this situation more than addressing the question of how on earth anyone can think they can do an adequately do an artistic and a management job at the same time, which does remain an open question. Jaques’ issue — well, concern — is why theaters sometimes seem to bungle thorny situations so terribly. This is the theater: you would expect that from an industry with a reputation for honest ruthlessness there would also be enough cunning when it comes to getting out in front of a story so as to head off any kind of bad press. Here are excerpts from Jaques’ beautifully written piece:

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Our 30-year run of professional theater growth in Wisconsin has been remarkable for many reasons, including the stability of the stage companies and the stage community. We have seen the inevitable churn of groups and artists coming and going, but the base was firm and the conduct of business was reasonable. The public was told about problems before the crisis developed into smoking wreckage. Conflict and drama happened after the lights went down and performances began.

That era came to an abrupt end in late October when Milwaukee Shakespeare artistic director Paula Suozzi got an unexpected Friday afternoon phone call telling her the company was being shut down. The troupe’s primary funder, the Argosy Foundation, was turning off the money spigot. Subsequent efforts by the company’s paid leadership and staff to salvage the season with a scaled down budget was not approved by the Milwaukee Shakespeare board. Anger and bitterness lingers.

The Madison Repertory Theatre didn’t bother to tell anyone when its board voted to dissolve the group in February, according to the Associated Press. Word of the closure finally dribbled out in March. The Madison Rep was financially struggling for years, and it was clear last fall that a slow motion death had begun. But there was a sense that the end of what was once a good theater company had been strangely hidden from public view.

Now we have the dismissal of highly respected and well liked Skylight Opera Theatre artistic director William Theisen in a sudden and startling move to help balance the company’s troubled budget. His salary is among four that are being eliminated. The action was a thunderbolt from the sky that has left the theater community breathless and stunned.

…an unhealthy theme is evident in the Milwaukee Shakespeare, Madison Rep and Skylight messes. The three groups badly fumbled the handling of tough situations. Boards appear to be disconnected from their artists and audiences. Transparency is missing, leading to conspiracy rumors that may or may not be based in substance.

The foolishness of alienating customers — audiences — should be obvious, but the boards and management of arts groups also need to respect their artists. The people who make theater or music or dance are not minimum wage employees who can be downsized in the dark of night. Assuming we want artists in our midst, we must engage them when difficult decisions have to be made, and give them a stake in our cultural future. They may even have some fresh ideas on how to save a buck.

…Money may be short, but mutual respect and good judgment costs nothing.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. But really, I think, Jaques has put together quite a bull’s-eye statement, so let me repeat it: mutual respect and good judgment costs nothing, even in a volatile, painful economic time such as the one we’re in. Yet in the time-honored tradition of digging in one’s heels, Skylight apparently prefers not to acknowledge that the matter hasn’t been handled in an especially intelligent manner. The president of the company’s board has a statement posted on the organization’s website directly reassuring patrons (but probably raising their concerns at the same time), while on a blog new to me called Tuesday’s Blog, maintained by a fellow named Tony Clements, an anonymous email to him has been published that really lays out the case against the Skylight board. Clements has also published two posts, here and here, elucidating the community’s outrage. Here’s the anonymous email:

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In business, when cuts must come, you start with the non-essential personnel: what can you lose and not effect your product.

But Skylight first cuts the Artistic Director – showing a lack of respect for the Artistic product, then the Company Manager – showing a lack of respect for the artists, and finally the Box Office Management – showing a lack of respect for the audience.

Then this lack of respect is announced to the press in an e-mail.

Should there not have been a press release by the complete board backing the MAJOR change? No, an e-mail from the desk of the person who is to assume the position of CEO.

And now the board wonders why people are up in arms? Really?

So what now? When does a sound management decision become a case for community outrage, what with charges that fly back and forth and a history of artistic and managerial integrity at stake? This is really the question for which none of us have any answers — and I’m not living in Milwaukee, so I guess this is another one of those “million stories in the naked city” tales. Except it’s the American theater that is naked, its vulnerable belly exposed to the heavens on a dark and moonless night.