Shakeup at Skylight

There has been quite a bit of turmoil in the Milwaukee theatre community this week. The Skylight Opera Theatre eliminated several key positions in their organization. The positions that were eliminated were that of Artistic Director, Company Manager, Box Office Manager, Box Office Assistant, and Night Custodian. The theatre board and the Managing Director indicated that the reasons for this were because of the current economic climate and the poor financial situation of the theatre. This has raised quite a ruckus with some very vocal individuals in the theatre community. The main concern by many individuals revolves around the treatment of Bill Theisen, the Artistic Director whose position was eliminated. According to various sources, he has been with the company since he was a teen actor and been the Artistic Director for the last five years. It is extremely apparent that he is beloved in the artistic community. I don’t know him or his work but a lot of very talented people of whom I respect think very highly of him.

The viewpoints on whether or not this was the correct course of action for the theatre seem to be extremely polarized, very vocal, and (I would say) bordering on nasty. The Resident Music Director was so vocal about his outrage over the issue that he was apparently fired for insubordination later in the week. Personally, I don’t know whether this is the type of action that will keep the theatre from going under or not. I am, however, amazed by the number of that want the board to reverse its decision because of their love for this individual. Part of the turmoil centers on the belief by some that the current Managing Director (An outsider that hasn’t been here an entire year yet) wanted to have both managing and artistic control of the theatre and did this as a way to grab more power. I find it hard to believe that a theatre board consisting of 37 people dedicated to the success of this theatre would conspire to oust a beloved and successful member of company just to stroke the ego of their newly instated Managing Director. I do, however, believe that board completely mishandled how the news of this action was communicated and they completely misjudged the reaction of the local theatre community.

Theatre companies, like the Skylight Opera Theatre, that have been around for 50 years become institutions in the community. And, as such, many believe that everyone working there should be treated like family. Unfortunately, companies that grow to the size of the Skylight are big businesses and the people in charge need to make the best decisions they can to keep the business running during tough economic times. I personally don’t believe that the actions taken had a malicious intent. Protests, petitions, or pleading are not going to reverse these decisions as they were obviously not made in haste. The theatre has a $200,000 shortfall to deal with and they came up with what they thought was the best way to solve that. If you want to see these people get there jobs back, get 2,000 of your closest friend to each pitch in $100. Sadly, a massive amount of fundraising is the only way to solve this problem.


3 Responses to “Shakeup at Skylight”

  1. Leslie Chobanoff Says:

    Hey Kurt,
    First-thanks for bringing to light this turbulent story to the greater theatre world. It’s been a very bad week for those of us who work at, perform in, or go to The Skylight. In tough economic times the arts play a particularly important role to help people escape some of the harsh realities that they encounter on a daily basis.
    I agree that this situation has been mishandled. A change of this magnitude needs to be handled with particular care and sensitivity. I’ve been deluged by posts on Facebook, as most of my friends are currently or former Skylight folk. Some of it got really emotional, which is understandable as we artists are known for being deep feel-ers. I’ve processed a boggling amount of information and my conclusion is that combining the Artistic Director/Managing Director positions will have the same impact on The Skylight that combining General Manager/Coach had on the Packers back in Mike Sherman’s reign. The two represent opposite sides of the same coin. Same goals, different visions. Reportedly, Eric Dillman performed both duties in Shreveport at the Opera company there. I can’t know what impact that had on them, but Milwaukee is a long way from Shreveport. He hasn’t had the tenure to prove himself to the company or the community and to suddenly overturn and assume the role of the Artistic Director looks suspect. Even if his intentions are above board, it still looks a little fishy. But, this is just my opinion. Well… and that of a few others. I understand that the company must make ends meet as we all do, it’s just that many are unsatisfied with how the process worked to arrive at the end result that came to light this week. I don’t know who the board is made up of, their backgrounds, their level of theatre involvement, what their goals are. I know the wife of one board member, and they are theatre people. I know another board member and that person is corporate. Here’s my point: “Corporate” has an entirely different set of values, responsibilities and vision than “Artist”. Bill was a consumate Artist. I didn’t work with him much, but even I could see that in him.
    Now for the REALLY BIG POINT: Most of us are bright enough to acknowledge that it isn’t only about Bill. Not really. It sucks that he’s been let go, and the manner in which he was leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, even if only a third of the “I heard…” ‘s are true. Diana Aliota, the company manager was axed too, and finding a replacement for her is going to be difficult. TBP is that this is about the theatre, and about keeping the Skylight together for another 50 years, and if the events of the last week are truly in the best interests of the theatre or (possibly, depending on which side of the “conspiracy theory” you buy into) the personal interests of a few. Who backed these decisions? Not the people who were affected (that is a fact)–not those of us who continue to be affected. My question is if the board really understands the real workings of a theatre beyond what works on paper. Those of us who are theatre addicts understand this. You don’t do theatre to get rich, you do it ’cause you love it, ’cause you weep over it and sometimes bleed for it. That’s a long, long way off from the financial spreadsheets around the mahogany conference table. Yes.. I know.. it all has to somehow work. I’m just not sure that the Skylight Opera Theatre is being guided in the direction that will serve the most good. And yes, I am biased. But I run my own business too, so I have a little bit of an idea what has to happen when passion marries practical. It’s not an easy match.

    The second point–and I do have one, is that there are questions that people would like answers to. I dubbed Jamie Johns our “Jamie of Arc” because he was very vocal in his dissatisfaction of how this was handled. He did become emotional, but never made any threats. What I heard him say at the rally this morning (yep, I was there. To show support, not to protest. And I didn’t eat any of the donuts that someone brought) that all he really wants is answers to questions. They were really good questions, but I don’t remember most of them. Except about WHAT the new “vision” is, since it has involved a major amputation. I mean, if you were scheduled to have surgery to remove your leg, you’d probably want to know why and what benefit it would have in the larger scheme of things. That’s pretty much what Jamie wants. I think that he’s posting the questions on a FB sight entitled Bring Back Bill Theisen. Or something like that.

    As for me, I’m personally heart-broken that I may never get the chance to work again with some incredibly talented and amazing people. Again, those of us who love theatre know that the real “show” isn’t what’s happening on the stage, but behind the scenes. That’s the real show. And, I fear, the curtain is coming down on this one. I’m usually more upbeat, but I have a feeling in my gut that this isn’t going to end well. I think it is very wrong to sink the whole ship over one or two people, but the level of trust is so broken, I’m not sure she can recover. I sincerely hope so, because the lives of lots of artists literally hangs in the balance right now.

    So-to sum up:
    Bad stuff happens, people not told why, get very upset, want answers, answers not coming.

    • Kurt Says:


      Thanks for your feedback. I do not disagree that this situation has been completely mishandled by Eric and the Board. I’ve been through several layoff/downsizing exercises during my career and how they were handled and communicated to everyone made a big difference in how they were received. There is no doubt that this type of thing affects everyone involved at an emotional level. That part of the process should have been planned a whole lot better than it was.

      I am, however, a “corporate” person in my real life and may have the possibility of serving on a theatre board very soon, and I know that you can’t provide a quality “show” if someone doesn’t pay for it. I don’t know if the decisions made this week were the right ones to keep this theatre around another 50 years. Only history will be able to tell us that. I have to believe that “most” of the people involved were doing what they thought were in the best interests of the livelyhood of the theatre. I am, however, saddened that so many wonderful people had to lose their jobs because of it. Unfortunately, that is happening all over the place these days.

  2. Leslie Chobanoff Says:

    Yep, tough times we live in, no doubt. While my heart breaks for the loss of some incredible people, what saddens me most is that all of the “ripple effect” from this decision could permanently disable a threatre that is home to other artists and is dedicated to reaching out to the community. Obviously, the board doesn’t have a crystal ball to see how the decisions are going to play out and the artistic community has been wounded gravely and is reacting viscerally. The whole thing just sucks. At some point (soon) healing needs to begin. Otherwise, in the face of such incredible division, the organization will fail. There are many lives at stake here, I have no idea how this is going to play out, but I’m praying for swift reconciliation and restoration.

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