Brian Jacobson
180, or 360 (updated)

Skylight offers, Theisen nixes

By - Jul 10th, 2009 08:00 am

(Updated at 5 p.m. Friday July 10, after a letter from Bill Theisen and Skylight comes out)

Bill Thesien in a recent production, photo courtesy Skylight Opera
In the latest of a long saga that began with a leaky roof and a recession, then exploded with the firing of a beloved Artistic Director and other staff members to save crippling budget costs which resulted in a massive outrage, Skylight Opera’s board fired back with a surprising announcement late Wednesday evening:

From the Board of Directors of The Skylight Opera Theatre:

The Board of Directors greatly appreciates the recent public and donor messages of concern and support for The Skylight’s artistic product. We have read, heard, and discussed them all, and thank everyone who has expressed support for The Skylight.

At a full meeting of the Board of Directors last night, it was resolved to establish communications with Bill Theisen regarding the role of Artistic Director at The Skylight. The Board sincerely hopes Bill will agree to return to The Skylight as its Artistic Director for the company’s 50th Anniversary Season. We continue to respect Bill’s artistic ability and his value to The Skylight and to the Milwaukee arts community.

The Board remains committed to strengthening The Skylight’s financial position so that it can continue to serve as a creative force in the Milwaukee community — and as an employer able to showcase a variety of artists for years to come. Our old organizational structure is not fiscally sustainable in these economic times. The Board’s strategic plan emphasizes establishing an overall structure including artistic adminstration that will work for The Skylight now and can be adapted when finances improve.

The Board would like to accept and embrace the many offers it has received for benefit performances, assistance in fundraising, and donations. Anyone interested in helping The Skylight can e-mail the board at

The board continues to support Eric Dillner and the entire staff of The Skylight who have filled in and carried on during this time. They deserve the respect and appreciation of all.

Details were not forthcoming. There was no word on where the money was coming from to sustain Theisen, whether it was a contracted position, or even if there would be other cuts (like one less show) this season to stay on budget. It was clear that Dillner and the Skylight Board collapsed under pressure from the artistic community. Which made Bill Theisen’s response, sent to Tom Strini at the Journal Sentinel Friday afternoon, all the more interesting. An excerpt:

“…I am sad to say it is not an option for me to return to the Skylight in the capacity of artistic director under the current circumstances. I feel there has been a breach of trust and am quite certain that I would not be able to successfully continue my duties in the position…”

Mr. Theisen goes on to praise Skylight Opera’s organization, especially since he’ll still work there this fall. In a press release from the Skylight to inform of Theisen’s decision, it was revealed in an excerpt that he will still direct four shows:

“…The Board regrets that Bill has decided not to accept this offer but looks forward to him continuing to return to stage direct. Bill will be directing four shows with the Skylight in the 2009-2010 season as previously announced; The Marriage of Figaro, Plaid Tidings, The Barber of Seville, and The Long and Short of It.

The Board will continue to pursue other artistic options that will support Managing Director Eric Dillner with his combined duties.”

And so, the behind-the-curtain drama continues.

0 thoughts on “180, or 360 (updated): Skylight offers, Theisen nixes”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Went to the Arts Advocacy Breakfast Jonathan West is organizing this morning. The idea of the meeting is for artists to get organized so the community can respond as a whole to this and prepare for next time this happens. (and it’s gonna happen lots people, trust me)

    That’s the goal, but the result is predictable: artists are no better at collective action than anyone else. This is an internal problem at the skylight, which the rest of the community has no place in, and which the Skylight artists quite frankly shoulda been able to see coming.

    Attendees initially grudgingly complied with Jonathan’s request that we make this about more than the Skylight for maybe 15 minutes. I got the distinct impression that most of these people were paying impatient lipservice to the idea of advocating for other parts of the art community.

    The subject of arts coverage in the media came up, they bewailed the coming cuts at the journal [sentinel] and roundly dismissed my suggestion that Third Coast Digest for example, has already displayed a stronger commitment to truely covering the arts in this city.

    That press release is meaningless drivel written to appease everyone. The Skylight board is clearly very divided, and waiting for the heat to let up. Skylight artists and close friends have no intention of letting up, but will likely be going it alone.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I was also at the meeting this morning. Ben, I’m sorry you felt dismissed, I truly don’t believe that was the intention. The comment was that the Journal/Sentinel is read by more people in this city than any other publication (including Third Coast Digest), and the loss of arts coverage by staff reporters is a great loss to the arts community. Also, this particular group of people focuses on the Skylight because the Skylight’s administrative crisis is what brought us together in the first place. Perhaps we will be able to widen our scope when that problem is resolved in a satisfactory manner. As for “going it alone”, that is the crux of the matter – no one, Skylight Board, administration, or artists should do that. The Skylight’s success hinges on cooperation from EVERYONE.

  3. Anonymous says:

    If the Skylight artists don’t want to go it alone, they need to give the rest of the art community some indication that A. there is a role for the rest of the community in this controversy and B. Skylight artists will return the favor and advocate for other artists in the future. I got no such impression from friday’s meeting.

    As far as performing arts coverage in the media, I’m personally super excited about the future. Brian is establishing Third Coast as a broad resource for all kinds of performing arts in this city. The Decider (Onion) is seeking theatre reviewers. I bet the Shepherd will expand their coverage as well. This probably doesn’t sound like very good news to groups like Skylight and The Rep, because A. you might actually get some critical reviews in these sources (i’m especially excited to see snarky Decider reviews unleashed on the theatre community) and B. more importantly you’ll have to share space with us and all the other groups Damien fucking Jaques intentionally excludes from the Journal.

    Yes the Journal probably has more readers today, but their audience is shrinking. These others are growing, and doing a better job. In a couple years, maybe sooner, they’ll have eclipsed the Journal, and it’ll be fucking beautiful. A similar dynamic is going on in the theatre community (and by community i don’t just mean milwaukee, i mean the theatre world). I’ll be happy to advocate working together, linking your organizations with ours so that our rise can reverse your decline, but if you aren’t going to take me seriously, i’m just as happy to watch you sink as we rise past you.

    It’s not called Insurgent Theatre for nothin.

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