Brian Jacobson

A primer, recap, and update

By - Jul 23rd, 2009 11:23 pm

The Cabot Theatre, as seen on Skylight's website

A production still from a Skylight production, courtesy its website

A production still from a Skylight production, courtesy its website

Many mid- and small-sized professional live theatre groups in Wisconsin (see: Madison Repertory Theatre) and abroad (see: Lansing’s Boarshead Theatre, which has an eerily similar situation) are making hard decisions in the face of financial crisis brought forth by a bad economy. Productions are getting more expensive, funding from donors or organizations have dried up (see: Milwaukee Shakespeare or UPAF’s budget), and planned works are being scaled down. But Skylight’s saga has been very 21st century in its vitriol and suspect.

Skylight’s cautionary tale, which is still in mid-pendulum, is one in which the lesson may be to become careful of which cuts to make — especially in front of such a tight knit group of long-time performers, crew, volunteers, and donors. It’s also one in which governing bodies should be aware and utilize the internet’s ability to move and discuss; the web community’s voice in this case bewildered and shocked Skylight’s board, who remained mostly mum anyway. Now former board president Suzanne Hefty and Managing Director Eric Dillner, who are being held responsible for the first four firings and are directly responsible for three more when staff spoke out, came into the bullseye of the theatre community. After the firing and failed re-hiring of Skylight’s Artistic Director Bill Theisen, there has been a mass resignation that now leaves Skylight some 35 people short. So how did Milwaukee’s premier operetta (light opera) and musical stage company get to this desperate point?

According to Skylight’s website, several friends got together in 1959 at a party. Inspired by what they saw in major cities, “began to discuss the possibility of doing something in Milwaukee to combat what they deemed “a context of extreme cultural poverty.”

What was supposed to be a “beatnik coffeehouse” turned into shows at a Jefferson Street location, which turned into Skylight (they dropped the ‘Opera’ in 2007, but mysteriously it has returned in many places). Soon they were turning in major baroque, Broadway, contemporary chamber, and original revues. Then, they put on shows at the 358-seat Cabot Theatre, a wonderful model of a European Baroque-style opera house.

It was so named in 1995 for Colin Cabot‘sfamily, who was instrumental in a $5.9 million capital and endowment push to create the Broadway Theatre Center out of a warehouse in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. That space also currently houses a studio theater and hosts Renaissance Theatreworks, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, cabaret musicians, and quite recently the first show by Uprooted, an African-American Theatre group. At one time, it housed Milwaukee Shakespeare and Bialystock and Bloom. Notably, it housed the final years of the experimental Theater X, which fell apart under similar financial and creative circumstances in 2004.

Colin Cabot, who lives in New Hampshire now but literally wrote the book on Skylight’s history and his 21-year life in it via The Thirty Year War, is an important player in this soap opera of late. He is the connection between unwieldy founder and public relations nightmare Clair Richardson and Cabot’s final role as managing director (and donor). He went from neutral arbitrator of the firing debacle on July 3, stating in a letter to the Skylight community:

“My mantra has always been to help the institution of the Skylight rather than take sides in what began as a personnel dispute and has escalated into a public relations debacle.”

…to outraged father figure, demanding re-order on July 23. He is reportedly flying in overnight to be at the Catalano Square face-off.


The other major player in all this is William Theisen. The theater vet directed numerous Skylight productions over the years, as well as starring in some of them like the Producers in 2008. He is beloved by the company members, and the arts community. When Eric Dillner was hired, Theisen was quoted in print as being enthusiastic about working with him. Flash forward to June 16, 2009. Late in the evening on a Tuesday, a letter was sent out revealing the cut of Theisen and others including the Company Manager Diana Alioto. They had been let go days earlier.

It was declared as a major financial decision after facing a $200,000 shortfall for the upcoming 2009-10 season. According to Board President Suzanne Hefty at that time,

“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…”

Besides lack of funding from donors and a downturn within UPAF, they also cited major repairs to the roof of the Broadway Theatre Center to the tune of $92,000. Theisen was at that time invited and quietly agreed to freelance direct shows for the upcoming 50th year. But a public and company outcry erupted and was communicated daily (sometimes hourly) on blogs such as Jonathan West’s Artsy Schmartsy, Tony Clement’s Tuesdays Blog, and even Journal Sentinel contributor Tom Strini’s Old Song and Dance blog. National attention and reports were then repeated by Playbill, Arts Journal, and the New York Times.

A public protest happened one morning in front of the Broadway building, to no avail. Major players like Music Director Jamie Johns lambasted his superior online, and was eventually fired. The fire continued simmering, and supporters started dropping out. Several board members resigned. What remained of the board asked Bill Theisen to come back. At the same time, Suzanne Hefty signed the papers that released well-known actors Bryce Lord and Jon Stewart after they too blasted Skylight online. Theisen immediately demurred in support of his friends. After that, a watershed of actors, musicians, designer, crew, and supporters resigned. A few who had not been offered contracts were miffed at the silence and bowed out as well.

It seems at this point that the pendulum of this story is at its lowest. Change of some sort is inevitable. But whether the upward swing will mean positive moves or a complete collapse is unknown — not even Friday morning’s event (we’ll keep you updated) will solve anything. Even if there is a complete change in management, there is still a mounting debt and extended line of credit to surmount. Damage has been publicly done, and the fat lady has not yet sung.

Ironically, as much as Skylight’s website content providers can change scheduled shows to TBD or change names, one page section has been forgotten. On the About Us page is an eerie section of text:

“Under the direction of Managing Director Eric Dillner, with the ongoing support of Artistic Director Bill Theisen, Skylight gives over 90 performances each season, winning national praise for its artistic excellence, versatility, and virtuoso ensemble productions. Emphasizing the development of emerging American artists, directors and designers, Skylight Opera Theatre attracts important new talent from around the country. With extended rehearsal and production periods, Skylight artists are able to hone their skills, expand their repertoire and gain invaluable experience.”



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