Brian Jacobson

Dispatches from Catalano Square

By - Jul 24th, 2009 10:43 am

Terry Kurtenbach addresses concerned supporters Friday morning

There were a lot of questions after last night’s emergency meeting, decision, and resignation of its board president, Suzanne Hefty. They were all neatly organized by Jonathan West from a gathered crowd of 70+ supporters, former Skylight employees, and involved theater community people. It was to be civilized and they would speak with one unifying voice in anticipation of the 9 a.m. arrival of Managing Director Eric Dillner, interim board president Terry Kurtenbach, former VP and respected theater vet Byron Foster, and others.


Colin Cabot listens to Skylight's point of view

Standing near the back in quiet repose was Skylight father figure Colin Cabot, fresh from the airport with bags in tow. He confessed privately that he did not have a car and may be sleeping in the Catalano Square Park where the meeting was taking place, a few steps from the Broadway Theatre Center that houses the Skylight. I ask him if there will be a sequel to the Thirty Year War, his extensive article on the history of Skylight. He jokes: “yes, it’ll be called the 30 Day Catastrophe.” He also notes that Tony Clements (ardent blogger/advocate) may actually be working on one.

The audience addressed a few points that all agreed upon: “It’s not just Eric [Dillner], there’s a big problem with the board and what’s going on.”
“There’s more of us than there are of them.”
“How does the board move forward when half of them don’t agree on the mission statement?”
“Why did Eric accept the Artistic Director role when he’s an outsider who doesn’t know [the tight artist community within]?”
(Norman Moses, recently resigned Skylight star): “The only thing successful right now was the Artistic Director job. If that’s the case, then four people in development didn’t do their job. Why let go of the only thing that worked?’
“It’s going to be easy to demonize…now we have to look for a way to re-educate.”

And: “We need to establish our voice, our identity, it’s more than a breakfast club now.”

The meeting begins, and Terry Kurtenbach establishes himself as the emissary at this roundtable made of picnic tables. In fact, he alludes to the idea that the meeting will last 30 minutes and that he would speak throughout for Eric Dillner, seated nearby. A collective wash of faces lose their genial smiles. Dillner makes an opening statement.

“I love Skylight, we all love Skylight,” he says in part. “We all want it to be the best it can be. But there’s a thing called the economy.”

Eric Dillner addresses direct questions

Eric Dillner addresses direct questions

Dillner states that they are all working as hard as possible to keep the doors open, and that to move forward they all have to discuss how to do that. He notes that there is still a $400,000 line of credit at the bank in jeopardy, and that they have a beautiful building but it is falling apart. He’s speaking in actual terms and not metaphorically here, as roof repairs last year took a good chunk of money — which was covered by extra funding sought for just that.

“I apologize from the bottom of my heart for the last few weeks, or even longer back than that,” he says.

The main acknowledgement of the Skylight representatives this day is that communication with supporters and the media was not handled well. There is no apology for the decisions made, including the firings then and now, but instead a kind of speak that tries to reassure a crowd that want answers now when Kurtenbach, the board, and Dillner don’t have them right now. They reiterate that they are trying to open up all new conversations to figure it out, but have little sorted yet.

“We want to find constructive ways to ALL be back in that theatre together,” Dillner states.

Dillner finishes, but the crowd would not be finished with him yet. As the noise from the Air Show jets combines with many passing semi trucks and the Milwaukee River bridge opening and closing, many of the voices are starting to be drowned out. Things remain civil for the most part, until individuals decide to not obey the “single voice” method and start accusations. At one point, ex-Skylight members burst and have to walk away.

Kurtenbach establishes that he is only the interim board president for seven weeks, and will not seek a nomination after that.

“I have no dog in this fight,” he says.

crosshotDuring his handling of managerial duties (he makes a point that he is at best an accountant and even after 15 years here doesn’t know the artists very closely), he demanded a proviso from the board that he gets assistance — someone “much more connected” with the community. To that end, the board has given him Tessa Bartels named as Vice President of Artist Relations. A nominating committee is now being formed to look for the new president and a new executive committee.

Kurtenbach gives an overview of the three hour meeting Thursday night, which Dillner was not a part of. Categorized as a “professional but spirited debate”, they looked at long-term sustainability, how they got to this point, and what the vision to be was going to look like. He stated that even though there was disagreement, they all professed a love for the institution and a commitment to the artistry.

“Even if we fill the house every single night, and luckily we do that now, it’s not enough,” Kurtenbach states as it pertains to the current bottom line.

Kurtenbach later asks the gathered to help them spread the word and promote the season. One angry actor asks, “how can we do that when we don’t know who’s in place and [Skylight] has alienated everybody?”

West asks Colin Cabot to speak. Cabot does, but merely mentions that he thinks it’s “wonderful to be having this discussion, I find it fascinating.”

Cabot last night called for Dillner’s release and offered to be the interim managing director (his old position at Skylight), but was rejected by the board.

Kurtenbach declares that they don’t have all the answers right now, but that he tasked Dillner with coming up with a 10, 30, and 180-day plan for the upcoming process to move forward and let it be known. Primarily, he wants him to establish the process for hearing from constituent groups.


Terry Kurtenbach addresses the crowd in Catalano Square.

There are many individual concerns that now start popping up around the crowd: How will you define stakeholders? How will you make new grants with the current system? Where do season ticket holders stand? What has the communication with the United Performing Arts Fund been?

On this last point, current UPAF President Alexander P. Fraser is in the crowd. He establishes that they have been in constant communication with Dillner and Skylight management — watching matters carefully. Since UPAF is currently involved with the very strict and formulaic way it establishes the allocation process to member groups, it seems to be a sensitive matter at the moment.

Jonathan West finally decides to ask Eric Dillner one of the questions that has been written down: “given the firestorm, the furor that came right away…why should we trust you?”

“It’s not an easy thing,” Dillner responds. “There are a lot of widely divergent views. None of these decisions were a (makes snapping noise) decision.”

Angry members want to know who is on the executive committee that made the decision to fire Bill Theisen and others. Many allege that board members told them they didn’t know about it until they got the email regarding the decision. Dillner counters that they took  away other projects and looked at every position to see where cuts could happen.

Kurtenbach asks that there should be an appropriate forum, more than the five minutes available then to establish options. The meeting continues for another 55 minutes.

It’s established that replacements are being made every day to fill vacating roles, and that the Barber of Seville has been re-cast. Actors want to know who. Some are being found by audition, others are known local and statewide actors “dying to be on the stage”, according to Dillner. The short-term goal is that “the show must go on,” he asserts.

Members mention that even if they were all invited back, the situation is embarrassing. Not so, says Dillner. It’s always been part of the process for artists and it’s understood. They want to collaborate on the process, with whoever is the best fit.

“We’d never ask anyone to crawl to anyone, it’s an open invitation to continue the process,” he says.


Categories: Theater

0 thoughts on “Skylight: Dispatches from Catalano Square”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Good job, and an interesting event. I was there briefly and wrote a little something, but milwaukeeworld is kinda messed up right now, and is masquerading as until I can get it fixed.
    Here is a link that I think would work.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this wonderful reporting. Molly Rhode asked Dillner if he would step down. If he would resign. The audience applauded for a solid minute. Dillner said he would not. At this point, how can he at all believe that a cabal on the board could know what is better for Milwaukee than a large group of concerned citizens DIRECTLY connected with the Skylight? Eric, you know that your leaving could heal this rift. At least, you should concede that it has better potential than the current plan. So, we can only assume the worst as to why you won’t step down.

  3. Anonymous says:

    It seems to me, as an outsider to the Skylight Community but someone who has been involved in theatre for the majority of my life, that the bureaucratizing the theatre has killed it.

    A good thing thrives because it is good and people want to be a part of it. Good things die because the wrong people get involved and make poor decisions regarding the operations of it. Reading this article– it seems incredible that any decisions are made at all– what, with the complicated board process and the myriad of different positions. The focus falls from promoting and creating an artistic endeavor (and making money if possible!) to making money period. The focus becomes doing a job, as opposed to being a part of a process.

    I think that in all of the diluting of the Skylight, the focus was lost in the higher echelon of the board, and the rift is the issue. It’s possible that the Performers feel like there’s an evil step-mother, and that they aren’t being represented by the right people.

    I sadly think the transition to de-bureaucratize will be much more difficult thant the road that got them here.

    Good luck.

  4. Anonymous says:

    jamie: and what is the “worst” you are assuming? Is the truth something like Dillner being in bed with key members of the board, maybe to cover up a few things? Get the lawyers ready.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Brian, thank you so much for being there this morning.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Yep. Skylight is a lost cause. Eric Dillner resigning will appease these artists this time, but it won’t do anything to solve the fact that the bureaucracy has gotten bigger than the art. That kind of top heavy arts organization is doomed to die with their aging subscribers.

    Artists who want to succeed need to move on to not just a new organization, but a whole new model. Or find a way to join the new models when we come storming through to replace you.

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