Tom Strini
Where We Are Now

Skylight Opera Theatre

By - Jul 27th, 2010 01:28 pm
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A year after a summer of strife and financial crisis, the Skylight Opera Theatre appears to be righting itself.

Amy Jensen, the Skylight Opera Theatre’s managing director.

Amy Jensen, installed as managing director in November, reported a small operating surplus for the 2009-2010 season. More important, the Skylight has pared its line of credit and accounts payable from $617,645 at the end of 2008-09 to $364,935 now. (The current figure is unaudited.) Jensen also said that the Skylight’s bank had lifted its credit limit from $600,000 to $1 million. That’s important; last’s summer’s crisis came about in part because the Skylight bumped its head against the old limit.

Jensen said that she appreciates the new headroom, but has no desire to get close to it. On the contrary, the goal is to knock that line of credit down from its current $327,535 to $0 as quickly as possible. The budget for 2010-11 is $3.2 million; debt at 10% of budget is not outrageous, but Jensen is loath to let it fester.

“A debt reduction plan is in place,” Jensen said. “It’s part of our operating plan, rather than special campaigns.”

Any payouts from the company’s $2-million endowment, for example, will go to debt reduction, not operating expenses.

The Skylight’s Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway in the Third Ward.

Over the past 10 months, however, a special campaign went a long way toward getting the Skylight out of the fire and at least back into the frying pan. Nine donors put up a $250,000 challenge grant and the larger public responded. The Bradley Foundation led the way on a separate drive, which infused $221,500 into a fund to maintain the company’s Broadway Theatre Center. Urgent maintenance needs, including roof repairs and replacement of failing HVAC, at the center last summer helped push the company to the brink.

“We’re conducting electrical, mechanical and plumbing audits to help us understand and prioritize building needs,” Jensen said. “We have another $1 million worth of work to be done, at least. We’re developing a five-year capital needs campaign.”

As for the earned-income side, Jensen said that only The Marriage of Figaro, on the main stage, and An Evening with Gilbert & Sullivan, in the black-box studio, exceeded budgeted box-office goals. Still, the Skylight sold 28,212 tickets; not bad in the middle of a recession. That’s down from 31,692 in 2007-08, when the holiday White Christmas jacked up the numbers, but better than the 27,843 posted in 2008-09.

Through all of the company’s troubles, artistic quality has remained high at the Skylight under artistic director Bill Theisen. Last summer, Theisen became the flash point of controversy when then managing director Eric Dillner axed Theisen and announced his intention to take over artistic duties.

Bill Theisen, artistic director.

Theisen, a beloved figure on Milwaukee’s theater scene and an enormously talented director, was eventually reinstated. His contract runs through 2010-11. But Jensen and the board are still pondering personnel issues. The general sense on the board and management side is that the payroll had become a bloated back when times were good and that 2006 staffing levels might be untenable today. The AD job is still on the table.

The heart of the issue is what, exactly, constitutes a full-time job on the artistic side. On one hand, the board expects its AD to direct shows elsewhere, because that’s how an AD stays connected in the business. That’s how Theisen meets the talented designers and singing actors the Skylight attracts despite its low pay. On the other hand, the board wants its AD to be on hand in Milwaukee to direct shows and see to all sorts of administrative matters.

“We’re still grappling with the ADship,” Jensen said. “The strategic planning committee is looking at it. Speaking solely for myself, I believe that the organization benefits from having a dedicated artistic director. I need a partner in this thing.”

For now, the AD job is half-time. Theisen has taken a 50% pay cut to help the company this season. In a phone interview from Door County Tuesday (July 27), Theisen said that he had taken on more that usual outside work — including acting in a show at the The Rep and directing one for the Florentine Opera — to make up the lost income. (According to the Skylight’s public tax records for 2008, Theisen made just under $72,000 at the Skylight.)

In addition to that, Theisen was especially prudent in programming the upcoming season. He would have preferred a big Broadway music for the holidays, but went for Gilbert & Sullivan’s royalty-free HMS Pinafore, a company staple, instead. Pinafore requires a big cast, but the rest of the shows — Dames at Sea, Jacque Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Cosi Fan Tutte and The Adding Machine — call for no more than nine people on stage.

Adding Machine, with music by Milwaukee native Josh Schmidt, is the daring element in a fairly safe season.

“We have to do something exciting and new,” Theisen said. “I’m thrilled about Adding Machine. It’s good for the city and it’s good for the company.

“There was give and take on the season, as there always is. I would have loved to do Kiss Me Kate for the holidays, but we couldn’t quite swing it. But we will have a big musical on our stage for the holidays in 2011.”

So — does that mean Bill Theisen will be back as artistic director in 2011-12? Not necessarily. Theisen has to plan the season after next either way.

“If you had told me last October that we would end the season in the black, I’d have thought you were crazy,” Theisen said. “I’m proud of that turnaround, and we were able to hold our heads high, artistically, through it all. But whether I stay or go — honestly, I don’t know. It’s a good possibility — I love working with Amy — but I do have other options. It really is up in the air.”

Every Tuesday night in August, the Skylight will put on a cabaret show in Catalano Square, at Broadway and Milwaukee Streets, just south of the Broadway Theatre Center. (They’ll move indoors if it rains.) Details here.

Click here for details on the 2010-2011 main stage season.

Categories: Classical, Theater

0 thoughts on “Where We Are Now: Skylight Opera Theatre”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this informative follow up, Tom! There’s a lot of good news there…quite a relief after the drama last summer.

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