Skylight cuts Artistic Director Theisen, key staff roles: Beal resigns from board in protest
[June 22, 2009, 8:07 a.m.]
Most know the story by now. The Executive Committee of Skylight Opera, without board discussion or vote, last week eliminated key staff positions that many supporters believe lets flow freely the lifeblood of this traditionally family-like company. This morning Jonathan West posts the full text of the resignation letter of long-time supporter and board member, Robert L. Beal, on his blog, Artsy Schmartsy. Read it here. But after innumerable, calls, emails and a Friday morning protest, the question remains: will there be meaningful dialog on the subject? And if so, when? Because now would be a really good time. - Jon Anne Willow
[Original text, posted June 17, 8:44 a.m.]
Citing a 2008-09 season financial shortfall of $200,000, the Skylight Opera has announced the release from service of long-time Artistic Director Bill Theisen, Company Manager Diana Alioto, Box Office Manager Kelley Arlt, box office staffer Jason Hames and the night janitor. The decision, as announced, was made jointly by Managing Director Eric Dillner and the Skylight’s board of directors.
(From Performing Arts Editor Brian Jacobson, an afternoon update: Marketing Director Kristin Godfrey clarified to Jonathan West the following on his blog via an email: “Jason (assistant box office manager) and Kelley (box office manager)’s positions were eliminated as salaried positions. They were offered hourly positions which they chose not to take. I am taking over the box office operations and have had many conversations with both companies to ensure I am dealing with their needs and learning everything I need to know to make sure their service doesn’t suffer.”)
News of the shakeup – which could be devastating to any organization – is especially so for a small and close-knit arts group with a common mission who’ve already sacrificed good pay and regular schedules for the love of their work. If the social mediasphere is any indication, this move has deeply shaken the already-wary staff and friends of the Skylight, and the larger implications have cast a pall over an already-nervous local arts community.
Bill Theisen came to the Skylight as Artistic Director in 2004. He directed the just concluded run of Skylight’s Pirates of Penzance, and also appeared in various productions there in such roles as Max Bialystock in the 2008 run of The Producers.
On Wednesday morning, in his Artsy Schmartsy blog, offers an illuminating examination of the Skylight’s situation and his own suggestions for how things could have turned out differently. He also posts the email addresses of the entire Skylight board and urges a letter-writing campaign to question the reasoning behind such drastic cuts.
Tom Strini of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel broke the news about Theisen late Tuesday evening on his blog.
Dillner came to the Skylight in the summer of 2008 from the Shreveport Opera, where he served simultaneously as General Director and Artistic Director. Although Dillner has operatic background both as singer and stage director, his role at Skylight has remained administrative. With the elimination of the Artistic Director position at the Skylight, Dillner will assume those duties as well. More information about Dillner’s background was published in the September 2008 issue of VITAL Source Magazine.
Excerpts from a press release sent out to the media from Skylight:
Skylight Opera Theatre today announced a major administrative change as part of an organizational restructuring in response to the economic downturn. The position of Artistic Director, held for the past five years by William Theisen, has been eliminated due to the economy. All future productions at the Skylight will be directed by contracted stage directors from across the country. Artistic coordination and administration will now be part of the responsibilities of Managing Director, Eric Dillner.
“For the past five months the Board, the staff and I have been exploring every possible means of cutting costs and finding efficiencies in our operations. We had hoped to avoid personnel cuts, but a projected $200,000 shortfall in our 2009 – 2010 budget could not be addressed any other way,” said Dillner. “With the UPAF campaign goal down 15%, our own annual campaign seeing a similar fall-off, and our endowment significantly impacted by the decline in the markets, we needed to become a leaner organization.”
Additional staffing changes were made throughout the company to better align the organizational structure with our current business model. During his tenure, Theisen provided artistic and stage direction on numerous Skylight productions while continuing his active work as a free-lance director and actor with companies nationwide. Highlights of his Skylight work include the stage direction of The Mikado (which was televised on PBS), La Bohème, and The Pirates of Penzance; and appearances in lead acting/singing roles in Tintypes and The Producers.
“We wish Bill all of the best. He is a brilliant stage director and has been a charismatic leader of our artistic department. He has a huge following in Milwaukee. We are currently in negotiations concerning his possible return to direct productions planned as part of the 50th anniversary season. Our goal remains to deliver the high quality music theatre productions that audiences have come to expect,” Dillner says.
[5:14 p.m., Wednesday, June 17] Response from Skylight Opera Board President Suzanne Hefty:
June 17, 2009
The organizational restructuring announced yesterday by Skylight Opera Theatre is in direct response to the current national economic downturn and a projected deficit of $200,000 in the 2009-2010 season. 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.
When Managing Director Eric Dillner joined the Skylight last year, he inherited a series of serious financial challenges. His goal continues to be to maintain the Skylight’s artistic excellence, but to do so in a financially responsible manner. The restructuring decisions were made by the Executive Committee of the Board, not by any one individual. The personal threats that have been made against Eric are inappropriate.
We want to express our sincere appreciation for Bill Theisen’s work as artistic director. Bill is a brilliant stage director and discussions are underway to contract him as a stage director in the 2009-2010 season.
The Skylight’s mission remains to deliver world-class music theatre productions to the Milwaukee community. The Board is confident that Eric and the staff are well qualified to meet these challenges and carry the Skylight’s organizational and artistic vision forward.
Skylight Opera Theatre Board of Directors
Original article by Jon Anne Willow, with updates and detail by Brian Jacobson
(production stills from Skylight Opera’s stagings of Pirates of Penzance and The Producers, courtesy Skylight Opera’s Facebook site)