A Hole in Milwaukee’s Skylight

If there’s a more uneasy relationship than that shared by art and commerce, I don’t know what it is.  That ill-fated pairing, complete with the requisite persecutors, victims and saviors, is on display for all to see here in Milwaukee.  If you plan on attending, this particular passion play runs indefinitely.

Here’s the play synopsis:  The Skylight Opera Theatre, a perennial powerhouse of the Milwaukee theater scene, is in trouble; their building is crumbling, they’re $400,000 in debt, endowments are failing and, due to a lousy economy, investors are bailing like rats off the H.M.S. Pinafore.  They get together for a company meeting where, despite corporate layoffs on a massive scale all around the country, the Skylight honcho, Eric Dillner says they won’t fire anybody.  But there’s treachery afoot as the axe falls.  Four salaries are cut; one of which is Artistic Director, William Theisen.  While no one says exactly why, to be sure, Bill Thiesen is incredibly “popular.”  Because the simple cost cutting measure of consolidation of responsibilities and elimination of redundancies is not dramatic or sexy enough, some in the theater community add the cry of “Coup!” to their background conversation of “Cantaloupe, watermelon, rutabaga.”  Threats are made, hands are wrung and impromptu meetings in parks are had.

Here’s what I find interesting:  In all that’s been written and blogged, rarely mentioned are the names of the other three salaries cut.  I suspect it’s because they don’t contain the words “Artistic Director” in their titles.  Because, for the protesters, this issue is not about business; it’s a war against Art itself. 

I should also add that no protester offered any actual money to pay Bill Theisen’s salary, and keep him gainfully employed with Skylight or even suggested a fiscal solution like, say, a bake sale.  No one is suggesting that money be raised to maintain the Skylight’s status quo.  In short, no one is offering a business solution.  What many are offering, however, is a never-ending wellspring of righteous indignation. 

Bill Theisen’s firing would be unremarkable if it had happened at A.O. Smith, Morgan Stanley or McDonald’s.  These same indignant artists would cluck their tongues, shake their heads and say:  “This crazy economy, huh?”  But mess with an Artistic Director, and it’s perceived as a “bad review,” and that they can’t abide. 

But here’s the thing:  There was no reason to hold a bake sale because Bill Theisen was actually offered the opportunity to freelance direct 4 of the 5 shows that he was originally scheduled to direct as Artistic Director.  Then, he was offered his old job back.  He refused on the grounds that it would be too difficult to artistically direct within the current artistic climate (Eric Dillner).

More protests ensued as did firings for insubordination.  Seen as “breach of contract” by Mr. Theisen, he withdrew as freelance director.  In solidarity, several local artists followed Mr. Theisen’s exodus who were then promptly and unceremoniously replaced.

And that’s where we stand.

Now, if you aren’t an “artist,” you may well look at this situation and think to yourself:  “What’s the problem?  They offered the guy his job back, which they sure as hell aren’t doing at G.M.  And then he quit?!  WTF?!”  If that’s you’re overall impression, then clearly you don’t understand art.

Art is very fragile.  Very few people have the knowledge, expertise and respect to handle it properly.  Besides, you can’t just let Art run around UN-directed; someone could get hurt or, worse yet, Art could fall into the wrong hands.  Thankfully, there are people out there with the free time and wherewithal to monitor this for you.   

Now, you may be wondering why I built this particular soapbox and from where my opinions come.  While I have performed on a couple of Milwaukee’s better-known stages, the work that I’m most proud of occurred back in the day by way of “zero sum” productions at bars, coffee houses and open-air spaces with a group called Inertia Ensemble.  Plays like Savage in Limbo and Mark Anderson’s The Urge.

(By the way, upstart theater company Youngblood Theatre is mounting Savage in Limbo at Landmark Lanes here in Milwaukee until July 29th.  I trust they cast a better “Tony” than I ever was.  Best of luck to your company, Youngblood.)

I’m not implying that we were better than more established theaters, but neither should it be assumed that, without a Board of Directors and a business model, that we weren’t creating “Art.”  Bidden or unbidden, with or without the intermediary of an Artistic Director, Art was present.  Besides, Art should be defined by the observers, not the players, right?  The creators are in charge of intention; the patrons are in charge of “Art.”

Sure, it’s common consensus that business has no business telling the artist what to create.  But when you cash that paycheck, you’re under commission, and that alters the relationship.  From the standpoint of Art, I commend Bill Theisen and the artists that accompanied him for acting as they did.  From a business standpoint, I commend the Skylight Board and management for trying to keep the organization solvent.

On to Act VIII.


There are 5 comments

  1. Well put. As someone who has no financial (aside from my annual UPAF donation) or emotional attachment to the Skylight, your blog shined an interesting light on the entire subject.

    It was not what I was expecting you to write. It made me recall something my favorite journalism professor said (and I’m paraphrasing): good writers surprise, better writers make the reader question their stance on the issue. I suspect this will be the case for those who look at your blog.

  2. Chris K wrote

    Not sure you are aware of all the twists and turns in this hard to follow story, but you might be interested to know that many, many artists and other concerned stakeholders did indeed offer to get involved in benefit performances or other fund raising activities. In fact, one of the major points of contention is that the community of artists and supporters was at no time engaged in any discussion regarding options that could have improved the financial situation at SOT while keeping the job of AD in place.

    In an institution the size of SOT, eliminating artistic leadership is a far more serious issue than it would be in the environments you have chosen for comparison. Art can be made on many different levels and in an array of sizes, it’s true, but SOT mounts substantial productions with original sets, costumes, professional orchestra and more – and that doesn’t even address the complications in casting and directing shows on the scale at which they are performed. I think you’ll agree that the role of AD is far more pivotal in an environment such as SOT.

  3. Chris,

    That was probably the most cogent response I’ve heard or read regarding this issue, and thank you for it. Hopefully, you’ve shared it elsewhere in addition to my obscure corner of the World-Wide InterWebs.

    Yes, I am aware of some artists later lending their voices to actual fiscal solutions instead of just foaming, snarling vitriol like high schoolers protesting the firing of their favorite English teacher.

    That being said, my commentary was aimed at the hypocrisy displayed by those who hadn’t the slightest idea of how business is conducted in an economy such as this (and to your second point) by a company as large and multifaceted as SOT.

    My impression was not that the role of Artistic Director was being eliminated, but rather consolidated. The implication by the protesters was that without this particular Artistic Director, “art” was going to be stuffed into a burlap sack and thrown into the river.

    I was also fascinated by the fact that Mr. Theisen was offered his job back and refused on moral and artistic grounds. As if to say: “I can’t create art while HE (Eric Dillner) is here.” Clearly he could if he had wanted to; but he didn’t.

    Trust me, to many with a slightly more utilitarian mindset, that gesture seemed to be cutting off the nose to spite the face. It smacked of pouty pettiness in lieu of handsome remuneration, which didn’t exactly bathe the protagonist (Mr. Theisen) in a sympathetic light.

    Besides, it seemed that the protests actually WORKED, but that wasn’t enough. It then devolved into a pissing match (complete with wild-eyed factions) over who was right, who was wrong, who was the good guy, who was the bad guy and who got custody of the “art.” Like standing in a burning building arguing about whose bagel got stuck in the toaster.

    My mention of smaller, “guerilla” theatre companies was not meant to be a direct comparison to SOT. It was an example of a more utilitarian approach to “art” in contrast to the lofty, pseudo-intellectual mantle that many protesters were foisting upon it, and then smugly wrapping themselves in the cloak of its credibility.

    I also found it ironic that, shortly after, when the Journal/Sentinel released many of the columnists that covered this issue and the arts in general, the protesters and their social media outlets were conspicuously silent. This isn’t a greater blow to our region’s arts scene than the letting go, re-hiring and finally the resignation of one Artistic Director?

    Regarding the role of an Artistic Director: Of course I believe in artistic vision, intention and coordination, and apparently Mr. Theisen was, if not the best at it, very popular with certain players.

    But in that tenuous area between art and commerce, it is my opinion that the participants stick to what they know, be thoughtful about the things they say and, if “art” is THE thing, create it no matter what the business circumstances. Anything less is counterproductive.

    Again, Chris, thank you for your measured, thoughtful response, and I welcome further discussions.


  4. SKMcCanles wrote

    I find all of this discussion interesting from afar, but have to be honest, am relieved I don’t live in Milwaukee any more. Not that it isn’t a great town filled with people who are TREMENDOUSLY talented (and very unpretentious) but it seems the larger houses in town take up way too much energy and money. I have always seen them for what I think they, in fact, are: corporations. Non-profit, yes, but corporations whose first interest above everything else is their own survival. The art that comes out of there is the corporation’s product, but that product is completely malleable to the corporation’s interest. My impression is that – until very recently – everyone saw the Skylight as an exception, and maybe until recently it was. But they have that building to look after. Unlike actors, who you can generally trust to feed and clothe themselves when the board is not looking, buildings are continuously degenerating and totally helpless. I have always questioned the “professional theatre” as an institution. It always seems to be an equation of a lot of energy spent on the former, and not enough spent on the latter.

  5. Good to hear from you, Steph.