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.