Co-Architect of Skylight Leadership Shakeup Resigns; Former Artistic Director Will Return

News   Co-Architect of Skylight Leadership Shakeup Resigns; Former Artistic Director Will Return The Skylight Opera Theatre managing director who received international attention after he, in tandem with the troupe's board, fired the popular artistic director as a cost-saving measure in June, resigned on Aug. 5. Former artistic director Bill Theisen will return to direct shows in the coming season, as a free-lancer, a spokesperson confirmed on Aug. 6.

The resignation of the vilified managing director Eric Dillner came a day after a lengthy story about the staffing soap opera in the New York Times left some with the impression that the company didn't know how to run itself (the Times headline crowed "Figaro Meets Fargo," referring respectively to the Rossini opera and the movie populated by Midwestern boobs and bunglers). Playbill.com and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel had previously covered the saga.

The board of directors plans to explore a full range of options as it considers Dillner's successor. Two Skylight alumni, Joan Lounsbery and Colin Cabot, "have graciously offered to help manage the company [as interim managing director and artistic director, respectively] …. until a replacement can be identified," according to a statement.

Among other events in the past two months, since the surprise June layoff of artistic director Theisen: Two artists were fired from the upcoming Skylight season after they wrote comments on Facebook that the board viewed as threatening to Skylight leadership; a music director at the company, Jamie Johns, was fired for insubordination for criticizing leaders and planning public protests of Theisen's ouster; and Suzanne Hefty, one of the architects of Theisen's layoff, resigned recently.

Theisen was set to stage operas and musicals in the company's dawning 50th anniversary season. For the record, earlier this summer, the board ended up offering him his job back, but Theisen said that there were trust issues that prevented a return under the leadership that had dumped him. He did accept the offer to return as a free-lance director, but pulled out when the two actors were fired for expressing themselves on Facebook.

Locally and nationally (via meticulous internet blogs by veteran Skylight performer Tony Clements at tuesdaysblog.com), artists vigorously protested the firing of Theisen and the subsequent actions and language of Dillner and some members of the board. Local newspaper critics and culture reporters shook their heads in disbelief, writing about the escalating events. By July 22, more than 20 designers, actors, singers or musicians had pulled out of the season, leaving management to seek replacements. The clock was ticking — The Barber of Seville was set to launch what should have been a celebratory 50th anniversary in mid-September.

In early August, management had formulated an alternative plan for Barber, signing a contract with a new director and seeking replacements for artists who jumped ship. With Theisen's crew back in place, Skylight will likely have to pay off some of Dillner's contracted replacement artists.

Finally, on the evening of Aug. 5, interim board president Terry Kurtenbach announced in an e-mailed press release that Dillner had resigned.

"I had to make many difficult decisions to streamline the company and it is now best for me to step aside and let someone else carry it forward," Dillner stated in the announcement.

Kurtenbach added, "The decisions to lay off several valued employees, eliminate positions through attrition, reduce artist fees and ask staff to take furloughs, though unpopular, were necessary in order to address the Skylight's budget gaps and help secure its viability in the future. Eric is a strong manager willing to make difficult decision with professionalism, honesty and integrity. The board of directors and I appreciate Eric's service to the Skylight during the challenging times brought on by the national economic crisis. We thank him for his commitment to the Skylight and wish him the best."

Dillner explained in the statement, "During the current difficult economic climate, many performing arts organizations have faced staff reductions. As the economy took its toll on the Skylight's fortunes, the executive committee and I made these extremely difficult decisions in order to preserve the financial viability of this extraordinary company.

"I wish the Skylight the best in all its future endeavors and leave it in the hands of a capable staff, and fiscally responsible and caring board of directors. It is an amicable departure. I am thankful for the support I have received here in Milwaukee and from around the globe."

Dillner came to the Skylight from the Shreveport Opera, where he worked for seven years. He will continue consulting with the Skylight, but "will engage in other pursuits to build and develop artists, nonprofit companies and future audiences."

He also plans also to "further develop topic-based outreach programs" such as Herman the Horse: A Healthy Tail and Why Dinosaurs Don't Smoke.

On Aug. 6, spokesperson Kristin Godfrey told Playbill.com, "Bill Theisen will be directing the shows he was originally slated for — The Barber of Seville, Plaid Tidings, The Marriage of Figaro, The Long and Short of It. The director who had been contracted will not be directing Barber and we are in communications with her agent."

With the tail having successfully wagged the dog, the mood among longtime Skylight artists is jubilant. They wanted to tear down the administration a month ago; now, they want to help the leadership. New York City-based veteran Skylight actor Clements told Playbill.com on Aug. 6, "Skylight artists are committed to working with Colin Cabot, Joan Lounsbery and Terry Kurtenbach to do not only whatever they can to help aid the theatre's current financial crisis, but also to be an active voice and participant in the long-term future of the company. There's already an online petition for artists to sign up and donate their talent and time in the form of benefit concerts and recitals (http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/skylightbenefits/). A series of benefit concerts is already in the planning stages, including a huge gala benefit — Night of 100 Skylight Stars — to hopefully take place in early 2010."

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