Dropped as Skylight Artistic Director, Theisen Will Be an Independent Contractor There

News   Dropped as Skylight Artistic Director, Theisen Will Be an Independent Contractor There Skylight Opera Theatre, the Milwaukee company that was criticized by community and industry members recently when it made the cost-cutting decision to axe the popular artistic director, Bill Theisen, will welcome him back to the operation — as a free-lancer.

Skylight announced June 30 that Theisen has agreed to direct four productions at the Skylight in 2009-10 season, the troupe's 50th presenting musicals and English-language operas. He will stage the mainstage productions of The Barber of Seville, Plaid Tidings and The Marriage of Figaro. He will also write and stage direct the Studio Series production The Long and Short of It: A Night with Paula and Colin Cabot.

"We are so thrilled that Bill is going to be involved with the 50th anniversary season," stated president of the board of directors, Suzanne Hefty.

"Bill is a wonderful stage director and brings so much passion to each production," added managing director Eric Dillner, who had previously announced Theisen's surprise demise and his own elevation to head of the operation.

The Skylight will also present the mainstage productions of A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine and Rent. Fiftieth anniversary celebrations involving patrons, donors, friends and the greater Milwaukee community are scheduled throughout the season and include the Skylight Night gala fundraiser (Oct. 24, 2009 at the Pfister Hotel) and a season wrap-up party.

Theisen's recent stage directing credits include The Pirates of Penzance (Skylight and Santa Fe Opera), La Bohème (Skylight and University of Iowa School of Music), South Pacific (Skylight) and The Fourth Wall (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre). Having worked as the Skylight's artistic director for five years, he is also a free-lance director and actor for opera and theatre companies from coast to coast.

Theisen is currently working with the University of Iowa School of Music on their production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

In a move that would seem to send a chill down the spine of not-for-profit artistic directors everywhere, Skylight Opera Theatre's board and managing director eliminated the job of the artistic director on June 14.

Theisen was let go "as part of an organizational restructuring in response to the economic downturn," according to a statement from the Equity company that produces musicals and English-language versions of classic operas.

Skylight's artistic coordination and administration will now be part of the responsibilities of managing director, Eric Dillner, who assumed the managing director position at the Skylight in 2008. An opera singer, he was previously the general and artistic director at the Shreveport Opera. Milwaukee native Theisen reportedly began his association with Skylight as a teen actor.

All future productions at the Skylight will be directed by contracted stage directors from across the country.

Theisen's friends and colleagues, including Skylight resident music director Jamie Johns, protested the decision by contacting board members, donors and subscribers and planning a public protest. On June 18, Johns told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he had been fired for insubordination; that decision stands, a spokesperson told Playbill.com on July 1.

This is at least the second case of an American Equity company cutting off its artistic head this spring: BoarsHead Theatre in Lansing, MI, cut loose artistic director Kristine Thatcher due to shaky finances and drops in donations. Executive director John Dale Smith will remain to run the troupe.

Skylight's Dillner said in a statement, "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. With the UPAF campaign goal down 15 percent, 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."

During his tenure, Theisen provided artistic and stage direction on Skylight productions while continuing his active work as a freelance 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.

Dillner previously said, "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. ...Our goal remains to deliver the high quality music theatre productions that audiences have come to expect."

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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Skylight company manager Diana Alioto and two salaried box-office employees also got fired. Dillner told the paper that the company has a $100,000 operating deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30 and a projected $200,000 deficit next year. The Skylight's annual budget is about $3.3 million.

Visit www.skylightopera.com.

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