Skylight Theatre Invites Axed Artistic Director Back Into Fold, But He Says No

News   Skylight Theatre Invites Axed Artistic Director Back Into Fold, But He Says No Bill Theisen, the Skylight Opera Theatre artistic director who was cut loose in a budget-trimming measure in June, was asked by the board to return to his post. He has declined the offer.

On July 9, the board of the Milwaukee company devoted to musicals and operas, announced that it had "established communications with Bill Theisen regarding the role of artistic director at the Skylight" and that Theisen "has decided not to accept the board's offer to return to the Skylight Opera Theatre for the 50th anniversary season as artistic director. The board regrets that Bill has decided not to accept this offer but looks forward to him continuing to return to stage direct. Bill will be directing four shows with the Skylight in the 2009-2010 season as previously announced: The Marriage of Figaro, Plaid Tidings, The Barber of Seville and The Long and Short of It. The board will continue to pursue other artistic options that will support managing director Eric Dillner with his combined duties."

Dillner and members of the board had previously let Theisen go, raising concerns and questions in the tight-knit Milwaukee theatre community.

Theisen released this statement to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 9:

"In response to the Skylight's board of directors invitation to return to the Skylight as its artistic director I want to say thank you — I am truly grateful to all of you. Having worked closely with many board members over the past five years I appreciate their commitment to the company and their support of the position of artistic director.

"I am sad to say it is not an option for me to return to the Skylight in the capacity of artistic director under the current circumstances. I feel there has been a breach of trust and am quite certain that I would not be able to successfully continue my duties in the position. "The Skylight is a unique and vital arts organization, both locally and nationally, and I truly hope there is a way to move beyond this unfortunate situation and retain the heart of the Skylight as many of us know it."

After public outcry about the June 14 firing, Theisen had been asked to be a free-lance director. Then the board changed its mind and invited Theisen back full-time.

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Theisen was let go "as part of an organizational restructuring in response to the economic downturn," according to an earlier statement from the Equity company.

Skylight's artistic coordination and administration became 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.

Skylight announced June 30 that Theisen had agreed to direct four productions at the Skylight in 2009-10 season, the troupe's 50th presenting musicals and English-language operas. "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.

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 around the country.

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.

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."

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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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