In Hard Times, Milwaukee's Skylight Fires Artistic Director

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18 Jun 2009

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.

Bill Theisen, the Milwaukee musical theatre company's popular artistic director for the past five seasons will not hold the job for the troupe's 50th anniversary in 2009-10. 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 has been offered freelance directing work there in the coming season.

Theisen's friends and colleagues, including Skylight resident music director Jamie Johns, are protesting the decision by contacting board members, donors and subscribers. On June 18, Johns told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he had been fired for insubordination. Johns has organized a public protest set for June 19 at Skylight's home at the Broadway Theatre Center.



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 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. We are currently in negotiations concerning his possible return to direct productions planned as part of the 50th anniversary season. Our goal remains to deliver the high quality music theatre productions that audiences have come to expect."

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.