Eight Artists Withdraw From Milwaukee Skylight Season in Protest of New Management

News   Eight Artists Withdraw From Milwaukee Skylight Season in Protest of New Management
A controversial staffing change viewed by management as vital to the future of Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee has turned into a public relations mess for the Equity troupe that is about to launch what should have been a celebratory 50th anniversary season.

In recent days, at least eight resident artists have withdrawn from shows planned for the coming season, citing the actions of managing director Eric Dillner and board president Suzanne Hefty.

In June, Dillner, with the cooperation of the board, fired beloved artistic director Bill Theisen as an effort to save money, causing an uproar among some Skylight fans, artists and veterans. Theisen reluctantly later accepted an offer to direct on a free-lance basis, but, as of July 20, he had changed his mind.

The inciting incident for his exit this week? Job offers to Bryce Lord and Jon Stewart — actors to perform in the coming season — were withdrawn by management when it came to the board's attention that the men had criticized Skylight leadership in message postings on Facebook, the social networking internet site.

Board president Hefty's letter to Lord was leaked to the press, and reads: "Due to your recent written statements on Facebook concerning Skylight Opera Theatre, the offer to provide services as Ambrogio in Skylight Opera Theatre's 2009-2010 production of The Barber of Seville is hereby withdrawn. Your statements violate what we consider are the obligations of artists who perform at the Skylight Opera Theatre. Sincerely, Suzanne Hefty Board President."

A Skylight spokesperson clarified to Playbill.com: "There were two artists whose contracts were withdrawn due to strong written personal threats to the well-being of Skylight staff made on Facebook. They were not made on the individual artists' pages but on a public forum on Facebook." Theisen pulled out because the board dumped his actors. He told the Mikwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I agreed to direct the shows with my cast. They broke the agreement."

Theisen — already reduced from artistic director to free-lancer — was to direct three of the Skylight Opera Theatre's five main stage productions and one studio show.

Theisen's letter of withdrawl stated, "My agreement with Eric and the Skylight was to return to direct these shows as I originally conceived them and with the casts that have been in place for months. With the firing of two Barber cast members last week the agreement I signed has been broken and I am not able to return to the Skylight under these conditions.

"Not being a part of this anniversary season that so many of us have worked on for more than a year breaks my heart, but I am sad to say that the Skylight that I know and love is just a memory after the events of the past five weeks and I fear the future of the company is bleak."

By the morning of July 21, singers, musicians and music directors were withdrawing from the coming season, protesting what they saw as an injurious new management style for the company. Skylight is now faced with replacing personnel for some of its season.

Richard Carsey, former Skylight artistic director, quit two shows that he was to conduct in the coming year (a Gilbert & Sullivan evening and the musical A Day in Hollywood); actor Gary Briggle withdrew from his contract; soprano Alicia Berneche quit the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro; composer-musician James Valcq and Leslie Fitzwater withdrew their cabaret show, on the heels of Becky Spice quitting her cabaret in recent days.

Carsey's letter to the board stated, in part, "The continued mismanagement and bad judgments of the last month by Eric Dillner and board president Suzanne Hefty, culminating in the cancellation of artist contracts for perceived 'threats' on a private Facebook page, have created a Skylight that I no longer recognize. I cannot support this organization with my talents or participation."

After he was fired in June, Theisen turned down an offer to return to his post after the board reconsidered its move. He later accepted to return as a free-lancer.

The show must go on, Skylight management has said. Skylight gave Playbill.com this statement on July 21: "On Monday, July 20, Skylight Opera Theatre former artistic director Bill Theisen declined to return to the Skylight for the 2009-2010 season as a stage director. Since Theisen's resignation yesterday, eight other artists have resigned from the upcoming season — both on the mainstage and in the free cabaret series.

"With this news, the Skylight is moving forward with its contingency plans and is pleased to be having conversations with other extraordinarily talented artists to ensure the Skylight's historical success continues into the 50th Anniversary Season."

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