Sunday, June 28, 2009

the continuing combustion

the big skylight theatre/milwaukee journal-sentinal pow-wow that happened last wednesday – an interview with skylight managing director eric dillner, board president suzanne hefty, past president howard miller and skylight marketing director kristin godfrey – produced some big scary financial numbers, some whining and groveling, and a couple of real doozies.

like this, from hefty:
"We knew [the company's restructuring, including firing artistic director William Theisen] would be an unpopular decision, but we didn't anticipate the pace or the tone. The social media response caught us off guard.

We need to get our message out that we're trying to manage through a recession and that the artistic vision of the Skylight hasn't changed at all. We haven't done that well; we will establish forums for conversation and explanation."
hefty, dillner and miller knew the decision would be so unpopular they didn't even inform the rest of the skylight's board of directors. and someone might remind hefty and miller that the artistic vision for the company comes from the artistic director. what's dillner going to do from now on, ask himself WWBD (what would bill do?)

after completely gutting the company of its entire artistic staff – the resident music director, the artistic associate/company manager, and the artistic director – it's almost sick-making that the words "artistic vision" would even come out of hefty's mouth.

but this is especially rich:
Dillner, Hefty and Miller acknowledged that they handled Theisen's departure badly and that it led to the continuing combustion. They would have handled things differently, especially since they ardently hope that Theisen will return on a freelance basis to direct three main stage shows and two studio shows next season. They need him for artistic and box office reasons, and they need his calming presence.

The plot of this drama will turn next on whether Theisen will help the company that pushed him out the door last week.
in other words: theisen must come in and save the day, and if the skylight fails without him, it's partly his fault.

this is pathetic, reprehensible behavior. if william theisen were to never set foot in the skylight theatre again, there would be no person who could or should blame him. dillner, hefty and miller are responsible for this mess, and they should bear the consequences of their decision.


  1. "Incompetence is an outgrowth - or an end product - of indifference. Cold, callous, cold-hearted, criminal indifference." - Bob Johnson.

    Just trying to manage through a recession? With one exception, nobody else has taken this approach to whack the AD. That calls into question why this choice was made, when so many others faced with the same situation chose other solutions.

    Planning on establishing forums for conversation and explanation? Too late! You blew it. Those forums should have been formed prior to the decision of this magnitude. It would appear in fact that you failed to set up such a forum even within your own board of directors.

    In Dillner's first year, the fiscal year ending 2008 their federal returns (990's) show a loss of almost $300,000. Total assets were down over $570,000, to $6.6M. If you want to look at net assets, the drop is not much better, down $540,000 to $5.5M. For the year prior to his arrival, total assets were up, with net assets down less than $90K.

    Total endowments look like they rose from $2.7M in 2006 to $3.0M in 2008, but that's not same comparison perhaps that Miller was making. We don't know what the endowment value is since June 08, and there have been some huge changes, of course. Many endowments are down 30%, so a fall from $3M to $2.1 is not unbelievable.

    In 2008, Dillner's first year, production expenses rose 6%, Admin expenses were up 19% and fundraising expenses were up 28% from prior year.

    Overall revenue was up 16% in 2008, but it could not keep pace with expenses. That's nothing new for Skylight or many other nonprofit arts groups.

    "Dillner also noted that the company has gone on a cost-cutting binge that has almost everyone doubling up on jobs." Fewer people, working harder, with less pay, and with less money to do their jobs. Not a good combination. You cannot cut your way to success. Growth can be found by making strategic changes, not just cutting to the core. Innovation, not deprivation is the driver for long term success in a difficult marketplace.

    "Dillner, Hefty and Miller acknowledged that they handled Theisen's departure badly and that it led to the continuing combustion. They would have handled things differently, especially since they ardently hope that Theisen will return on a freelance basis to direct three main stage shows and two studio shows next season."

    "The plot of this drama will turn next on whether Theisen will help the company that pushed him out the door last week."

    That is a profoundly unfair way to frame the situation. That puts the onus on Theisen to 'save' the company. They fired the one guy that could save them, now are sorry about it and hope he'll come back, only without any benefits or long term commitment from them.

    That sort of expectation/mentality is nothing short of abusive. That clearly abuses the care that Theisen has shown the company without returning any of it. That's like firing people then hiring them back on as temps without benefits, and is exactly the sort of corporate indifference that is at the core of the protest by local fellow artists and long time Skylight supporters. That kind of abuse might fly in the corporate world, but it doesn't fly in the nonprofit arts world, shouldn't fly in the corporate world, and will never fly at the Skylight.

    They fired a guy who's dream it was to be the AD. A local boy who literally started out as a chorus boy and who's mother always hoped he'd one day hold the leadership position. A guy who gave up a lucrative freelance career so he could make a commitment to the hometown company that gave him his start. A guy who finally, after 15 years on the road, could settle down, buy a house and be close to his family.

    You fired him. Without prior consultation or warning. Fired.

    And how you hope he'll come back and save you? That kind of callousness is astonishing.

    That kind of indifference makes the leap to incompetence.

  2. Thanks to Tom, Tony, and mnemosyne! Keep the conversation alive. Call/email Charlie Sykes. Seems like he's interested in this topic too!

  3. "...we will establish forums for conversation and explanation." So what are we doing here? We're reading everything being posted and still no comment or constructive ideas from the Skylight board. Couldn't they use this space to share some thoughts and receive community feedback here? Wouldn't that be a start?

  4. What got me was the response to the idea of reducing the number of shows to save money:

    "The dissidents have called for lesser moves: cutting back to four shows instead of five, across-the-board pay cuts instead of firings, among other things.

    These are not tenable, Miller said, because Skylight shows earn more than production costs and offset some of the fixed costs of the building and personnel."

    Okay. So the shows make money. This means that not only they are well-attended, thereby indicating that the artistic product is good, it means that the productions are run efficiently so that costs don't get out of hand. And who has been overseeing the artistic element? Hmm?

    THIS MAKES NO SENSE. It reminds me of one of my high school students who was trying to talk her way out of why she skipped her lesson - Every answer she gave was lamer than the one before. All this article did was make the case for why there needed to be a change at the Skylight and it was not firing Bill!

  5. Leslie FitzwaterJune 28, 2009 at 9:59 AM

    These numbers were know a week ago, why did it take so long for them to be made public? Why, in a creative arts organization, was there no apparent brainstorming to discuss other options? Why was there no contrition for the PR debacle these administrators caused by the abominably abrupt firings and the subsequent bewildering extended silence? An effective administration must have creativity - an unfailing ability to make lemonade out of lemons - and forethought - an unfailing ability to predict the outcome of its actions. Neither of these qualities seems apparent in the Skylight's current administration. They have told us they had no other choice but to take the actions they did. However, in the past week, many other viable, creative choices have been offered. They failed to predict that the immediate firing of beloved, dedicated employees would cause a firestorm of derision. Sorry folks. You haven't sold me.

  6. Well, I don't know if this says anything about the powers that be, but on Twitter, one of the people the Skylight follows is Karl Rove. Really.

    And lest that comes off as a flaming liberal's snide political bias, think about the decisions that were made while Karl Rove was the chief political advisor to the Bush administration. Once these decisions were made, the phrase was "stay the course." No matter the criticism. I'm sure that the idea of bringing back Bill (& Diana & Jamie et al) would come as off as example of "cut and run."

    Bring 'em on.

  7. Hopefully Bill will be seeing all this. This may sound very unpopular, but I truly hope BIll DOES NOT go back. Sorry, but as was mentioned above, this is outright abuse. Their collective actions (Dillner, Hefty, MIller) show a pattern of abuse. Just like the remorseful spouse who passionately cries the day after "I'll NEVER hit you again"...they will hit again. I guarantee it, and if he goes back, they will know they have won.
    I would also like to remind everyone that on more than one occasion Dillner tried to get those fired/about to be fired to give ALL their job knowledge to someone else...hmmm...someone smell a rat?? I know I do, and DID.
    I fear at this point the Skylight will have to hit rock bottom before it can rise again. Hopefully with new, wonderful, open-minded people at the helm.

  8. He can't go back unless they leave. Seriously, that would be an environment that would be even more tense than it is now. Everyone would be on eggshells.

    Who will they cast in shows? Many people have said they won't work under this regime. Even though it is not an AGMA house (and perhaps if it were, we would have more options, at least in terms of protesting), will people who accept work in Skylight shows be looked upon by other actors as scabs?

  9. Tony - Thanks for the comprehensive reporting and concise thoughtfulness of your blog. I'm really enjoying it while at the same time becoming more alarmed about the Skylight's future.

    Your friend mnemosyne surely hits the right notes. And what an ability for remembering details! As the personification of memory I suppose she well would have a long and detailed factual history at her fingertips. Now if only she could convince one of her muse children to return to the Skylight and save it.

    I hope she is successful at persuading son Bill to return, should the Skylight cease their Rovian antics and begin an inclusive rethinking process.

    Christine - When one considers that the current management's theme song (swan song?) is "stay the course", there is no wonder that Skylight now twits after Karl Rove, is there?


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