business and art. it's been on the minds of quite a few people in milwaukee, wisconsin over the last several days.
the reaction and response to milwaukee's skylight opera eliminating five positions from it's staff, including that of artistic director, has been filled with passion, anger, frustration, and serious, legitimate questions.
it's good to keep in mind, as has been pointed out by any number of anonymous commenters on this blog and elsewhere – downsizing of arts organizations like the skylight has been happening across the country.
somehow, this feels different to this community.
the skylight is a cherished piece of milwaukee, as are many theatre companies in many, many towns. to it's patrons, it's employees, it's actors, designers, etc, it is part of the fabric of this city, and we long for it to be treated as such. we travel the country telling other actors, other theatre-goers, "it's different," because it is.
it began in an old tire-recapping factory on jefferson street, across from milwaukee's cathedral square, by a man named clair richardson, whose ashes are still kept – lit, i might ad – underneath the current skylight stage (i.e "the skylight will go on over my dead body.") there are a few of us left who worked in that original theater, some who have been with the company for decades. that history, that foundation, is not to be scoffed at by a business model, no matter how serious the financial trouble the company is in. it is the core of what the skylight's art is about. it is something to be cherished and nurtured.
bill theisen, the artistic director whose position was eliminated last sunday evening, is not only a beloved actor, director and friend to many in the milwaukee arts community and beyond, he is a thread to that original skylight. he is not the only remaining thread, however. there are others that are still part of the company - lisa schlenker, ray jivoff, and paul kaishian for example.
these people have not been fired and should be respected for the difficult position they're in. schlenker's prop department is like no other, and her commitment to the skylight is unparalleled. jivoff is not only a long time favorite on stage, he has birthed an award-winning education department that is to be revered. and head custodian kaishian, "harry paul" as he's called, knows more about what happens in milwaukee theatre than any critic or artistic director i know.
it's been suggested by some that remaining skylight staff is populated by "yes-men" and people not brave enough to take a stand. that's an unfortunately naive and ignorant point of view, and as someone who is in the building as this is happening, i can tell you it's certainly not the case.
as the debate rages on – in comment sections on blogs, in coffee shops, in board rooms, it is perfectly appropriate to embrace the passion and anger. but it is also crucial to maintain a level of respect and dignity. this is not the time to anonymously air your dirty laundry.