Thursday, June 18, 2009

the thread to jefferson street

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.


  1. Two thoughts on this blog. I completely understand and respect anyone who wants to voice their opinion privately. Their thoughts are still valid and many have something to lose. I thought Jaime was very brave, but he's been fired for voicing his opinion and trying to take action.

    This is also the second time in a couple of weeks that someone has pointed out that something is happening in another city. Again, I don't care. We're not any other city as should be quite obvious by now. Perhaps other cities in the future will turn to us as an example and say, "Milwaukee didn't do this or that, perhaps we can follow their example."

  2. Jonathan West has just posted that Jamie Johns has been fired.

  3. fletch, i don't disagree. completely.

    voicing an opinion privately.

    first, let me say that the comments on this blog are moderated, as is clearly stated right as you are entering your text into that little white box. i'm also happy to report that in two and a half years i've removed exactly two comments. why? because it's my blog. i am the king and ruler of it. (one because it was spam, and one because of language.)

    i encourage anonymous commenting. i've moved anonymous comments about this very subject to a post on the blog.

    i've seen plenty of situations, however, where anonymous commenting turns into an excuse to hurl insults and spread vicious rumour. not sure what i'm talking about? visit any political blog and read the racist and hateful things said about our president or our secretary of state.

    and i won't stand idly by when friends of mine are called "yes-men" or cowards for not...what? quitting? speaking out as loudly as others? plenty goes on behind the scenes that others are unaware of.

    and i bring up the fact that "downsizing of arts organizations like the skylight has been happening across the country" in order to respond to it, fletch, not to agree with it. it's been mentioned a number of times elsewhere, and in conversation. i would totally agree, let milwaukee set a different example.

  4. And I agree with you! So take that! I don't like when the anonymous posting becomes vicious and petty, and all too often people don't really think about what they are writing when they post anonymously. Usually putting your name to something makes you spell check at the very least, and at it's best makes you think twice before posting something that can't be taken back. But there are several friends here who won't comment on what is happening at Skylight at all for fear that they won't be hired again.

    And I know that downsizing is a reality we must all face in the current economic crises, everyone knows someone who has lost a job, but the current situation at Skylight is untenable and I'm proud that our people aren't just accepting things as they are. That at the very least an explanation is demanded.

    Rant off.

  5. I don't work for the theater, and spent the majority of my life dispising the beast. I started to come to shows at the Skylight because I have a number of friends who work there, and tickets are easier to get when you have friends in the tech department. I've met many of the people who work at Skylight, and I've spent time out at bars, parties and bitch sessions.

    I'm not writing this comment as a friend of the theater, not in the traditional sense, I'm writing it as a friend of the theater in the sense that Skylight opened that world up to me. As an audience member.

    From that perspective, I will miss Bill. I don't know the politics, I don't know the business of theater, but I know business, and as unpleasent as it is, positions get eliminated; people lose their jobs.

    But, one thing about the whole issue, the one thing that sticks out in my mind, is that Bill has been - for me - the face of Skylight. His presence on the stage at the opening of a show always brought a smile to my face. Not because he clowned around - but because, from all the people I know in the theater, he always seemed to light up when he was there. Admonishing cell phones, and alarm watches - plugging the tractor and snow blower raffles; he was absolutely, unequivically, alive on that stage. It wasn't, for me, a performance, until he stepped on stage. He preempted the lights darkening, the music rising and the excitement of the curtain going up. Maybe it's Pavlovian, but performances at the theater will be a little darker, the music a little duller and the curtain a little lower without his presence.

  6. Well advised, in my opinion. I certainly wondered how people were reacting to more silent current employees.

  7. Konrad KuchenbachJune 19, 2009 at 3:28 PM

    John and I have been in the audience of Skylight productions since the early 1960s. In fact, John was there for their first opera production, "Cosi fan tutti", in the original skylight building, which really had a skylight. It was located on North Jackson about a block away from the North Jefferson location on Cathedral Square. We have seen it through many rough times. When Eric Dillner was chosen as the new Managing Director, we were pleased and especially impressed with the way he was communicating to the other companies in the building. Something which had not been happening with past administration. However, in the past ten months of his tenure, he seems to be an enigma as to what his goals are for the company and it's artistic vision. In hindsight, one could have predicted that a new managing director with a very strong background in "artistic directing" was bound to clash with the existing artistic director. Organizationally, it was artistically top heavy and something had to give. However, with the lose of Bill and Jamie and others, what do we get? It seem to me that the only way you can save money by eliminating the current artistic director, music director, production manager, and box office manager is that Mr. Dillner will be doing all of those jobs at his current salary. I don't think so.

    Basically, where is the Skylight going from here? What is it's vision for the future? What does it want to be? What are it's plans? Will it put on anything we want to see, at or beyond the level we have been seeing? At this point we are committed to subscriptions for the coming season. Any added support does not look promising. The ball is in their court.


Inappropriate comments, including spam and advertising, will be removed.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.