a open letter to the skylight community, from colin cabot.
July 3, 2009
Thoughts on the Artistic Direction of the Skylight --
An open letter to the Skylight Community
Dear Friends of the Skylight,
Since June 16 I have thought a lot about the woes of the Skylight, and now that Bill Theisen has agreed to direct most of the shows he was scheduled to do in the fiftieth anniversary season, I want to put my thoughts in writing.
In addition to several protracted conversations I’ve had with both Bill and Eric Dillner and Suzanne Hefty, many old friends from the board and from the artistic community have called me to talk about the issue, some asking me to weigh in with some sort of ultimate “intermission speech” as if the spirit of the Skylight is somehow lodged within me. I deferred answering these calls until last week because I was busy, have been away for twelve years, and thought that a voice from the past would only muddy the waters. I did offer myself as a mediator and think that I helped clarify Bill’s thoughts as he made the decision whether or not to accept the offer on the table after he was fired. My mantra has always been to help the institution of the Skylight rather than take sides in what began as a personnel dispute and has escalated into a public relations debacle.
When Clair Richardson established the position of Artistic Director at the Skylight, he did so in order to give me the title of Managing Director. He was stepping back to allow me to run the theatre while he spent more time on his plants and his new marriage. It was clear to everyone that he wasn’t leaving or handing over the reins to the new kid, and that he was closely linked to the choice of repertory and the casting of the shows we were planning. But he also wasn’t up to doing all the work by himself any more. His heart wasn’t strong and he had hired me (after Bo Black) to be his assistant (at the board’s insistence).
[Interestingly, the day he died (September 12, 1981) was the day we submitted an application to the city for a community block grant to fund repairs to the rest rooms to bring the Jefferson Street building up to code so that we could remain eligible for federal and state grants. He had been opposed to the grant because he knew it would require a matching capital campaign and told me he thought it was throwing good money after bad because the building was in such poor shape. He was so adamant in his opposition that we weren’t speaking to each other when he went in for his second open heart surgery which he didn’t survive. Later the grant sparked our first successful campaign and ultimately the building was swapped for the site on Broadway which now needs a new roof.* So much for good money after bad.]
Something I haven’t heard mentioned in the recent debate is a discussion of the difference between the management models of a resident regional repertory theatre company and a traditional regional opera company.
Traditional regional opera companies are managed by General Directors who oversee repertory selection, fundraising, and management (such as contracts for the hall, the orchestra, the chorus and the artists). Typically such an opera company does very few performances of one or two productions per year in big venues. Often maligned as “instant opera”, these productions use borrowed sets and costumes that may have been built for different stage director’s concepts and typically have very short rehearsal periods because the principal performers are paid large fees and come from all over the world. Milwaukee’s traditional opera company is the Florentine Opera. (Clair and John Anello used to delight in feuding in public, a strategy which I am glad to see is no longer being followed by the companies.) Both the Florentines and the Skylight companies had the word “opera” in their titles, but they worked in very different ways.
The Skylight was patterned on the model of the regional repertory theatre company: do as many performances as possible of as many productions as possible using mostly local performers and establish yourself as a place where artistic activity happens all the time. It isn’t artistically healthy for one person to attempt to do all the work needed to mount over a hundred performances of the full spectrum of operas, musicals, and the cross-over pieces that have defined the Skylight’s repertory. What is needed is a healthy tension between experts in the various genres and a pluralistic view of the repertory to please the varied and eclectic taste of an audience which expects to be surprised every time they cross the threshold of the theatre. Ed Corn, when head of the National Endowment for the Arts Opera/Music Theatre Program, once delighted me in a review he wrote of the company after seeing us perform an Offenbach one act opera in the Galleria of the (then) First Wisconsin Center: “The Skylight enjoys the luxury of making a virtue out of the arcane.”
Stephen Wadsworth and Francesca Zambello became the Skylight’s Co-Artistic Directors to show the audience what was artistically possible in a converted tire-recapping garage. They were interested in training singers and working with up-and-coming designers in a place where rehearsals could be longer than usual and the opportunity to do many performances would allow performers to learn from their experience rather than from hindsight, which is what you have to do if opening and closing night are the same performance. My job as Managing Director was to fund that process and vision and to marshall support for expanding the meager resources that were available to the company. Over time the artistic product was vastly improved and the company started to grow artistically to the extent that the campaign to build the Broadway Theatre Center became a reality.
By that time it should be noted that the company and its Artistic Directors had outgrown each other. Stephen and Cesca had moved away from each other personally and were both commanding fees and working with artists at a level that the Skylight in Milwaukee could not support. Stephen was opposed to building a theatre for the audience to enjoy modeled on a baroque court theatre; he wanted an enormous flexible black box where the artistic vision of the particular production was the only thing the audience would see. I was interested in recreating some of the “passagiato” feeling that can be experienced at European arts festivals, where communities take justifiable pride in their public spaces for their individuality and human scale. I felt the elegance of the salon and the informality of the bar complemented the elaborate conceit of the theatre, and that keeping all the functions of production and rehearsal in the same building as the performances were important to developing the sense of community that has long been identified as “Skylight.”
It was often very difficult to raise money for the artistic projects that we mounted; doing the Monteverdi Cycle of Poppea, Orfeo, and Ulysses in rotating rep cost an additional $75,000 over the usual costs in those days. And although we raised the money in advance I was unable to control expenses completely and we ran a deficit. The solution was to tell the board we were in trouble and to convince the donors to give more while trying to rein in the artistic vision so that it wouldn’t bankrupt the company. Sound familiar?
I last visited Milwaukee in February, 2009 to attend a meeting exploring the possibility of a capital campaign to improve the building and expand into the parking lot to the north. When Eric Dillner told me that the company staffing levels were economically unsupportable, I believed him. Without seeing the numbers I felt that a lot of people had year-round jobs that would have been seasonal in the old days and that the artistic staff positions were luxuries we simply had been unable to afford and so hired people on an ad hoc basis to do specific tasks. My impression was that during Christopher Libby’s years sinecures had been created and that Eric was going to have to clean house.
I remember one year at the old theatre when I realized that there wasn’t enough money to pay the tech staff past closing night of the season. Of course they had saved up their comp time/vacation time in order to work overtime on the shows (The production was The Rake’s Progress if I remember correctly; the orchestra was Don St. Pierre playing a piano, a harpsichord and a chime!) I told them that their summer furlough would begin early as they were putting finishing touches to the set during production week. They weren’t happy with me or the situation but they finished the run and returned the following season. I tell this story because it was transparently clear to everyone that the money wasn’t there to pay them, and they accepted the necessity of the cut. I feel that running up debt on the Skylight’s line of credit in recent years has mistakenly lulled people into thinking that the organization is fiscally strong when it is actually structurally unsustainable.
Durring last fall and into the spring Paula and I were writing our upcoming show. We communicated regularly with Bill, (who is not the show’s author as a recent e-mail from Eric suggested) and I did not talk with Bill about the Skylight’s management issues because I felt it wasn’t my place. I had been sent a copy of the Rester report which was confidential to the board. We didn’t discuss it when Bill came to visit in New Hampshire because I didn’t want to meddle in internal affairs. I assumed that the report had been shared with staff. Now I find out that the complete report has maybe not been shared with the full board to say nothing of the full staff.
Transparency was easy in the old days. I took a small salary (too small for the health of the company) because I could afford to, and everyone else took the same or less. Fees for artists were non-negotiable because we simply didn’t have money in the coffers. (I have always been embarrassed that the performers were paid so little, and yet our Milwaukee rates were higher than the off-Broadway rates paid to the cast of Jim Valcq’s Zombies From the Beyond at the Player’s Theatre in Greenwich Village. In eleven weeks I lost $450,000 of my and other people’s money in that particular debacle which would have been enough to support a repertory company and technicians for a full season in the Midwest. But I digress…)
My points are: 1) that whenever a seemingly insoluble problem is identified, it must be addressed in full view of all, and 2) being a performer is a calling so compelling that it is irresistible. Why would anyone in their right mind work hours when everybody else in the world is relaxing, take pennies to do the impossible on a regular basis, risk failure and rejection at the hands of the press and the public, and have no assurance of a regular job, nor a voice on the board of directors? I am always amazed to realize I am married to one of these creatures and that the craving to perform still asserts itself constantly whether she wants it to or not. Someone should write a book about how art victimizes its greatest practitioners. Where would the theatre be without them? It wouldn’t.
My conversations with Bill, Eric and Suzanne during the past weeks have been cordial and have resulted in Bill agreeing to complete plans he had set up long ago. These plans include commitments to artists many of whom have worked for the Skylight before. I hope their voices (until now represented by the position of Artistic Director) will be included in the upcoming discussions with both the board of advocates and board of directors.
I am worried that what has long made the Skylight unique and viable is now threatened.
My suggestion is that everything be on the table: the board could be reorganized to include artistic representation, a part time volunteer committee of artists (past Artistic Directiors including Bill, Paula Suozzi, Richard Carsey, etc.) could be charged with recommending artistic vision until funds are found to pay for the function. The most important thing is that the board and management’s plans and answers to questions be accepted by all the Skylight’s constituents. Consider it a fundraising opportunity!
I look forward to the renewed health and artistic vitality of what Bob Zigman once told Clair was a “flea-bag flop-house of a theatre.”
PS * I have attached a copy of the letter that Eric and I wrote to ask for support to make necessary building repairs. The gist of the letter says that we never funded depreciation since moving into the Broadway Theatre Center because we wanted to spend that money on the artists; it was a calculated risk to hope that the endowment would have grown sufficiently to meet the need to replace systems when they failed. Obviously the gamble failed to pay off and wasn’t one we should have taken.
I was astounded by the extraordinary generosity of those who responded to the appeal. Though I have dropped the ball on writing personal thank you letters, I thought the entire community should know that at least before June 16 there was a tremendous reserve of loyalty to the original vision.