Thursday, July 2, 2009

hefty/miller respond to guest artists

skylight board president suzanne hefty and immediate past president howard miller have responded to a letter sent by 35 skylight guest artists, designers, directors and technicians regarding the company's restructuring, and the elimination of the position of artistic director.
Date: July 2, 2009
From: Suzanne Hefty, President, Board of Directors
Howard Miller, Immediate Past President, Board of Directors
To: Skylight Opera Theatre Guest Artists

Jordan Ahnquist, actor
Johnna Allen, actor
Liz Baltes, actor
Peter Dean Beck, scenic and lighting designer
Alicia Berneche, actor
Lisa Brescia, actor
Gary Briggle, actor
BJ Cannon, actor
Peter Clark, actor
Niffer Clarke, actor
Tony Clements, actor
Cynthia Cobb, actor
James Coleman, actor
Parrish Collier, actor
Lisa Dames, actor
Dottie Danner, director
Ilana Davidson, actor
Michael Deleget, actor
Donna Drake, director
Annmarie Duggan, lighting designer
Colm Fitzmaurice, actor
Stacey Galloway, costume designer
Michelle (Smith) Gisondi, actor
Ken Goldstein, scenic designer
Rob Hancock, actor
Benjamin Howes, actor
Takeshi Kata, scenic designer
Tari Kelly, actor
Rachel Laritz
Joanne Lessner, actor
John Muriello, actor
Rick Rasmussen, scenic and costume designer
Van Santvoord, scenic designer
Josh Schmidt, sound designer
Donald St. Pierre, music director
Jennifer Swiderski, actor
Rita Thomas, actor
James Valcq, actor
Andrew Wilkowske, actor
Branch Woodman, actor

July 2, 2009

Dear Skylight Opera Theatre Guest Artists:

Thank you for writing your letter to Skylight Opera Theatre’s Board of Directors, received by email on June 25, 2009, in response to the theatre company’s recent structural reorganization. We take your concern for the Skylight very seriously and have attempted to address your key questions here.

We acknowledge that the handling of the restructuring, position eliminations and the subsequent public response should have been handled differently and that the underlying reasons were not spelled out in sufficient detail in advance of the announcement. As the economy and our budget allow, we will continuously review the Skylight’s business model. However, please know that this heartbreaking and difficult decision will not be reversed.

The restructuring was a proactive decision which, had we not undertaken would have brought us to an untenable financial situation. Cash flow has been a constant struggle at the Skylight for four years as the company has gone from having a $200,000 cash surplus to a debt of $414,000 (as of June 30, 2009). In 2005-2006, we were forced to open a line of credit, using the Broadway Theatre Center building as collateral, to cover payroll, vendor expenses, production costs and general operating needs. In the past year, Skylight’s restricted endowment has declined by 25%.

In January 2009, the first attempt was made to establish a projected balanced budget for the 2009-2010 season. We subsequently learned of a 15% reduction in UPAF’s fundraising goal and declining grants from foundations and corporations. The Skylight’s overdependence on contributed revenue required an immediate analysis of the theatre’s cost structure in producing shows. Without a critical review of our personnel structure, we risked severely impacting the performance quality Skylight audiences have come to expect. Economists are projecting no significant change in contributed income patterns through 2010, adding additional pressure to our future needs.

The Broadway Theatre Center (BTC) is owned and operated by the Skylight. Built in 1993, this theatre and office complex has been home or provided performance space to numerous non-profit, for-profit and theatre companies. Though the BTC was originally a source of revenue, the 16-year-old buildings are now a major expense.

Everything from the roof, heating and cooling system, sidewalks, bathrooms, office space and theatres themselves are in need of attention. The production and administrative staff, with input and direction from the Board, has implemented significant cuts in the last three seasons. Everything from paper usage to lumber and climate control has been analyzed from a cost-savings perspective. As
some staff positions became vacant, they were not filled; their duties were absorbed by other staff members. Examples include our production manager taking on the facility director’s responsibilities, our development director assuming management of the bar, and our development coordinator administering special events and rentals.

We have also brought previously outsourced duties in-house, including the design of most of our marketing materials and website. We have also worked to find new sources of revenue. For instance, the Skylight’s administrative offices were moved to previously vacant BTC office space in order to provide tenant space for two non-profit theatre companies. Through this series of expense reductions, the utmost attention was paid to avoid affecting the daily operations of our artistic department. The artistic department remained the last significant pool of resources to be evaluated; we could not insulate this department from the financial realities any longer.

The artistic director and company manager were involved in budgeting discussions as members of the senior staff. We acknowledge your wish to have been included in these discussions. While attempts at better communication will be made in future seasons, certain aspects of the theatre company governance must be handled by Skylight staff and Board only.

Because we acknowledge the important responsibilities of the artistic director and company manager, we knew that these tasks had to be formally combined with other job titles. The Executive Committee approached Managing Director Eric Dillner and, with knowledge of his past artistic leadership, asked him to assume the artistic management of the organization. The duties of the company manager, box office manager, box office assistant manager and custodian will be spread throughout the company ensuring timely and effective attention to each task and responsibility. We have great confidence in Eric’s general and artistic management abilities.

The next few seasons will present new challenges and opportunities as the Skylight continues to adapt its business model to the changing economy. We firmly state that the Skylight’s artistic vision has not changed. The Skylight’s mission as a non-profit, professional performing organization is to bring the full spectrum of music theatre works to a wide and diverse audience.

We respect Bill Theisen greatly and appreciate your loyalty to him. We learned yesterday that he has accepted our offer to contractually stage direct The Barber of Seville, Plaid Tidings and The Marriage of Figaro and to write and stage direct The Long and Short of It. Though we offered Bill a contract for a fifth production, he has chosen to accept work elsewhere during that timeframe.

We are passionate about the Skylight and have personally invested significant time, energy and financial resources to the success of the company. We invite each of you to help the Skylight succeed in any way you can.


Suzanne Hefty
President, Board of Directors

Howard Miller
Immediate Past President, Board of Directors

the original letter sent from skylight guest artists:

Dear Mr. Dillner and members of the Board,

The recent restructuring of Skylight Opera Theatre, which has made news both nationally and locally, has given us cause for concern. As Guest Artists at Skylight, we have been impressed with the passion and integrity that is brought to bear on every facet of each production. It is a well-run, successful organization that cares deeply about the quality of its product. It is also a place where artists from all over the country can come and apply their craft, knowing that their contributions will be welcome, respected, and celebrated.

We understand the financial effect that has been felt at Skylight. It has been felt at theatres all across the country. Certainly steps needed to be made to ensure that Skylight, Wisconsin’s premier home for Musical Theatre, would remain sound and continue to present the highest caliber offering possible.

But surely this move to drastically restructure is one that could have been avoided. If there had been communication in open meetings rather than behind closed doors, certainly compromises could have been made, other ideas could have been discussed and, with the collective minds working towards the collective good, another solution could have been found.

It is a grave choice to eliminate the artistic head of an organization, especially one as dedicated, hard-working, and outstanding as Bill Theisen. Under his leadership, Skylight has garnered some of the best press and public reviews of its 50-year history. He has raised the bar artistically and has also been the face of Skylight for the public in a way few have. His history with the theatre is unlike anyone else’s connected to it.

Additionally, a theatre the size of Skylight which produces as much as Skylight does, cannot run efficiently without a Company Manager. The Company Manager is one of the most important positions in any theatre. The care and organization of everything having to do with not only the Guest Artists, but also the local artists, arranging travel, securing housing, issuing contracts, scheduling auditions, the daily ins and outs of the staff, communications with many vendors, and the complete oversight of all that happens within the walls of Skylight come from the desk of the Company Manager. The impression of a theatre can be made or ruined by a Company Manager. Absorbing ALL of these duties and the Artistic Director duties is untenable.

Shortsighted would be an understatement for these actions. But it is not too late. Before the integrity of Skylight suffers further in the eyes of the local theatergoers and donors, and in the eyes of those of us around the country who happily and eagerly accept offers to come to Skylight; before the reputation that Skylight has enjoyed around the country because of the Guest Artists, who faithfully and happily recommend Skylight to friend and peers, begins to suffer, we, the undersigned, petition you to explain why these decisions were made, why they were communicated so poorly, why a plan that appears to have such great conflict of interest and very little support from the stakeholders was allowed to move forward. We ask you to reconsider the changes made, to find new solutions to the financial problems, and continue the artistic excellence that Skylight has enjoyed under Bill Theisen’s tenure.

Most Sincerely,

Jordan Ahnquist, actor (South Pacific, White Christmas)

Johnna Allen, actor

Liz Baltes, actor (Anything Goes, A Grand Night for Singing, Animal Crackers, Blues in the Night)

Peter Dean Beck, scenic and lighting designer

Alicia Berneche, actor

Lisa Brescia, actor (The Last Five Years)

Gary Briggle, actor (Sweeney Todd, The Threepenny Opera, Hansel and Gretel, A Talent to Amuse, Let’s Misbehave, Iolanthe, The Mikado, Patience, Pirates of Penzance)

Peter Clark, actor (Pirates of Penzance ’09)

Niffer Clarke, actor (Pirates of Penzance ’09, Patience, Tintypes)

Tony Clements, actor (Floyd Collins, Hello Dolly, Guys and Dolls, Falsettos, Wings, and 10 other shows, former Resident Artist)

Cynthia Cobb, actor

James Coleman, actor (The Threepenny Opera, The Turn of the Screw)

Parrish Collier, actor (The All Night Strut, Smokey Joe’s Café)

Lisa Dames, actor (Triumph of Love)

Ilana Davidson, actor (Candide, The Jewel Box)

Donna Drake, director

Annmarie Duggan, lighting designer

Colm Fitzmaurice, actor (The Mikado, Midnight Angel, Tartuffe)

Michelle (Smith) Gisondi, actor (The Mikado, The Most Happy Fella, Sweeney Todd, The Three Penny Opera, A Funny Thing . . ., Little Shop of Horrors, A Couple of Holiday Ho-Ho’s)

Ken Goldstein, scenic designer (Animal Crackers, Smokey Joe’s Café, Blues in the Night)

Rob Hancock, actor (A Funny Thing . . . Forum, Lady Be Good, Hello Dolly, former Resident Artist)

Benjamin Howes, actor (A Funny Thing. . . Forum, Lady Be Good, Little Shop Of Horrors, Animal Crackers)

Takeshi Kata, scenic designer (Madam Butterfly, Abduction from the Seraglio, The Tragedy of Carmen, La Traviata)

Tari Kelly, actor (And the World Goes Round, Triumph of Love, Chicago)

Joanne Lessner, actor (Pirates of Penzance , A Little Night Music)

John Muriello, actor

Rick Rasmussen, scenic and costume designer

Van Santvoord, scenic designer (Don Pasquale, The Turn of the Screw, Don Giovanni, The Christmas Schooner, Little Women, Tartuffe, The Midnight Angel, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro)

Josh Schmidt, sound designer

Donald St. Pierre music director

Jennifer Swiderski, actor (South Pacific)

Rita Thomas, actor (South Pacific)

James Valcq, actor (over 40 shows since 1970)

Andrew Wilkowske, actor (Figaro in 2009-10 The Barber of Seville & The Marriage of Figaro, La Traviata, Hansel and Gretel, Iolanthe, Don Giovanni, The Barber of Seville 1999, Don Pasquale)

Branch Woodman, actor (The World Goes Round, The All Night Strut, Chicago, Tintypes, Smokey Joes Cafe [also Dance capt], White Christmas [also assist choreographer and dance capt])


  1. hmm. the handling...should have been handled differently? fired the editor, too?

    at least they're answering questions now, though it seems a day late and a dollar short.

  2. Wow...they really are clueless. This just makes me sad, very very sad.

  3. "While attempts at better communication will be made in future seasons, certain aspects of the theatre company governance must be handled by Skylight staff and Board only."

    But the Board wasn't told of these moves. They were left in the dark and then had to deal with the onslaught of missives fired at them. Bullshit, I say!

  4. I love how they mentioned that the development director took over management of the bar... which they contracted out to an outside venue... and then didn't charge them rent. Or anything. To make profits inside the BTC.

    Also, I go back to my oft-repeated point that a non-profit organization is, in this country, "owned" by the people. The board of directors simply acts as stewards of the organization in the public trust. By saying "certain aspects of the theatre company governance must be handled by Skylight staff and Board only" they are basically saying that we can't handle understanding what's going on and should have no input. We-- the people of the community-- who have every right to know what's going on with this organization.


  5. What a disappointing response. I think that there are some dark days ahead for the Skylight with this kind of unimaginative and incompetent leadership. As time went on, I wasn’t expecting much of an explanation of their actions and they have lived up to my low expectations. I hate to say it, but I am glad that our family is no longer connected with the Skylight. It has changed over time, and not for the better. I wish Bill all the best, but with this lame new management in place, he has a difficult uphill battle in front of him. As Michaela said, it makes me sad….

  6. keep it up folks! Please! Suzanne's email is so fraught with inconsistency, I defy you to identify one paragraph that logically allows for the situation we are now in. Remember, through the snow job, we are talking about a $200,000 PROJECTED deficit. It's not even real. They had to make it up!

  7. anyone got $200,000?


    I'll mortgage my fingers for $150k if you'll put up the other $50k.

  8. "this ... difficult decision will not be reversed." SAY WHAT? Way to keep the lines of communication, compromise and progress open, folks. As Charlie Sykes would say, "what a load of crappy crap crap." I didn't think I could be more stunned by the Skylight board's total lack of sense but after reading their letter, it's even more clear they are totally oblivious. Have they all been mesmerized?

  9. What a lot of blather! Was the hope to bury us all in words so we would ignore the logic-defying statements and inconsistencies?

  10. Boy, and I was kicking myself for my proofreading.

    My husband brought home the Shepherd Express today. WHY is this story not being covered there?

  11. I'm sure Bel Canto Chorus and Present Music will be happy to find out they're "non-profit theatre companies." Does Skylight even know who their tenants are?

  12. Who is this person? Not only is it galling to see artists of this caliber patronized by this person - artists who are her equal or more in their respective fields - but who allows her to botch every PR opportunity she gets?

    Here's a bio from another organization. BTW - she was the CHAIR of the SEARCH committee that hired Eric Dillner! She sure has had a lot of leadership experience on other boards. How can she be doing SO badly at SOT? HOW?

    Ms. Suzanne Hefty
    With a Bachelor's degree from Northwestern University, Ms. Hefty spent her professional life as a designer of commercial interiors. She is the past president of the board for the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. In June 2002, Ms. Hefty will assume the role of chairman of the board of directors for the Milwaukee Art Museum/West (Waukesha County). Married to Thomas R. Hefty, she has four children.

  13. Clearly, Ms. Hefty is not there because of educational, artistic or business background. She is there because of the last line in the bio. There, I said it. As the old quote goes, "this is no way to run a country."

  14. there are a five names that need to be added to the undersigned guest artist list:

    Dottie Danner, director
    BJ Cannon, actor
    Rachel Laritz
    Stacey Galloway, costume designer
    Michael Deleget, actor

  15. Guess the bio's last line does say it all:

  16. Arvide AbernathyJuly 3, 2009 at 2:15 AM

    Well you petitioned for an explanation and a reconsideration of the decision.

    You got your explanation and they said they won't reconsider the decision.

    Whatcha gonna do now? Choose one:

    1. Accept the explanation and get on with your lives. Life sucks, deal with it.
    2. Say "screw these guys" shake your head and turn away, never to darken their door with your talent or money again.
    3. Fight like mofos, protest the decision on its merits or on principle, demand the resignation of the the new Executive Director and any board member who supports him.

    So what's it going to be people?

  17. We now know that this heartbreaking and difficult decision will not be reversed.
    OK then, you need to go. Because we believe we know a better way. But first we have some questions.

    If the problem has been going on for four years, why has not been made clear to the public, why has no major fundraising campaign been conducted to address these issues? Why after four years of knowing about this matter, was it settled without consultation with the key stakeholders, including members of the board of directors, donors, or even the persons to be terminated? Was it inconceivable to alert donors and patrons that such drastic measures would be required unless dramatic support was brought to bear? Considering the energy now expended on this debacle, might it not have been more usefully directed to a major fundraising campaign? Certainly there is ample precedent in the local marketplace for “SOS” campaigns.
    You had four years to figure the financial situation out and THIS was your solution? It seems to me that the responsibility for this falls at the feet of the managing director and board of directors, not the artistic staff. So why are they gone and you are still here?
    You have a seven million dollar asset in the building and you act as if actually using that asset to leverage financing is a bad thing. WTF is it for if not to provide an asset the company can draw on in times of need?
    If your endowment is down 25% consider yourself on the lucky side of screwed. Many endowments are down more than that, and most in the range of 30%. And yet none of them whacked their AD, two-thirds their facility staff and all their full time box office employees…

    Wait a minute, in January 2009 the first attempt was made to balance the 2009/2010 budget? It’s January and you’re just getting around to trying to balance the 2009/2010 budget? Ten weeks from announcing it and you haven’t finished the budget for the 50th Anniversary season!? What the hell has the Managing Director and the Finance Committee been up to!?
    Um, hold on you learned of UPAF’s reduction in fundraising in January? Where have you been? They announced that ages ago. As for corporate fundraising, if you didn’t see that coming back in November, you have no business in this business.
    What do you mean Skylight’s overdependence on contributed revenue?!? According to your 2008 audit it was under 60% contributed. Sixty percent contributed is the GOAL for most opera companies!

    If the BTC is an expense, then the question is why was this not planned for by the board of directors or previous management? It’s not like it was a secret that the capital upkeep of a building would accumulate over the years ladies and gentlemen. Is there no endowment for building maintenance? You’ve been there since 1993. Didn’t anyone suggest socking a little money away for upkeep?

    If the building needs new stuff, then throw a capital campaign. Yes, the timing sucks, but how much does this debacle suck for you right now? How much better spent would your time be making the case for the roof rather than your jobs?

    So up to this point, you’ve doubled up job duties on people, frozen compensation (you have frozen it right?) and brought in previously outsourced jobs (don’t people usually do the opposite to save money?) to try and address this mess…without success. So why exactly are you going after more staff reductions to solve your problems????

    to be continued...

  18. continued from prior post...sorry, I'm a little verbose....

    You said the artistic department remained the last significant pool of resources to be evaluated; that you could not insulate this department from the financial realities any longer.

    Really? Insulated from the financial realities were they? Been giving big raises each year to the artists have you? In Eric Dillner’s first year in office, production expenses went up 6%.

    Under Dillner’s leadership and that of the Board, Admin expenses were up 19% and fundraising expenses were up 28% from prior year.

    So who exactly was being insulated from financial realities? In 2008, Eric Dillner’s compensation was $39,423. But that’s for the period ending June 30. He didn’t start until March 4, according to your press release to the Journal Sentinel. Almost $40K for 4 months work? Is Mr. Dillner being paid $120,000 a year?

    I just ask because according to Charity Navigator (and confirmed independently by your 990), Christopher Libby was paid the prior year just $68,840.

    I’m sorry, who’s being insulated from financial realities? Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge a man a decent paycheck or fault him for fantastic negotiating skills, but it seems like that’s an awful lot more money than usual for a company in financial distress to shell out.

    Without getting some results, I mean. If you got positive results, then it is a heck of an investment. But wait, in Mr. Dillner’s first year, the company lost $300,000 in net assets in over $500,000 in total assets. That’s no good. The prior year, you may have lost a little under $90K, but total assets were actually UP.

    That’s a “heck-of-a-job, Dilly” as our former President used to say, for your first year, err four months, in office.

    I agree certain aspects of the theatre company governance must be handled by Skylight staff and Board only.

    Like fundraising for capital improvements. Like creating reasonable and sustainable budgets sooner than January if you plan on announcing the season on March 14th. Like stewarding the company resources with an eye towards the history of the company and its long term success, not short term concerns. Like communicating with other board members your decision to terminate virtually the entire artistic staff of an artistic organization.

    Without regard to Mr. Dillner’s inestimable skills, I pause to point out that Mr. Theisen’s hiring was the result of a nine-month national search advised by Francesca Zambello, Stephen Wadsworth and a distinguished search committee for an individual uniquely qualified to curate opera, operetta, musical theatre (both modern and golden age), cabaret, and new works. I will be so bold as to suggest that your explanation of a timeline for these most recent decisions by the Executive Committee (alone it seems) leads one to believe that considerably less consideration was given to Mr. Dillner’s appointment to fulfill this mandate.

    Was Mr. Dillner an applicant in that Artistic Director search who was simply overlooked?

    The next few seasons will present new challenges and opportunities as the Skylight continues shed expenses, staff, knowledge, history, skill sets and connections without developing new sources of revenue (either earned or contributed) by design because it has overburdened its already taxed staff with additional duties for which they have no prior training, aspiration, nor compensation.

    You may firmly state that the Skylight’s artistic vision has not changed, but it has. Artistic vision, unlike Executive Committee fiat, is not a join exercise. It stems from the mind of a single individual, recruited, trained and supported for his depth of thought, inspiration and drive to achieve an aesthetic idea.

    The Skylight’s mission as a non-profit, professional performing organization is to bring the full spectrum of music theatre works to a wide and diverse audience. How (and whether) you get there is another matter entirely.


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

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