Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"reining in" at the skylight

from last sunday's "artist forum," a question posed in writing to the skylight opera theatre's executive committee, since they played a critical role in eliminating artistic director bill theisen's position:
Question: Is there an explanation of why Bill's position was eliminated that CAN be shared by the Executive Committee? Was there a "personnel" issue (not "personal") between Bill and the Board?

Response: There was neither a personnel nor any personal issue. It was a heartbreakingly difficult decision based on the financial situation and made with the hope that Bill would understand the financial constraints and agree to direct the shows he had previously agreed to direct.
then today, milwaukee magazine's bruce murphy recounts many of the details from last week's board meeting – which ended with a vote of 16-12 to retain dillner as managing director – and he includes this tidbit about that vote:
Some supporters of the slim board majority are claiming Theisen spent too much and that Dillner had trouble reining him in financially.
murphy will not confirm that "some supporters" refers to an actual board member, but let's assume it does, and that murphy didn't get this line from joe blow on the street, someone on staff at the skylight, or a board member's spouse.

which would mean that someone on the skylight board is suggesting to the press theisen's firing was not strictly financial, but also because he couldn't be "reigned in."

in response, bill theisen replied, "maybe someone feels like we didn't make enough cuts, but i was never led to believe that. i was never told i was spending too much."

not only had the artistic department of the skylight come in under budget last year, but theisen and dillner, on a mandate from the executive committee, had cut artist salaries by 10% for the following season.

and that's not all. "in the two weeks prior to the firings", theisen said, "we cut an additional $18,000 out of artists salaries for next season. eric was thrilled." ultimately, artist salaries for the 2009-2010 season were cut to 2002-2003 levels.

both theisen in past comments, and dillner at sunday evening's forum have spoken of their prior working relationship as open, constructive and positive.


  1. How could Bill's spending be the problem, if Bill wasn't specifically aware of it. Either Bill is lying--which most people who know him wouldn't believe--or he was never communicated to, by Eric or the board, about this part of the problem. Eric must not have been doing a lot of obvious "reigning." He might have tried saying, "Hey, Bill, we're in trouble here. We (you and I together as partners) better come up with a solution because one of our jobs may be on the line--and it ain't mine."

  2. So Bill is spending too much? Then what about THIS quote from Strini's 6/27 article:

    [in response to the idea of cutting one show to save money, among other ideas:]

    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.

  3. Okay. Permit me to weigh in on this. I have served on the repertoire committe for more than 10 years. At times, the committee existed to rubber stamp the plans of the AD and MD. But not under Bill's watch. He provided detailed finacials for every show under consideration. The cast and orchestra size, cost of rights, sets, etc. Which allowed for informed discussion of the committee, in the pursuit of developing seasons that would be fiscally doable, as well as inviting, balanced and marketable. In the past year, to his credit, Eric was there, oonching and nooodging the numbers with us to produce feasible seasons. I can say for sure, that Bill and I lobbied together for a certain show for the 2009 holiday spot. He totally understood that we could not afford it, and persuded me to do the same.
    I can't fathom where this "reining in" thing came from. As far as I know, all of Bill's shows were within budget.
    I also serve on the marketing committee, and we get the budgets, projections, income v. expenses of each show, and I have not seen a problem concerning spending.
    Maybe I am not privy to other facts, but right now, this looks like red herring.

  4. Does the board even know what it cost to put on a show anymore???? Really. Getting the rights to a Broadway show (like Rent) does not cost 100 dollars. No. The rights for a broadway show can cost anywhere in the thousands. Just for the rights. That means the music, the script ...etc.
    Then add- set/ lights/ costumes/ actors/ directors/ musicians/ stage crew/ costume crew...etc to the cost and Yes you are going to be spending a lot of money.
    I don't know how much opera rights are, but I'm sure they are the same. So during the season Skylight most likely is spending Thousand and Thousand of dollars. But, look what you got out of it.
    Come up with a new one Eric and the board make us laugh at how stupid this is becoming. Really .... STEP DOWN ERIC!!

  5. I wonder if the board and Dillner realize that they lose credibility each time a half truth is uttered or additional scapegoating occurs. The truth will out in the end ... it always does, I just hope what's left in the end isn't damaged beyond repair. Dillner must go. The board must find its way clear to understanding where the business model does and (more importantly)does not apply to an arts institution.

  6. Did everyone read the rest? Here's one paragraph tony left out;

    "Cabot attended one board meeting in person and another via speaker phone, and says the feeling of some board members was that “We have to support Eric; he’s only doing our wishes.” The original decision to fire Theisen was actually made by the board's four-person executive committee without consulting the full board. That was a huge mistake. But Dillner compounded the mistake, Cabot believes, by not immediately falling on his sword in reaction to the storm of criticism from Skylight artists and supporters."

    So, this means all the name calling (self serving, back stubbing, slimey, part anyway) were not warranted? Sure it may have been weak on his part not to object it right there, but he is a relatively new person starting up his work here. Can you blame him not to risk his own position by doing so? He might have not been able to predict the response either.

    I don't like the situation either but personal attacks directed towards Dillner has been just awful, especially in light of this.

  7. @ anon @ 7:06, Many operas are public domain, sweetie.

  8. Okay, it's time for me to weigh in. First let me say that Bill and I together worked on the budgets as a team (as did Richard and I, and Paula when she was there--it's part of the company manager/artistic administrator's position). He told me what shows he wanted to do, how many AEA actors or out of town actors he wanted, and either he or I would research the rights. Then I would run the numbers...artists, housing, travel, rights, etc., countless of times with countless different seasons until they worked and were APPROVED by the board. He also worked with the production manager to budget sets, lights, and costumes, etc. Let me just say that Eric DID "rein Bill in," if that's what you want to call it. Our artistic 2009-2010 budget is LESS than it was in 2003--how's that for reining us in? Let me also just say that Bill has done everything asked of him when it came to budget. He changed 2007-2008's final show to SPITFIRE to save money, he performed in the PRODUCERS and donated his salary BACK to Skylight, he slashed artists' salaries for 2009-2010, AND he was going to direct five shows next season to save money. I believe he and I could have gotten even more creative with the budget had we been asked to. We just weren't given the chance.

  9. This thought has occurred to me--If Bill T. was blindsided by this, then he may not have been aware of the overall financial picture of the institution. Having been at the helm for 5 years, I wonder why this may have been the case. (flame on)

  10. NOT anonymous (Chris K)July 28, 2009 at 10:55 PM

    Dear Anon at 9:46,

    I did read the paragraphs you referenced, as did the others here, I am certain. Unfortunately, this information is only as reliable as the rest of the limited, he said/she said finger pointing we have been forced to endure by Dillner and the board. You'll understand, I'm sure, if we don't all feel as if there is a lightbulb moment to celebrate with regard to Dillner's motives, managament skill, or respectability as a result.

    If the few words you reference are enough to make you feel comfortable with Dillner at the helm, then good for you. The rest of us are distracted my the mountains of evidence indicating that he is as culpable as the board, if not more so.

  11. To Anonymous 7:06pm:

    We were told directly by Eric on Sunday night at the meeting at the BTC that the Executive Committee suggested this change - the merging of the AD and MD jobs. Eric told us that he told the committee that he wasn't ready to do this now, he needed a year or more to get to know the community. He also told us that he said "This will be career suicide." When pressed further for an answer to the question "Eric, did you think this was a good idea?" He finally answered "No".

    This is where I have a problem - and this is what we said to Eric "Did you every consider saying NO to the committee?" A person of integrity does the right thing when presented with a dilemma. It does not require "falling on the sword" - it's fairly obvious that no one on that committee was going to threaten Eric with firing him if he didn't do this. And if they threatened him with that, then even more reason not to do this ridiculous merger of jobs. I also asked Eric whether he had considered taking a pay cut and cutting Bill's pay and working TOGETHER to solve this problem. Based on what we were told, that was never considered.

    The problem was clear and Eric KNEW the right thing to do and he chose not to do it.

    Apart from the ensuing debacle, this, to me, was his biggest mistake.

  12. > it's fairly obvious that no one on that committee was going to threaten Eric with firing him if he didn't do this.


  13. In reading Diana's job descriptions of what she and Bill did, I am struck with the impossibility of any one person taking on those responsibilities. There's absolutely no chance of that happening. There would have to be There would have to be 72 hours in a day. Doesn't the board see that? How can you have a theatre with nobody in charge of the nuts and bolts day-to- day artistic decisions?

  14. Interesting that Vonce Shiely was running the mtg, a man whose company put many a people out out work in 'cost cutting' efforts, & who even once sued a Catholic org for libel.

  15. In response to what Diana and Katie said:

    I know Bill changed titles to save money. I was unaware of the fact that Bill Theisen who played Bailystock in "The Producers" did so and then donated his salary back to the Skylight. He was excellent in the performance and the show was more cohesive than even the Broadway version with the original cast. I saw them both. Diana, I have had no way to contact you. You have always been a joy to watch on stage and a dedicated employee in the Artistic Department. Having served on the Board for 7 years and having served on the Development Committee for 7 years, I can NOT find on the dashboard Bill's donation. Was this methodically lumped into some other heading on the charts????? Let me be clear: I don't doubt the donation. Just where is it on the financials?
    Shouldn't the Board of Directors been made aware of that donation and issued a thank you to Bill Theisen for being such a fine team player?

    I understand numbers, models, and pie charts.....but WHAT ON EARTH were they (Eric, the Executive Committee and anyone else who had weighed in on this in the FIVE MONTHS) thinking? The LAST thing you cut in a NOT FOR PFOFIT Business is the only REAL things you have to sell: Art, Performances, and good will to you community at large. This would appear that the "Powers that Be" do not understand the Strategic Model for the Performing Arts.....I again wish they had consulted the
    Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Manual: "Stategic Planning in the Arts: a Practical Guide".

    While cuts may be necessary in a sagging economy, the cuts made and the methods used were contrary to anything even remotely reasonable or 'reasoned" for that matter.


  16. becky, couldn't be less anonymous, spiceJuly 29, 2009 at 10:16 AM

    God, I love Lili Friedman!

  17. Lili,
    Can you enlighten me about one thing: Why was it Suzanne Hefty who fired the two "Barber of Seville" performers? My understanding from EVERY theatre I have ever worked for is that hiring/firing is done by the Managing Director and/or the Artistic Director. As this was the trigger for so many of the resignations, I think some background on it would be useful. It is a question I emailed to Terry Kuchanbach but as yet I have received no reply...

  18. Let me see if I've got this right.
    Bill Theisen's position of Artistic Director was eliminated because of a $200,000 (or was it $400,000?) budget shortfall caused by the sharply declining economy; so there was no money available to pay him. BUT there was enough money to hire Mr. Theisen as a freelance director for four shows, none of which the Board of Directors wished to drop from the schedule because the shows would likely have earned more than production costs. The artistic department of the Skylight was under its budget last season, and had cut projected expenses even further for the upcoming season. BUT Mr. Theisen was spending too much money and couldn't be "reined in."
    It's no wonder the Board of Directors is getting no respect. This has been going on for two months and they still can't get their story straight.

  19. How active a role did Dilner play in preparing and/or presenting Skylight's finanical picture to the board? How much face time did he and Theisen have with the board as part of the board's operations? How much communication was there between committes on the board? My suspicion is that if the board received only P&L and cash flow statments, and these were normally presented by and reviewed with a single Skylight employee, than that person had enormous influence on how the board viewed the health of the company and they could easily manipulate the board's thinking.

  20. to all the anonymous commenters: it would be helpful if you would at least make up a name. use your grandmother's middle name. or your first pet's name. i don't know. it becomes quite difficult to separate one "anon" from the next. it's easy to do, there are simple instructions above the comment window. be creative.

    so...going back a few comments, to anonymous who quotes a paragraph i "left out":

    first of all, i left out a lot of paragraphs. i was attempting to make a point about a particular issue. that point had nothing to do with the paragraph you've included, hence my not including it.

    that said, anon, you begin your statement with:

    "So, this means..."

    here's how i would finish that statement: so this means colin cabot had an opinion and he shared it.

    nothing more.

    colin had an opinion about how eric handled the initial backlash from this situation, but that doesn't make it fact. two important words in that paragraph: "cabot believes."

    i might agree with colin, (others, as you can read here, may disagree) but it's still an opinion. colin's opinion does not negate anyone else's opinion.

    personal attacks? i agree. not good. i think it's important, however, to keep in mind context, and timing. the comments you refer to are from the first week of this entire saga. you (or, perhaps some other anonymous commenter) have brought them up before. and they've been discussed here.

    they've also been apologized for:

    "I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to you, to the board, to the arts community of Milwaukee, and especially to the Skylight staff. I know I have been a bull in a china shop, and dissent in the arts community can give the entire community a bad name. I wish I knew a way I could have made this issue public without lowering myself to anger and accusations."

    seems fairly heartfelt to me. can we put that issue to rest now?

    this is a blog of personal opinion. that's stated very clearly on this site, at least twice. i think it's a good thing to keep in mind about all of this.

  21. Hmm, so if I pick my first pet's name as my pseudonym, do I go with Hansel or Gretel? Both of those goldfish were so dear to me...

  22. Hi Tony! Would it be possible to post two things from delightamaze:
    "First the actors, not the musicians" and "Some day this kid'll be famous"?
    I'm sure some people haven't seen these posts and I feel they are VERY important. The musicians have been dealing with these issues for a long time. That hasn't been mentioned anywhere else. Thanks for all the info you've shared.

  23. In answer to Patricia: It is the standard model that the hiring and firing is done by the managing director. Why Suzanne Hefty signed the letter is a good question. This was again done in a relative vacuum without consulting with the Board of Directors. The note to the Board after the fact (after the firings had taken place) said that she Suzanne) had consulted with legal council on this. Presumably it was a lawyer associated with the Board? Checking with other models, it is clearly the job of the managing director. Suzanne Hefty may have been convinced by others to write and sign the letter. It would appear that it did not follow normal, legal protocol. Ask Suzanne Hefty. Lili

  24. Tony (and partly for chris k as well),

    I was not accusing you of intentionally leaving out that paragraph. You don't have to get defensive about that. However, one thing leaves me with uneasiness. Yes, I do agree that it was merely how Colin looked at it, but it is a very educated guess. It, at least, should throw a shadow of doubt to how people are looking at Eric in the situation. Shouldn't we say "we don't know what happened, so let's NOT bash him so harshly and apologize for the words that had already come out," not "we don't know so let's just keep mobbing" ?? The latter seems to be what's happening now.

  25. kiera. it's very easy for words and tone to be misconstrued. a fairly innocuous statement can be read as something akin to a threat, as we've all heard. i hope you read my comments above, and here, with little sarcasm and much sincerity.

    that said, i didn't mean to sound defensive. i was just pointing out why i included only one paragraph from a pretty lengthy article.

    i do think you are on to something, though, in that eric (along with former board president suzanne hefty) has largely been the fall guy for this entire situation. they're not without blame in that, but still.

    while there've been some pretty strong opinions on this blog, and in the comments on this blog, i don't think they rise to the level of "bashing."

    i will say, this blog seems to have become a place for angst, and frustration, as well as information. sometimes folks might get a little heated and passionate, but i think we've desperately needed an outlet for that. we certainly weren't given one by the current management of the skylight. (until sunday, or maybe last friday.)

    my personal opinions are based on what i do know, not what i don't know. as the managing director of the theatre, as the face of the organization, i don't think eric handled this crisis well at all, and i personally don't think he's suited for the job of managing/artistic director. i think there were many missed opportunities to right this wrong along the way.

    but were there others behind this? the executive committee was critical in the initial decision. were others advising eric and suzanne once this backlash began? i don't doubt it. do those players deserve some of the blame for how this has spiraled out of control? i think so, yes.


    we don't know what happened,

    i know what i've watched happen. my opinions are based on that. behind the scenes? you're right.

    so let's NOT bash him so harshly

    i'm not bashing anyone, i don't think my readers rise to the level of "bashing him," and i'm not responsible for what goes on on other people's blogs. is it appropriate for all of us to take a breath, and look deeper at the situation? sure. let's.

    and apologize for the words that had already come out,"

    that's been done, it's been talked about being done, and it's been talked about again.

    not "we don't know so let's just keep mobbing" ?? The latter seems to be what's happening now.

    as i said, i know what i know and my opinions are based soley on that, not on any rumor or hearsay, or "mobbing."

    and to be honest, i actually think the rhetoric has quieted down lately.

  26. (all that said, kiera...

    i think what you were saying, ultimately, is that a little perspective goes a long way.

    and i'd completely agree with that.)


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