Skylight Sees the Light (Maybe)

I can only imagine the mortification Milwaukee felt at having its dirty laundry hung out in The New York Times this week for all to see -- but, having grown up there, I can imagine it pretty well. In a city where Santiago Calatrava's soaring 2001 addition to the art museum still buoys local pride, people care deeply about their cultural institutions, and about the way the rest of the country perceives them.

So it must have been embarrassing to read Daniel J. Wakin's comprehensive Times story on the Skylight Opera Theatre debacle, and it must be something of a relief that the Skylight drama, which began in June, appears now to be drawing to a close. From today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Embattled Skylight Opera Theatre managing director Eric Dillner has resigned, ending a standoff that pitted company management and its board of directors against the artists who have regularly worked for the troupe.

Former managing director Colin Cabot, a major figure in the Skylight's past, will become interim artistic director, and another former managing director, Joan Lounsbery, will assume day-to-day management until a successor to Dillner has been identified.

William Theisen, whose dismissal on June 16 began the strife at the Skylight, will not return as artistic director, but he will direct four of the five shows he originally planned to stage for the 2009-'10 season - the company's 50th.

Theisen was tossed out when the company, which has a budget of about $3 million, absurdly eliminated his position in a cost-cutting move -- as if the post of artistic director were a frill that could be done without -- and assigned his duties to Dillner. So it's great news not only that the ham-handed Dillner is out but that the Skylight board, whose president resigned her post late last month, seems to grasp the elementary principle that having an artistic director is a nonnegotiable condition for properly running their theater.

Let's hope it does. But if the board hasn't learned any more than that, there's trouble ahead -- though it probably couldn't be much worse than what the company has been through lately. As Wakin recapped, the Skylight "has suffered demonstrations, petitions, mass resignations of performers, subscriber revolt and Facebook vitriol interpreted by management as violent threats." A key factor was "an insider-outsider rift that pitted a new managing director and fresh board members against Milwaukeeans with a proprietary feeling for the little theater that could," he wrote. "The fracas has led two dozen people -- singers, actors, directors and designers -- to withdraw from performances next season, the 50th, and has cost the company at least a dozen subscribers and a handful of donors."

Wakin's story is straightforward reporting, not opinion, and yet its appearance Monday on amounted to a public shaming: The Skylight had spun so far out of control that it merited a big story in The New York Times. Almost nothing that happens in Milwaukee, ever, accomplishes that -- not even in the deadly slow news month of August. (The Times is so unfamiliar with Milwaukee that it allowed a "Fargo" joke into Wakin's copy. Uh, wrong state. That's Minnesota, not Wisconsin. Common mistake on the coasts.)

It shouldn't have taken that level of unwanted attention in order for the Skylight to backtrack on its egregiously wrongheaded decisions. But it did, and in the meantime the installation of Dillner stood -- because he had the support of his board of directors. (The interim board president called Dillner's resignation "a career decision Eric made" and said he had not been asked to resign.) Dillner never could or would have absorbed the duties of artistic director into his own job if board members hadn't had his back. If he's a villain in this narrative, he's far from the only one. He worked for the board, not the other way around.

Which is precisely why his resignation won't be nearly change enough if the Skylight board hasn't seen the error of its ways. In eliminating the position of artistic director, it ripped out a vital organ. The ignorance and arrogance it took to do that cannot be overstated. Even more alarming is the obstinacy with which the board refused for seven weeks to change course, despite abundant evidence that it was imperiling the institution it's charged to protect.

The board refused to give credence to its artists and its audience, and it failed to see the connection between high-quality art, healthy relationships, a positive reputation and the bottom line that evidently was its overriding, if not sole, concern. It would be difficult to be more obtuse than that.

Though, if it's any comfort to Milwaukee, the Skylight board is hardly the first to bludgeon an institution by basing its actions on a fundamental misunderstanding of its own role, the role of artistic director in general, and the irreplaceable creative and personal contributions of a particular artistic director. That, sadly, is not a rare thing at all.


Speaking of irreplaceable: From mid-June through the end of July, I followed the Skylight drama through the reporting of Tom Strini in the Journal Sentinel. It was a huge story on his beat. So it was strange, and poignant, to read Strini's articles and blog posts knowing (from his blog) that he had taken a buyout and would leave the paper at the end of July. The news continues, no matter who is or isn't there to cover it; in that sense, journalists inevitably leave mid-tale. Still, to have the storyteller walk away in the middle of such a ripping good yarn -- somehow it just didn't feel right.

But Strini's longtime colleague, Damien Jaques, who also took the buyout and is now freelancing for the Journal Sentinel, spins the latest installment of the saga like the total pro he is.
August 6, 2009 3:19 PM | | Comments (4)


I know Fargo, the city, is in North Dakota, but "Fargo," the movie, which is what Wakin was joking about, is famous for the broad Minnesota accent of Sheriff Marge Gunderson — an accent non-Midwesterners can easily confuse with a Milwaukee accent.

I appreciate this article very much. Although, as I happen to live in Fargo and it is in the great state of North Dakota, I must point out your mistake.

Great piece! I'm sure all eyes will be on the SOT board as they navigate the difficult terrain they helped to create over the months to come. It is an enormous relief to see that they have at least come to their senses enough to help Dillner out the door and invite more seasoned and appropriate help back in.

Thanks for the kind words, Laura,but note that I'm not dead yet.
I took the JS buyout and moved immediately to Go there for my continuing coverage of the Skylight and everything else I've ever covered. I've already posted five stories at ThirdCoast. Damien, bless his heart, is now a free-lancer working out of retirement. I am more than full-time at my new venue. So drop in, eh?



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