The Grim Reality

I should start off by saying that I don't know Bill Thiesen and that I've never worked at the Skylight. I've never even been considered by the Skylight for work, not even as a scenic carpenter, so I don't have a dog in this fight.

When I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, the director of performance operations, a wholly genuine and generous man named Ron Dye was unceremoniously ousted from his position. He returned from a hernia repair operation - hernias he received given some of the necessarily physical work that he had to do - to orders to clean out his desk in less than a day. I don't know if Ron was a good man for the organization, but he supported me personally, he supported the community personally. He wasn't just the general face of the organization, the John Waldron Arts Center, for many people he WAS the place. Rightly or wrongly, many of us saw JWAC and thought of Ron. I imagine, given these letters about Bill, that the experience for many people in Milwaukee is similar.

After Ron was forced out, the community came forward in huge numbers, but when we tried to oust the board president at the following board election - Maureen someone, I no longer remember her last name - we discovered that you don't get to vote "no" to someone - you only get to vote "yes" for alternates. This should not have been terribly surprising, but we wanted something, we couldn't get it, we were shocked.

And the result was... that many of us, many many of us, continued to work at JWAC. Ron and I have fallen out of touch, and I have little doubt that part of that lack of connection is lingering anger or bitterness on his part at my betrayal - because I certainly kept working there. I did so in part for selfish reasons, I wanted to direct. I took a position on a volunteer committee to be one of the people who might make a difference from the inside. I didn't make much of a difference.

What I suspect is going to happen at the Skylight is that many of the artists whose sincere anger, fear, and outrage I do not at all question are going to work at the Skylight next year. Eric Dillner, or Bill Thiesen if he ends up directing, or another director, is going to offer an actor a part. And he's going to take it. And there will be grumbling and rationalizations. And in all likelihood, this will be a slump in the organization's revenue. But I suspect that the board is calculating that that this too shall pass.

The thing is, they're probably right. The Skylight is an institution - it IS bigger than any one person. Probably.

If the artistic community wants to punish the board, the can opt to not work there. But most people aren't going to do that. In the comments to Tom Strini's blog posting at the Journal Sentinel, many (most?) of the posts are anonymous, and some self-naming commenters are calling out the anonymous people on their perceived cowardice. I believe that they are anonymous for two reasons - to be able to say what's in their hearts now, and to be able to distance themselves from their now-hearts when their later-career calls on them to take a job. It is the dissidents like Jamie Johns who bravely put their name to their face publicly while continuing to work there that deserve our praise and support, regardless of your position on the issue. He is acting with openness and integrity. Even if the Board is acting with integrity, their lack of openness smacks of arrogance and rudeness. We love the Skylight - we thought we was pals. Why are you treating us like this?

The question that we will be faced with, that is bubbling under the surface but that I haven't seen in print yet:

Would we rather live without a JWAC we love, or with a JWAC we don't? Can art happen at an institution that no longer exists? Of course not, so the answer was, we will compromise.

I'm sorry - that's what happened in Indiana. Substitute "Skylight" for JWAC.

We made a deal with the devil - counting on the fact that what got rid of Ron would eventually get rid of his persecutors. The people we loathe will someday be gone, and a person we love, maybe not the same one, will someday come back to lead. It is an institution, and this too shall pass.



  1. i dunno Kurt, seems to me the non-profit corporate theatre model that frames this institution is kind of fucked, a combination of this increasingly obsolete structure, hard economic times, and bad decision making might just break the institution.

  2. Not without out a fight!

    Thanks for your words of wisdom

    Jamie Johns

  3. Completely agree, and well put. I admire you for using the question I often use to get to the point of things: "What do we want?"

    I'm also going to let Jamie know I admire his courage.

  4. In a way, maybe I would rather not have an institution I love tarnished beyond recognition by treating people badly. Maybe I would rather have it just die. And I am not talking about Skylight, I really don't personally know any of the players, and I don't like musicals, mostly. But hypothetically, when I have worked to create something with a group of people, it means something. This is who we are, this is how we roll. If it gets ugly...yeah. I'd rather see it die. But I guess that is why I haven't the stomach to work in the arts anymore.