Photo by Kat Schleicher
Art may not be easy, but you would hardly know it looking at Bill Theisen.
In his Skylight Music Theatre office on a Friday afternoon, he is writing congratulatory opening-night notes to the cast and crew of Daddy Long Legs, the world premiere chamber musical the Skylight helped shepherd into existence. On his desk rest scripts and scores from the theater’s just-announced 2012-13 season, including a glossy covered score to George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess that’s about the size of a telephone book. But in between the present show and future season is Sunday in the Park with George, which Theisen is directing this month.
Skylight’s artistic director is right where he wants to be. For now. Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park has been a gleam in his eye for some time, and his face lights up when he talks about it: “What an incredible piece. It has so much to say – certainly about the arts. But more importantly about life and choices and dealing with expectations.”
“Art isn’t easy” is one of Sunday in the Park’s signature lines, and the production proves the point with its challenging score and staging (the play re-creates an iconic Georges Seurat painting at the end of the first act). But those who know Theisen’s history with Skylight understand that “art isn’t easy” carries a special meaning for him.
During the summer of 2009, in the throes of a financial crisis, the Skylight board hired Eric Dillner as its new managing director. He promptly terminated Theisen and assumed artistic leadership of the company under the title of general director. The decision was met with outrage – protests and Facebook denunciations that made national news. Dozens of regular Skylight artists pledged to never work at a Dillner-run organization. Skylight’s future was in doubt.
After a few months of turmoil, Theisen was rehired. The incident demonstrated the solidarity of Milwaukee’s music and theater community (and the power of social media), but also its love for Theisen, who has deep Milwaukee roots. He grew up on the near South Side, first appeared at the Skylight in 1981 (in the chorus of The Mikado) and had an active freelance career as a performer and director. When he was hired as artistic director in 2004, he had already directed and appeared in several Skylight shows. With his love of both musical theater and opera, the Skylight’s broad embrace of all musical theater forms was a natural fit.
After the Dillner incident, Theisen, the board and new managing director Amy Jensen (hired in November 2009) didn’t take long to right the Skylight ship, mounting an artistically and financially successful season (though some long-term debt issues remain). Theisen has put on productions – or pairs of productions – unlikely at any other theater. A season pairing of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, operas featuring the same group of characters; the pairing of Rent and Puccini’s La Boheme, the opera that Rent is based on. But what gives him the most pleasure is just mentioning the disparate kinds of shows that fit under the Skylight umbrella – like the combination of an R-rated Muppet-ish musical and a classic American opera.
“This is such a perfect place for me,” Theisen says. “I love doing musicals. I love doing opera. It’s been an incredible experience, and I’m still enjoying it.” But last fall, the Skylight announced that Theisen would leave at the end of the 2012-13 season. “I want to have another chapter in my career. I want to go while I feel like I’m still fresh and have something to give.”
That next chapter involves a return to freelance performing and directing, including, Theisen hopes, jobs at Skylight. He has a history with the University of Iowa and says there’s the possibility of a position there. But now, as the stacks of scores on his desk suggest, he’s looking ahead, particularly to Porgy & Bess, one of the most challenging projects in his tenure.
It’s clear he can depart on a high note.