Friday, July 24, 2009

Some day this kid'll be famous:

Oh, wait. He already is. Josh Schmidt, composer of Adding Machine and A Minister's Wife, speaks.

To Mr. Kurtenbach, Mr. Dillner, and Mr. Cabot...

My name is Josh Schmidt. I am a composer/sound designer/musician who hails from Milwaukee. Today, I have watched events unfold via the blogosphere from my small makeshift studio at American Players Theatre in Spring Green WI. I was not there, so I do not know exactly the tone of the events except via video... I want to relate my personal feelings and insight on this matter to all of you as I also care deeply about this institution, how important it is in my career

The dream of what became my professional career begins at the Skylight. It starts with the first theatrical event I ever attended - CANDIDE (1989) at the Jefferson Street space. I was 14, and I was totally blown away. It continued with my patronage throughout my high school years (and this includes all the opera programming). As I was attending college at UWM, the dream turned into my first two professional paying gigs - THE RAY AND TONY DOG AND PONY SHOW written by Ray Jivoff and Tony Clements (1995) in the Skylight Cabaret, and WINGS under the musical direction of Richard Carsey (1997). At the age of 21, I was working with those who inspired me to do so. In many ways, it was not only the beginning of a career, but the beginning of a true education in working in the arts, not to mention survival as an artist. Through this gig, I started forming the initial connections and collaborative network that would become my freelance career as a composer/sound designer in the theatre - first in the Milwaukee area (with every theatre and dance company in the city, college, amateur, professional), then throughout the state, then into Chicago, then into NYC and beyond. I can wholeheartedly tell you that if it were not for these professional relationships my career would not exist.

More importantly, without the mentorship and influence of such artists like Richard Carsey, Paula Suozzi, Joan Lounsberry, James Valcq, Bill Thiesen, Ray Jivoff, Tony Clements, Leslie Fitzwater, Jamie Johns, Mike Lorenz (this is only a partial list, believe me) - EACH of whom not only had the patience to deal with my youth and inexperience, but train me to be a better musician, a better collaborator, a better professional - all because they believed in my potential abilities as an artist. In addition, the working atmosphere at Skylight was one of high standard and true delight. There were seasoned veterans, there were new faces - everyone would eventually be schooled in the Skylight "method" of putting on a show. And if you were to ask the Skylight veterans , they would tell you they probably learned this method from those who graced the Skylight stage before them. This is not a non-profit mission statement. This is a culture of working purposefully cultivated over 50 years of grinding it out against all odds, from Clair Richardson on down. I'd like to hope I made good on my mentors' investments as I have built all of my technique and all of my "know-how" out of these formative experiences at Skylight.

The results - In addition to a sustainable national career in sound design (40 shows a year across the country - I have seen just about all that one can see in this business), I have had the honor of having my first two musical theatre works produced professionally, ADDING MACHINE and A MINISTER'S WIFE (currently running in Chicago with Richard Carsey as music director and Skylight artist Liz Baltes in the cast). Both have received national attention and acclaim. You may count now (at least) two composers (Mr. Valcq and myself) who have built what many in this day in age may be considered impossible - a successful career as a composer in the theatre - out of their initial "training" at the Skylight. I will be forever in debt to this institution for this... And everyone knows it. If they don't, I tell it to them. It is in print many times over. There are many such successes that come out of Skylight - I am just one...

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Dillner in his office along with Bill as we discussed not only potential Milwaukee productions of both these shows but also a possible commission. In that meeting I emphasized how important (at least to me) it was that these productions reflect all the wonderful artists in our community - both those established (either still here or known to Skylight audiences) and those yet to be discovered. It was a great meeting - even if nothing immediately materialized out of it, I felt uplifted and optimistic.

Then... well, the wheels have come off.

This is not simply a discussion about those who initially lost their jobs - this is a discussion about the managerial and artistic vision of an organization. First, to treat Bill, a member of this community who had garnered such respect and admiration - and who I must add produced very successful shows all year - was heartless. I also felt it dangerous in that Bill's reputation and his artistic output is undoubtably a large part of why people donate to the organization - and now he has been shown the door. The fact that he had no inkling of this signals either complete lack of two-way communication between the board and the organization or an underhanded attempt to grab power. Secondly, to switch organizational models so rashly and quickly regardless of who runs the company is simply untenable - opera organizations run by general managers seldom produce more than 3 shows, 12 - 16 performances a year. Skylight produces 5 shows, maybe 80-90 performances a year. I have experienced situations where such a restructuring happened (one of them being Madison Repertory Theatre) and have witnessed these companies fold. In arts organizations these days, such a move usually signals a death knell, a desperate act to save money.

I started to panic. In Madison, I saw just how difficult it was to combine the roles of artistic and managing director without administrative oversight and still produce quality productions. I wrote this in an email to Eric out of concern when the positions were eliminated. I heard no response. Then more firings. Silence. Then people fired for their comments on Facebook. Then mass exodus - including donors, staples of the community, close associates of the "Skylight" family, designers, marketable talent... While the positions maybe filled by others, however talented, the nature of their commitment to the Skylight and the community of Milwaukee is not, at least not immediately... You cannot replace 20-30 years of goodwill, sacrifice, hard work, and the risk that is the act of performance overnight. If that were so, then those that walked away would not have walked away - it is too important to them that the Skylight survive. It feels as if though the origins of who I am as a professional have been eradicated in a week's time.

Then today - more than a month after the initial eliminations - you walk in front of the disenfranchised - the artists, the community, your bread and butter - and openly say that it is their responsibility to save the institution after actions taken have turned them away is insulting. Yes - we all have a stake in what will be the future is of this company and when dust settles, whatever is left of this company will be the legacy of all of us who either actively took part in these events, raised their voices, or stood on the sidelines hoping for the best.

You know, no one gets points for stubbornness. To dig one's heels into the dirt and stand your ground in the face of such heated disapproval, especially when a completely viable solution has presented itself at your doorstep, is foolhardy, damaging, and ignorant. It seems abundantly clear that those in attendance were swayed by your arguments. I hope you saw that when evaluating your next moves.

It is OK to admit a mistake (or several) - to admit that you need help in rectifying the damage. And sometimes it is just flat out necessary. And that's tough. I feel sorry for Eric, especially in light of our great initial meetings, that things have turned so sour. I feel sorry for all the members of the board who I am sure this has been torture - especially if you do not agree with all that has transpired. I feel especially sorry for all those performers, donors, artists who have walked away in anger, sadness and disgust at what has happened. But something has got to give if there is even a chance of salvaging this... and in my opinion Mr. Cabot's offer must be reconsidered as the correct way to go...

Milwaukee sits at the edge of a great chasm... If there were no legitimate home-grown arts institutions, or cultural scene, or sports franchises - why would any professional or company locate themselves here? Why would any performing artist want to stay here? All these things are interconnected in the fabric of the city's commercial health and viability. The Skylight is as important in keeping this city's economy alive as anything else... Please don't destroy that. Reverse course. Admit error, undo the damage and watch as the same passion that stands in your way help to save an institution very dear to us all.


Josh Schmidt


  1. Wonderfully expressed, Josh. Bravo.

  2. Beautifully stated. I wish I had such elequence through my anger and sadness.

  3. Thank you for writing with such passion and eloquence what most of us feel but cannot express in words. Bravo. And again, a heart felt thank you.

    Exec. Dir. for the Center for Integrated Arts, Appleton, WI