Shepherd Express: Skylight Music Theatre's Response to COVID-19

The age-old adage that “The show must go on” has been overtaken by COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus). On behalf of everyone at Skylight Music Theatre, our hearts go out to all those suffering or who have lost loved ones to this indiscriminate disease.

Nearly all activities around the world (including the arts), have been cancelled until further notice. Utilizing social media in a whole new way, arts organizations and artists in every corner are responding with characteristic creativity and ingenuity. Broadway performers are broadcasting video concerts from their living rooms on Facebook (Kristin Chenoweth, Audra McDonald, Alice Ripley, Seth Rudetsky, Kelly O’Hara, etc.).

Tony Award-winner, Laura Benanti, has reached out to high school students who have had their spring musicals (for many, the pinnacle of their high school careers) cancelled and asked them to post what performances they may have on her Twitter page. Many companies are streaming shows to preserve and share at least one performance, even if presented to an audience made up of only video cameras. Many more examples spring up by the hour. Creative people are trying to maintain their creativity in response to these strange times.

Performing artists (among many other workers out there) live show to show, gig to gig, performance to performance; many, paycheck to paycheck. From Broadway NYC to Broadway MKE and beyond, we are heartbroken that so many of our talented theatre artists are forced to be out of work with little to no hope of recovering that lost income. I can’t imagine many of us will ever again take for granted the “force majeure” clause we have all glanced past in our contracts. Our industry is far from alone in dealing with these challenges—the only remedy to which is social distance and isolation. Ironic when our work relies on human interaction; large numbers of audience members together in a room, feeling the electricity of live, in-person performers merely feet away from them on the other side of a proscenium.

We at Skylight Music Theatre are trying to be as responsive as possible to the challenges set before us. Our first priority is the health and safety of our entire community, and then, as quickly as we can, we must find a way to continue our art. We were fortunate to announce that the final two productions of our landmark 60th anniversary season, a concert version of Evita and Candide, were not cancelled, merely postponed. The good news is that over 90% of our creative teams and casts can remain intact, even with the delay. We are particularly grateful that we can keep these extraordinary artists employed, and that we will be able to present the creative team’s original vision to our audiences. On behalf of all arts groups, if you are unable to reschedule your tickets for shows that are being delayed, please consider donating them back to the arts organization rather than asking for a refund.

No arts organization is immune to the fallout of the current situation. Our community is lucky to have the support of organizations like the United Performing Arts Fund, which supports Skylight and so many of southeastern Wisconsin’s performing arts groups. But this crisis has impacted them and every organization they serve. If there were ever a time to give to UPAF, it is now. Many of the performing arts organizations you know and love will benefit from that support, including Skylight. Go to to contribute.

Although I am new to the Milwaukee arts community, it fills me with great hope to see the conversations amongst all of the local arts organizations to help each other along and brainstorm ways to soften the blow from the situation we are in. I feel fortunate to have landed last September in such vibrant and collaborative community.

Looking forward, we are continuing to plan our 20/21 season. As this is audition season, we have decided to hold virtual auditions by video for any local performers whom we have not seen in the past six months. They will email us headshots, resumes and links to audition videos, and we will evaluate them alongside those who auditioned for us in person last November and December. We will assemble our callback lists (which is when we ask specific people to read for specific roles from our upcoming shows) from these live and video auditions so that when the time is right, we can pick up the casting process with no delays.

There is a beautiful quote surrounding the chandelier on the ceiling of the Cabot Theatre, home to Skylight Music Theatre. It says, “To help us forget some things, remember others, and to refresh the dry places in our spirit.” We intend to keep our part of that bargain and offer spirit-refreshing art as soon as is safe and possible.

The shows will go on. In the meantime, hold your loved ones close and keep all others at least six feet away. Wash hands, stay smart and healthy, and we will eventually find ourselves in restaurants, sports arenas, museums, schools, and greeting one another in theatre lobbies once more.