By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Aug 02, 2016 at 6:03 PM

My phone rang late Monday and it was a question that was a real surprise.

It was a person I know who works in local theater in an administrative/creative job.

"Is there a chance that Skylight might fold," the person asked.

"Of course not," I said quickly. "But…"

And it trailed off.

The question was spawned by the story Monday that the Skylight is considering the sale of the Broadway Theatre Center in order to help right their financial ship. Skylight folks admit that there are financial difficulties but express unbounded confidence that things can be fixed.

And I hope they are right, even though the trend has certainly not been a good one

On the tax forms for non-profits like Skylight, there is a line that says "Revenue less Expenses." We are all familiar with that concept with our own personal budgets.

In 2011 Skylight had a figure of $727,527 on that line and in 2014 the number was $615,511. That’s over half a million dollars in the red each year.

Skylight owns two buildings – the stunning CAbot Theatre and a six-story adjacent office building. It does rent out some space in the office building but the overwhelming use is for Skylight itself.

I don’t think there is any significant sentiment on the board to just let the company go out of business. But I do think there may well be some different opinions on just what kinds of action need to be taken to get Skylight back on track.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on effective business practices for nonprofit theater companies. When I start going through all those tax returns and balance sheets my head starts to hurt.

But if  you look at the numbers, and if Skylight wants to stay at the top of the theater pyramid, it seems almost impossible to do without selling the building and moving to different headquarters.

The book value of their building is $1.5 million but the market value would be much higher, perhaps in the $4 million range. The board is faced with some difficult decisions, however.

They don’t want to lose control of the Cabot, which gives them the ability to pick their own dates for productions.

As the board goes about its deliberations it’s going to be crucial to be willing to swallow some hard truths.

One is that it’s not the below market rent that Renaissance or Chamber pay in the office building. Most of that space is used by Skylight itself. Essentially it’s a six-story office building in the red-hot Third Ward that brings in hardly any meaningful revenue.

There will be no way for Skylight to keep that building. Someone will buy it and do something with it. It may get knocked down or renovated and rented out at market prices. The handwriting seems to be on the wall for the other tenants – most notably Renaissance and Chamber – that they are going to be moving.

What that means, of course, is that both theater companies are going to need new office space as well as new performance venues. The black box theater in the office building is almost certain to disappear. Both Chamber and Renaissance have been having discussions about a possible move and have begun to explore possibilities for performance and office locations.

Renaissance released a statement Tuesday confirming that they have begun to search for new space.

"Renaissance Theaterworks (RTW) will begin actively investigating options for its artistic home following the August 1st press announcing that the Skylight Music Theatre may sell the Broadway TheatreCenter (BTC). RTW has performed exclusively in the 99-seat Studio Theatre for 12 years, but in the event of a sale, the Studio Theatre, rehearsal, and office space may be eliminated. 

Renaissance Theaterworks opened its first show, A DIFFERENT MOON, at the Studio Theatre on the night the new wing of the Broadway Theatre Center opened in 1993. RTW was invited to become a resident company in 2004. Artistic Director and Co-Founder Suzan Fete said it would be difficult to leave a building with so much history. "The Studio is perfect for RTW’s powerful cutting-edge theater... We’ve been very happy here and have enjoyed performing concurrently with productions in the Cabot and the Cabaret," said Fete. 

The sale of the office building at the Broadway Theatre Center seems inevitable and the action will force two local companies, Chamber Theatre and Renaissance Theaterworks to find new office space and new performance venues as well. 

The sale of the office building at the Broadway Theatre Center seems inevitable and the action will force two local companies, Chamber Theatre and Renaissance Theaterworks to find new office space and new performance venues as well. 

Let’s assume that the office building is sold.  Nobody with either company wants to comment about their situations, focusing instead on the season coming up.

That leaves the Cabot, certainly a wonderful space for a theater company the size of Skylight. There is some sentiment that a buyer could come in and rent the space back to Skylight  and give the company first choice of dates.

But those rental terms might very likely be significant. And any buyer who plans on renting the theater out when Skylight is not in the house may face a difficult proposition. A theater that has 358 seats is a difficult proposition for booking agents.  The relatively small orchestra pit and the limited number of seats is not enough to attract the kind of productions that may be able to pay the rent demanded by the owner.

It may prove out that Skylight unloads its office building and retains ownership of the Cabot, using it for its productions and seeing what it can book into the space on dark nights.

In many respects this is a very uncertain and unhappy situation for the theater community in Milwaukee.

Over the three seasons of Viswa Subbaraman the company has staged some very popular shows, but for every "My Fair Lady" and "Hair" box office successes there were some shows that, while artistically fascinating, did not hit it big in ticket sales.

The office building was the home to the famed Theatre X, the pioneer artistic organization in the facility. The company, which achieved worldwide fame for its work, staked out a claim amid drug houses and broken down warehouses.. But times and tastes and economics changed and Theatre X eventually folded.

One of the ironies of the present situation is that once again it looks like economics is going to force more artists out of the Third Ward.

Like most boards of directors the Skylight board has work groups studying various ideas to help get on some kind of a sensible track. Let’s hope all those work groups realize that the reason the Skylight exists is to bring great musical theater to Milwaukee.

Whatever it takes to keep fulfilling that mission is okay with me and will be pretty okay with Milwaukee. It’s time for that board to actually take some action and not just continue to have meetings about what to do.

The answer to the call I got yesterday needs to be "no."

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.