The spotlight has dimmed, sadly, on Providence's Looking Glass Theatre. The company, a small crew of three to four actors and a musician, entertained elementary school students across the state for nearly 50 years, at one time performing hundreds of in-school shows per year. Remembered by Ocean Staters ages five to 50, the theater produced a series of five- to 15-minute vignettes derived from popular children's stories, introducing students to the stage and inspiring library check-outs across Rhode Island.
Though never a financial juggernaut, Looking Glass was always able to secure significant grant funding, allowing the theater to perform at penny-pinching schools without charge. But that all changed about four years ago, when former executive director Diane Postoian decided it was time to pass the torch. New director Fred Sailor, by all accounts, fumbled a bit — well, fumbled catastrophically — in the pursuit of grants.
Less than two years after Postoian's departure, the theater's budget had nearly evaporated: the company limped along with only $120,000 in operating funds, well short of the $300,000 the theater required. Soon, Looking Glass was struggling to find the money to pay, well, just about anyone. First to be stiffed was the actors' health-care provider. The actors' salaries went next. Accountants were hung out to dry somewhere along the way, and eventually, creditors like Bank RI weren't getting checks. In just three years after Postoian's departure, Looking Glass was $40,000 in debt.
Sailor, who could not be reached by the Phoenix, was eventually convinced to leave, and upon his sour farewell, Looking Glass board of directors assumed operational control. But the hole was simply too deep. Since the accountants hadn't been paid, securing any new grants proved impossible, and with a deflated budget, the challenges of booking shows and compensating staffers were insurmountable. The applause eventually stopped for Looking Glass. For first time since its conception, the theater is poised to go an entire year without performing.
These days, though, mismanagement is not the only route to ruin. With everyone from schools to theater patrons keeping a closer eye on their wallets, might other productions meet the same fate as the Looking Glass? Well, it's already started to happen. Smaller theaters around the country, from California to Massachusetts, have shut their doors in the midst of the economic crisis — even as Broadway has capitalized on an escapist streak to pack houses.
Thankfully, high spirits aren't reserved for Broadway stars alone and optimism still abounds among smaller-theater thespians. Stephen Lynch, the one-time lead actor for the Looking Glass Theater, is optimistic that companies like his own will once again return to limelight. He says that he still gets calls from schools asking the group to perform, even though the company is no longer operating. He admits that a comeback won't be easy as school arts and performance resources continue to dwindle, but eventually, he thinks, the Looking Glass Theater will get back out there. With any luck, Lynch hopes, this intermission won't last too much longer.