On the gilt-edged stage of a grand old theater in Hyde Park, an unusually poised 9-year-old smiled and sang out in a strong, clear voice.
“Look at this stuff. Isn’t it neat? Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete? Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl, the girl who has everything?”
The music built as Audree Hedequist sang “Part of Your World” from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” expressing her desire for legs instead of fins. Hedequist rose dramatically from her seat, her thin arms tense with passion, as she gestured theatrically and declared her readiness to “know what the people know,” to “explore that shore above.”
Similar rehearsals have been going on for 31 years at Riverside Theatre Works, a nonprofit theater dedicated to teaching performing arts to children and teens. But just a few months back, amid shrinking funding and loss of staff, the theater was close to shutting its doors permanently.
Now, with community support and the dedication of alumni and their families, it appears to be rebounding at a time when many theaters and arts organizations still struggle to recover from a global recession.
‘We have to keep it going.’
Behind the turnaround, is Marietta Phinney, who founded the program in 1981 in her backyard along Mother Brook, the source of its name. Phinney, 74, was then a music teacher, and when the school year ended she had 12 students who didn’t want to stop singing. So she created a musical theater program for them.
Phinney described Riverside in those early years as being like a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movie, where a scrappy troupe of young people decides to put on an elaborate theatrical production in a barn. What she had instead of a barn was a former library building in Readville, lent for free by the church that owned it.
After the first year, Phinney quit her day job and devoted herself full time to the theater. In 1983, Riverside moved into one room in the former French’s Opera House on Fairmount Avenue and began slowly expanding into all of the building’s top two floors.
The program grew over the years, from those initial 12 students to about 200 in the mid-2000s and expanded its classes in drama, music, and dance.
Financial difficulties began in 2008, when the Great Recession hit and the state canceled a $50,000 annual grant just as local families began to cut back on music and dance lessons. The theater’s revenue, with about three-quarters coming from classes and ticket sales, shrank from a peak of roughly $600,000 a year to half that.
That same year, the longtime executive director left when her husband took a new job outside Massachusetts.
In June 2010, Riverside filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Each January since she began devoting herself full time to the theater, Phinney said, she has asked herself if it has moved forward in some way to determine whether she would continue. Some years those advances were small, but there was always progress.
Until January of this year, when she felt for the first time that Riverside had lost ground. Around that time, someone suggested to Phinney that it was time to close the theater. She considered the advice a call to arms.
“It gave me more fuel, more energy, more desire and passion,” she said. “I’ll show you that’s not going to happen.”
Phinney called on a group of loyal former students to return and run Riverside’s summer programs. Leading the pack was Michael O’Brien, 22, who became the theater’s interim managing director.
O’Brien started at Riverside at 7, first taking piano and then singing lessons before Phinney “swooped me up and took me under her wing and put me in one of the traveling performance troupes here,” he said. “This became a second home to me.”
It also became a career path. Last spring O’Brien completed his degree in musical theater from the Hartt School in Hartford. He is now moving to New York City to pursue a career in theater.
Though leaving Boston, O’Brien plans to continue supporting Riverside and believes the tenacity of its alumni will keep it going.
“We’re very stubborn people,” he said. “We love what we do, and someone’s looking out for us up there.”
After all the obstacles it has encountered in the recent years, Phinney said the theater is now coming full circle.
“The few people that have come back that remember when, they’ll say to me, ‘Ah, Ms. Phinney, this is like it used to be.’ I’ve had that comment, and it only took six months to build that,” she said.
If Phinney has her way, former students will continue to return for many years to come.
Riverside is now out of bankruptcy and enrollments are up. A sponsorship from Blue Hills Bank, begun in 2011, guarantees $25,000 a year for five years, and the theater recently received a $10,000 grant funded by the Lofts at Westinghouse and administered by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
It has launched a new website, hired a new education director, and planned a slate of ambitious productions, including “Hairspray” next spring and, for its annual holiday show, “Annie,” which happens to be the first major production it mounted back in 1981.
“We have to keep it going,” Phinney said. “I’m not even going to say it’s going to be easy.”