At 14 years old, Vanessa Lindo took the stage for the first time in her life at the Strand Theatre. As the newest member of the Strand Teen Players, Lindo, a Jamaican immigrant living in Dorchester, saw a new world open before her eyes.
“We got on stage and started singing, me and 30 other kids,” she recalls. “I was so nervous, I stood in the back like a statue.”
Since her first stage performance, a lot has changed for Lindo, now 30 and known in Boston art circles as Akiba Abaka. She has found her voice and works as producing artistic director of Up You Mighty Race, an award-winning African theater ensemble and youth mentoring group.
“The seeds were planted right there at the Strand at 14,” Abaka said. “Everything I know about theater, the foundation of theater, the need for theater, without the Strand we would not be talking right now.”
Abaka is just one of dozens of young theater professionals who have launched their careers with the Strand Teen Players, a now-defunct program meant to introduce stage acting and theater production to Boston youth who would otherwise never set foot on a stage. Beyond the training, Teen Players were also given the opportunity to pursue paid summer internships, which built resumes for future careers.
While the “children of the Strand” have moved on to make their marks in the world of performance art, the presidium stage in Dorchester sits unused most days, locked behind glass doors and a pull-down shutter while the Boston Center for Youth and Families website makes no mention of future programs.
Julie Burns, the outgoing director of arts, tourism and special events for the city, says the closed grate is a “custodial issue,” meant to prevent trash from blowing into the ticketing area, but for the people of Uphams Corner, the closed doors embody lost opportunities.
“I drive by and I wonder what is going on in there,” said Valerie Stephens, a Teen Player program director during the middle to late 1990s. “It is a loss; the Strand represents the strength of the neighborhood.”
During her tenure, Stephens said, her goals went beyond grooming the next generation of actors and producers and instead focused on instilling confidence in her students.
“Theater can be a very powerful tool for inspiring social change. We had kids come in and create their own plays from their own experiences,” she said. “I told my kids that if you respected the stage and your audience, your words would be heard.”
Today, young adults living and working around the Strand are rarely engaged by the theatre, seeing it as a historical footnote rather than an active part of the community. “I really don’t know much about it, except that it’s a piece of history,” said Michelle Ngyuen, a clerk at Hancock Wine and Spirits. “As far as I know it’s abandoned most of the time.”
For residents old enough to remember what former M. Harriet McCormack Center for the Arts [MCA] board member Bob Haas refers to as “the golden age of the Strand,” a period in the ‘90s marked by frequent performances and programs under executive director Geri Guardino, the current level of activity is particularly demoralizing.
Ed Grimes, a former MCA board member and executive director of the Upham’s Corner Health Center, said programming at the Strand is “practically nil,” made up largely of smaller community and cultural events rather than big-name performances that attracted large crowds.
It “needs more aggressive management based on a philosophy for the place,” Grimes said. “I’m just not sure what the mission of the Strand is at this time.”
The desire for headline acts is almost palpable around Uphams Corner. Resident James L. Vick recalls watching Tyler Perry and Ruben Studdard perform for full houses in previous years, but notes that recent performances have lacked strong headliners. “This neighborhood likes big names, big shows,” said Vick. “I’ll go see a show now and then, but the people here like to see famous singers, comedians come through.”
While Strand programming has been sparse in recent years, a condition some attribute to the unstable economy, New England Urban Music Awards founder Charles Clemons says the low cost associated with renting the Strand’s stage and 1,400 seats could spark a resurgence of shows in the coming years.
“When you go downtown, you pay the downtown price,” said Clemons, who returned to the Strand this year for his award show after a four-year hiatus and plans to return next year.
Clemons had hosted a number of concerts and events at the Strand until 2002, when difficulties with MCA management caused him to turn to the Berklee Theatre. While he is one of many artists and organizers who drifted away from Uphams Corner in the early 2000’s, he says city-appointed theater manager Melodi Greene has made strides towards improving the Strand’s administrative policies and image in the arts community.
“I had some bad experiences when I left in 2002,” said Clemons. “It takes time for people to build up that trust again with a venue, but the city has always done well by me.”
That trust building between artists and the city could prove invaluable for the Uphams Corner community in the coming years. With big names come big crowds and, according to Dorchester Bay Economic Deveopment Corporation executive director Jeanne DuBois, a big boost to local businesses.
“I believe every community has its jewels and in Uphams Corner, the Strand is one of them,” said Dubois. “If we keep it busy, keep it active, the Strand could be a real anchor for local businesses.”
Dubois said that while Uphams Corner has seen a growing business community in recent years, a revitalized and active Strand could serve as an “economic anchor” drawing shoppers from outside of Dorchester while providing opportunities for emerging retail stores and restaurants.
“Once you have an anchor, you start bringing in small businesses and more people start shopping,” said Dubois. “A revitalized Strand bringing in all kinds of big regional shows creates a ripple effect, it could be that anchor.”
While the city continues to funnel funding and acts into the Strand, those most touched by the theatre see it not as a line item or economic engine, but as the soul of the neighborhood.
“Theaters like the Strand carry spirits, they represent us” Abaka said. “If it was about commercialism, turning a profit, they would have leveled it back in the ‘70s.”