On Monday, April 17, a Roxbury artist and activist named Tory Bullock uploaded a video to Facebook. In it, he stands in an echoey stone foyer and fixes his gaze at the camera. “Welcome to the barren wasteland that is the Strand Theatre,” he says. "Boston, we gotta talk."
Bullock goes on to criticize what he sees as an underutilization of the historic theater, which was founded in 1918 and was once a bustling cultural hub in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. (It is currently owned by the city.) Bullock proffers a solution: Build a small black box theater inside the Strand to encourage local engagement with the space.
Bullock appears to be more than just talk. In 2014, he says, he submitted a design proposal to the city of Boston, complete with a marketing and production plan. The initial response, he says, was “refreshing.” His contact at City Hall put him in touch with the Strand’s general manager, Melodi Greene, whom Bullock says expressed genuine interest in the project. (Greene has not yet returned WBUR's request for comment.) But after a few weeks of back-and-forth with the city and the theater, the conversation stalled. For the next two and a half years, Bullock says he watched as the project “collected a lot of dust.”
Last week's video was designed to shake the conversation out of hibernation. It has attracted over 78,000 views. A petition that Bullock posted online on Monday, April 17, has gathered over 1,500 signatures. By Thursday, Boston’s chief of arts and culture Julie Burros commented on the video on Facebook. A spokesperson at City Hall confirmed that and Burros and Bullock are scheduled to speak on Monday.
“We are aware of Tory’s petition asking that a black box theater be created within the Strand Theatre and we are looking forward to meeting with him to discuss it,” Burros said in a statement via email. “The Boston Creates Cultural Plan highlights a need for available, affordable and sustainable cultural facilities for organizations of all sizes across the city. It’s one reason why we’ve launched the Alternative Spaces pilot program and have undertaken a Performing Arts Facility Assessment study, which will be released soon. As we move the plan forward, we hope to collaborate with individuals and organizations across the city to find creative solutions that meet the needs of the cultural sector.”
This comes as Burros' office is working to implement Boston Creates, a plan released last June to bolster the city's arts scene. Last year, Mayor Marty Walsh designated Upham’s Corner in Dorchester, where the Strand Theatre is located, an “arts innovation district” as part of an ongoing development plan by the city called Imagine Boston 2030.
The seeds for the black box were planted back in 2011, when Bullock was producing a show of his own at the Strand. A big portion of his audience, he says, had never heard of the theater. “It just made me realize, even though the Strand was a big deal to me, other people didn't even know it existed. And that was mainly because it's this huge theater that doesn't get used a lot.”
Part of the problem, according to Bullock, is that the theater is just too big. Even an audience of hundreds feels small in the 1,400-seat space.
"I don't just see a black box as a venue, I see it as kind of a beacon for artists,” Bullock says. A black box is small, flexible and affordable. Because of that, he says, it has the potential to “bring in a whole new crowd of audience members and artists to the Strand Theatre."
The video is not Bullock’s first brush with celebrity. The Dorchester native maintains a popular social media presence that frequently addresses issues of gentrification and race in Boston. He enjoyed a brief moment of fame in 2016 with a whimsical video that depicted him freestyling in celebration of an imminent snow day and again in January with a video speaking out against Hollywood stereotypes of Bostonians.
To Bullock, the underwhelming official response to his proposal is representative of a larger problem.
"I've seen this pattern happen before — where there are areas that are just not taken care of, the facilities are bad, the local YMCA is in shambles, our schools are falling apart. And no one says anything about it — and no one does anything about it, really,” he says. “And then the area gets gentrified, and all of a sudden, the broken down, torn down Strand Theatre that nobody hears about is now this world-class vintage historic site that hundreds of thousands of people now come to to see how amazing it is. Meanwhile it's been there the entire time, while the people who live there now are there, and nothing is really being done with it."
Bullock is not the first to point out the Strand’s apparent underutilization. In 2010, the Dorchester Reporter published a detailed investigation of the theater’s woes. The paper reported massive cutbacks in staffing and programming despite millions of dollars in renovations and a pledge to revitalize the theater during Mayor Menino’s tenure. From 2013 to 2015, the Strand was home to the Fiddlehead Theatre Company; no such partnership exists now.
The theater recently hosted two performances of the Daniel Beaty play “Mr. Joy,” part of a series of free performances around Boston presented by ArtsEmerson and the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity. No list of upcoming events at the Strand is readily available, though a person reached on the theater’s phone line said that one would be available once construction on the website had been completed.