Beacon of hope for Greenock Theatre

YOU would think that a year after the opening of the Beacon Arts Centre Julie Ellen would be taking a breather and reaping the rewards of all that hard work.

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Julie Ellen works hard for the Beacon, visited while under construction in 2012 by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber
Julie Ellen works hard for the Beacon, visited while under construction in 2012 by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber

But if she was that kind of person she wouldn't be here at all.

Her enthusiasm has created a professionally run venue that sits at the heart of a burgeoning arts scene and attracts visitors from all across Scotland.

It is a long way from a public meeting artistic director and chief executive officer Julie spoke at when the idea of the Beacon was first mooted to replace the Greenock Arts Guild Theatre.

"I said something about, from market research that had been done, that we hope some people will come from outside Inverclyde, and somebody in the front row kind of scoffed," she says.

"I said 'is there something wrong with what I have just said?' and the person looked me straight in the eye and said: 'Who is going to come here to see a play?'"

But more than 10,000 people went through the doors for the panto alone. "In a region of 80,000 inhabitants, that's quite an achievement," she says.

"The first year has been amazing. It has been a slog but with incredible support from the community - 2014 feels to me a year of development and building, which is exciting."

Over lunch in the Beacon's bistro, part of the building created on reclaimed land on Custom House Quay, she laughs when she says the plan for 2014 is more and better.

No longer a local am-dram set-up, this is a commercial venture that has to pay its way, albeit with project funding along the way.

The new season includes comedian Jimeoin, an act Julie admits is at a level the Beacon wouldn't have attracted before, and in the second week of January there was a middle-scale production of Kidnapped by Sell a Door Theatre company.

"I brought together a partnership between them and Media Matters, a local organisation that was doing a project about Kidnapped," she said.

"The presence of artists and the involvement in companies in building their work here is an important part of the way forward.

"I think how we facilitate the development of theatre in Scotland is important."

Julie's passion for the theatre is all-consuming, after she became interested as a teenager when her family moved from Lancashire to Warwickshire.

She said: "There are feelings I have about how you welcome new people that is heavily in-fluenced by the extraordinary good experience I had of thinking it was the end of the world because I was 13 and being taken away from my school friends and then arriving in a place that was so open in its thinking that I had my eyes opened to the rest of the world."

This was when she first met the arts and was introduced to the theatre, bunking off school to go to Stratford and the RSC.

She came to Greenock from Playwright Studio Scotland, where she was the founding director and after being a member of an ensemble in Buckhaven, Fife, which saw derelict buildings turned into spaces with community use.

"If you can make things happen that are fun and empowering for local people and make them feel special, while at the same time also making them feel part of something bigger, you are well on the way to changing something," she says.

For someone who had no connection with Greenock before she took the job, Ellen has carved a vital role in the community. She is a trustee of the George Wyllie Foundation, which plans to set up a Wyllieum, a place to show key works on a permanent basis along with exhibitions of works by the artist and his contemporaries.

A permanent art exhibition at the Custom House next door is on her list, along with bringing together heritage resources for those with links to emigrants who sailed from Greenock to the new world.

She is also backing the Absent Voices project set up by artists and performers to resuscitate the empty Sugar Sheds at James Watt Dock.

"It would be cool if Tate took over half of the Custom House and the Sugar Sheds," she says. "The sheds were part of Tate & Lyle's empire. Of course they don't owe the area anything, but if they wanted to be part of a huge regeneration, it's really possible.""


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