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How moving from home opened eyes of an outsider

Taking the helm of an organisation that has been pivotal in the rebirth of a post-industrial wasteland has been no small task.

It would be no exaggeration to say Julie Ellen's whole life has been leading up to this moment.

She is used to being the outsider, making her way in a new community; tie that in with her experience of regeneration activity to revitalise a rundown area and the pieces of the puzzle slot snugly into place.

You would think one year on after the opening of the hugely successful Beacon Arts Centre, a green glass cube that makes a striking landmark on the Greenock waterfront, she would be taking a breather, putting her feet up and reaping the rewards of all those months of hard work. If she was that kind of person she wouldn't be here.

Her irresistible enthusiasm and unwavering passion have created a professionally run venue that sits at the heart of the area's burgeoning arts scene and attracts visitors locally and from all across Scotland. It is a long way from the public meeting she spoke at when the idea of the Beacon was first mooted to replace the old Greenock Arts Guild Theatre.

"I said something about, from market research that had been done, we hope by the time we're well into the new building some people will come from outside Inverclyde, and somebody in the front row kind of scoffed," she remembers. "I said, sorry, excuse me? And we both got embarrassed as we realised that this was a snort of derision.

"I said, 'is there something wrong with what I said?' And the person looked me straight in the eye and said, 'who is going to come here to see a play?'"

Who indeed? Well, more than 10,000 people went through the doors in the run of the panto alone. "In an area of 80,000 inhabitants, that's quite an achievement. We're absolutely delighted," Ellen, 51, beams, adding that 22% of them travelled there from outwith Inverclyde.

"The first year has been absolutely amazing. It has been a real slog, with incredible support from the local community, but it has felt that absolutely everything we do we are doing fresh. It does feel like 2013 was the year of getting it all up and running and doing all those things for the first time - 2014 feels to me a year of development and really building, which is exciting. And slightly less scary because we have something from which to build."

While we have lunch in the Beacon's bustling bistro, part of the building created on reclaimed land that sits on Custom House Quay, she laughs when she says the plan for 2014 is "more better". But the smile belies the steely determination to do a job and do it well. No longer a local am-dram set-up, this is a commercial venture that has to pay its way, albeit with some project funding along the way. In the programme for the new season is comedian Jimeoin, an act at a level the Beacon wouldn't have attracted before, admits Ellen, 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. I think the presence of artists and the involvement in companies in building their work here is an important part of the way forward. Not that I'm looking for this to become a big producing theatre, but I think how we facilitate the development of theatre in Scotland - particularly for projects which will have success on the middle scale - is really important."

Ellen's passion for the theatre might lead her working life but it is all-consuming, her interest first piqued as a teenager after her family moved from Lancashire to Warwickshire. Being uprooted, having to find her way into a new community and a new environment, were all formative.

"There are feelings I have about how you welcome new people, how you welcome the stranger if you like into a space and into an organisation, that is really heavily influenced by this 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 stimulating and open in its thinking that I just had my eyes opened to the rest of the world.

"I really felt I had the opportunity to see other ways of living that made a massive difference to me."

This was when she first encountered the arts and was introduced to the theatre, bunking off school to go to Stratford and the Royal Shakespeare Company. When I comment that hanging out at the RSC is hardly wild child behaviour, she roars with laughter. "Yes, I admit, it is not very exciting as a school skive goes but it was certainly the thing that took me away."

What was her favourite production? Her eyes light up as if she is still sitting in the stalls, taking it all in for the first time. "The standout was Peter Brook's production of Antony and Cleopatra with Patrick Stewart and Glenda Jackson. As a school project I got to sit in Glenda Jackson's dressing room and interview her about working with Peter Brook. How good is that?

"That sense of excitement that exists around a theatre building has been something I've been eager to get to. So this is my first building experience," she says, as she looks around her.

She came to Greenock from Playwright Studio Scotland, where she was the founding director, starting something from nothing, just a vision that built to deliver real artistic success. A long time before that, Ellen was a member of an ensemble in Buckhaven, Fife, that saw derelict buildings being turned into spaces with community use. That was back in the late 1980s but she says it is interesting to see all this time on that there were common threads of intent, in terms of what would help revitalise an area with the regeneration activity that this building is part of.

"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, I think then you're well on the way to really changing something," she says.

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

A permanent art exhibition at the Custom House next door is on her list, along with a bringing together of heritage resources to offer a direct portal to the genealogical history of those with links to emigrants who set sail from Greenock to start life in the new world. She is also backing the Absent Voices project set up by a group of eight local artists and performers, led by Aspect Prize winner Alec Galloway, to resuscitate the empty Sugar Sheds at nearby James Watt Dock.

"We've all talked about it but I think it would be cool if Tate would take over half of the Custom House and the Sugar Sheds. The sheds were part of Tate & Lyle's empire and we only lost our sugar refineries here in the 1990s. They don't owe this area anything, I know it doesn't work like that, but if they wanted to be a part of making an inspirational difference in the way the V&A has a new outpost in Dundee, and that is actively part of a huge regeneration of an area, I think that's possible."

The box has been ticked for leading the charge to persuade the people of Greenock they have an arts scene to be proud of.

"We're not just the local operation any more," says Ellen.

"I'm a bit tired," she concedes. "But I wouldn't do less. Though I am looking forward to more days off in 2014."

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