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The tale o' the bank

A seal has been bobbing about the Greenock waterfront for the last year or so, according to the builders working on the construction of The Beacon, Inverclyde's brand new arts centre.

SEAL OF APPROVAL: Julie Ellen outside The Beacon Arts Centre, pictured below.  She will direct the opening production. Main picture: Mark Gibson
SEAL OF APPROVAL: Julie Ellen outside The Beacon Arts Centre, pictured below. She will direct the opening production. Main picture: Mark Gibson

Beacon artistic director Julie Ellen spotted it the other day as well, and the diners in the building's bistro and restaurant are also in with a chance.

The seal has presumably been watching the shoreline change in dramatic fashion, as The Beacon Arts Centre took shape. Set alongside a series of more traditional sandstone buildings next to Customhouse Quay and overlooking the River Clyde estuary, The Beacon looks like a development in Reykjavik rather than Greenock.

It is an initiative which has been a long time coming, ever since it became clear a decade or so ago that the old Greenock Arts Guild Theatre was no longer fit for purpose. The Arts Guild had been converted from a 19th century swimming pool in 1949 to accommodate a thriving amateur dramatics scene, and did so for 65 years. While the building had served its community well, there were major access issues in what had become an increasingly dated facility.

The management of the Arts Guild looked at upgrading the existing space, but realised it would be more economically viable to create something new. In partnership with Creative Scotland, Inverclyde Council and local regeneration agency, Riverside Inverclyde, as well as Clyde Port, the idea for The Beacon was born. Alex Liddell of LDN Architects, who were responsible for the design for the Usher Hall's space-age bar and box office in Edinburgh, provided the radical vision.

The Beacon was due to open in August 2012, with an in-house pantomime pencilled in for the centre's first major production in December. In fact, building delays meant Ellen and her team didn't get the keys until December 22.

For Ellen, who took up her post at The Beacon 18 months ago after seven years in charge of Playwrights Studio Scotland, it has been something of a labour of love.

"I always knew there'd be a year before we were in the new building," Ellen says, "but I wasn't expecting it to be quite that long. I seemed to spend all my time talking about this thing that we were going to move into called The Beacon, so it's really brilliant now to be at the stage where we're in the building and we can really start our new journey."

The inside of The Beacon is as striking as its exterior, not least because of a large portrait of the Queen which hangs at the top of the stairs. The portrait was previously housed in the old Greenock Arts Guild space, and is a historical nod to the continuum of the two very different buildings.

There are two auditoria, a 500-seat main space, and a 128-seat studio theatre. The main stage is one of the largest in the country, and has a fly tower to accommodate the big-scale ambitions of the sort of community companies Ellen talks about. The same logic applies to the size of the dressing rooms.

Beyond the two performance spaces, there are three large rehearsal rooms in which youth and community groups can hold workshops. These can be extended into a function room which can accommodate up to 170 guests, while meeting rooms will also be available. All of which provides a sense of inclusivity that goes beyond The Beacon's primary function. This is exactly how Ellen likes it.

"Part of me has always had a deep affection for my time working as an actor at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews," she says. "I went there for the summer season shortly after leaving college, went back the next year, and ended up living there for five years. During that time, I fell in love with that relationship with a building as a thing that facilitated a relationship between art and the community, and I really enjoyed that sense of people owning this thing that was theirs, and which became the real heart of a community. That's what I want The Beacon to be, and I think The Beacon is right for a move to join the national framework of middle-scale touring theatre."

With this in mind, the first production to grace the Beacon will be In An Alien Landscape, a new play by Danny Start presented by Birds of Paradise, who open their tour in Greenock. The play is directed by Ellen in an accidental piece of scheduling which nevertheless makes a pertinent statement about how she intends to proceed with her tenure.

Beyond its opening night, The Beacon's diverse inaugural season will host companies such as Vox Motus and Communicado; Nicola Benedetti will play a concert in March, as will the Salvation Army Choir. For four days in February the Scottish Community Drama Association Festival will take up residence. Even taking building delays into account, this is no mean feat.

"We really have to use our ambitions for The Beacon to help grow the ambitions of the people from Greenock Arts Guild who have long been there, so they can believe that The Beacon is somewhere special that is for them. People in the area are used to having things taken away from them rather than having things given to them, and I think there was a lot of scepticism about whether it would actually happen, even though it was already happening.

"Then when we got the keys, I wanted to get people in here as quickly as possible, so we had an open day on January 5. It was arranged at really short notice, but we stopped counting after 1200 people had come through the door, and I think it would be reasonable to say that about 2000 were there overall. As soon as I heard the word 'wow' being said, I knew things had moved on, so now there's a real will out there for The Beacon to succeed. The people really want it."

And perhaps the seals too.

In An Alien Landscape, The Beacon, Greenock, February 1. For full programme, see www.beaconartscentre.co.uk

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