For almost 10 years, Gayle Knight has been on a one-woman crusade to bring the arts to Oswaldtwistle. Now she is intent on putting the revamped Civic Arts Centre on the North West’s cultural map.

THE new year has marked a fresh start for the Civic Arts Centre in Oswaldtwistle.

While the refurbished venue opened in September, the past few months have been treated as an extended preview period while plans were made for a full-scale launch this month.

The arts centre, on Union Road, has become a buzzing hive of activity every day of the week, with youth theatre and over 50s drama, ballroom dancing, a book club, photography and exhibitions all sharing the new spaces.

The former town hall’s civic rooms have been transformed from wood-panelled council chambers to create a large rehearsal and performance space — complete with lighting and a sprung floor, two smaller rehearsal and workshop rooms and a larger and brighter reception and box office, in addition to the main auditorium upstairs.

The driving force behind the transformation is Oswaldtwistle-bred arts enthusiast Gayle Knight, who has been pushing for the creation of a thriving cultural hub in the town for many years.

“I believed the town hall, or Civic Theatre, would work as an arts centre,” she said.

“When Oswaldtwistle Players got funding to set up Sparks, the youth section, about 50 young people turned up wanting to be part of it.

“And that convinced me of my belief that creating an arts centre was the right thing to do.

"I felt the space was wasted — there was not enough going on in the auditorium upstairs for it to be profitable.

“So, I just started to push again then.”

A short time later, national funds became available to rejuvenate old public buildings and Gayle led a team to bid for cash with Hyndburn Borough Council.

This was unsuccessful but, having won over the council, with firm plans in place and no small amount of ‘dogged determination’ the money was found from the council’s own budget to allow phase one to go ahead.

Work was completed in the summer and the autumn saw ReAct Academy and Burnley Youth Theatre establishing groups at the venue, and a debut production of Romeo And Juliet directed by one of Sparks’ former members Jo Haworth.

Gayle said: “Oswaldtwistle Players took a long-term view with Sparks of getting a young people’s group — then as they get older starting to do plays as an adult society which young people are needed for.

“And it’s graduated from that as the older ones have moved on and become volunteers and working on their own projects.

"If they have a creative idea and they come to me, my answer will always be ‘yes’ — then we will work out how it can be done.

“Some of the original Sparks, who were 11 to 13 when they first came, are now in their late-teens and are committing to the centre as a venue, like Jo.

"Another group is working on a film script and is forming part of the team which is passing on the things we have all learnt over the years.

“So even in this short time the ethos we wanted is coming through.”

At a time when many arts venues are fearing for their futures, amid Government cuts and increasing running costs, Gayle is confident that the new Civic Arts Centre will thrive as it is based on a model of self-sufficiency.

“From the end of March the centre has to be able to pay me, but fortunately the council is not looking to make a profit from the venue,” she said.

“It has to run as a business, making a profit which can go back into the shows, and we are on target.”

The aim for the centre is that its activities are driven by its users, so that people develop an ’emotional involvement’ in the venue.

And no performance will be classed as ‘amateur’ under the new regime.

“What happens with ‘amateur theatre’ is that people dip their toes in and have a great time but we are trying to harness people and bring through new generations,” Gayle said.

“We are trying to get away from the concept of ‘amateur’.

"People get this perception that something will be amateurish; rattling sets and things falling off.

"The groups which perform here — Accrington Theatre Group and their youth branch Buddies, ChINA (Charities In Need Appeal), Oswaldtwistle Players — none of these are amateurish.

"They all work to a really high standard. Their production values are of the same standards as some of the professionals we have here.”

Instead, Gayle uses the term ‘community’ or ‘local theatre’, with show creation at the centre’s core, and people are already responding by asking for further involvement when they’ve taken part in workshops or events.

Performances for schools are selling out, with demand dictating extra performances, and funding is regularly awarded for new work — the latest of which being Diversity Drama, a project working with groups of girls from different cultures announced just this week.