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Former cinema restoration showcasing community spirit

A DERELICT 1930s cinema is being lovingly restored as a community arts venue.

The Roxy in Leadgate, County Durham, is being brought back to life by Watling Spaces, a community interest company (CIC), which is painstakingly returning the venue to its former glory.

The business has already completed a new two storey extension to the former cinema and bingo hall that includes three state-of-the-art studios, a new foyer and a café bar housed in the cinema’s original projection room.

The studios include sprung floors, mirror walls, top-rated sound-proofing and in-built AV systems. They have already been used for a variety of activities, from dance lessons to fitness classes, and band rehearsals to stand-up comedy, since opening in September 23.

The second phase of the development will see the stage and auditorium restored to create a 360-seat community theatre with stalls and a circle.

The project is being led by David Barnes who returned to his native North East after 14 years working as an actor in London to manage the restoration.

He said: “Although it’s been a lot of hard work, it’s a pleasure to see this iconic local venue coming back to life and the building being preserved for the future. We’re quite underserved by arts venues in North West Durham and we believe this can plug that gap and be a real community asset.

“I was part of local theatre groups in this area when I was a kid and I know the huge impact they can have on people’s lives, helping them grow in confidence and find their tribe, and that’s one of the big drivers for me.

“I’m also passionate about the arts being available to everyone and that’s why we’re making sure that all areas of the venue are fully accessible, including the grand circle, stage and orchestra pit.”

The Roxy opened as a cinema in 1939 and was converted into a bingo hall in 1963. The venue’s doors closed for the final time in 1985 and it has stood derelict since.

Watling Spaces is regenerating the entire building into a fully accessible community arts venue. Although the layout has changed substantially, the 1930s art deco features have been lovingly restored.

The project has been a labour of love for David and his team of three, who have carried out all of the work themselves, learning the skills and regulations to make sure everything produced is up to spec.

“I’ve had to become a bit of an expert in a lot disciplines,” joked David. “I’m also from a family of builders and tradespeople so being able to call on their expertise has been vital to the success of the project.

“We’ve tried to re-use and upcycle as much as possible, such as using the old auditorium floor in other parts of the venue and incorporating the old projectors into the new stage decoration.

“We also set up as a CIC to ensure that any money made is re-invested into the building and the groups that operate out of it.”

David and the team are also looking to engage with other like-minded individuals and organisations to help provide a variety of performance arts-related projects that engage and inspire young people from across County Durham.

He added: “By offering opportunities for creative expression, exploration, and collaboration, we can help our young people develop essential skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication. These projects can serve as platforms for self-discovery and personal growth, empowering young individuals to unlock their talents and pursue their passions.

“Through the power of the arts and artistic endeavours, we can nurture a new generation of confident, innovative, and resilient individuals who are well-equipped to navigate the complexities of the modern world and reach their full potential.

“We would also like to enable those from the SEND community to integrate into mainstream activities, helping them to break down barriers and promote inclusivity within our communities. We really want this to be a community asset for everyone.”

The community interest company (CIC) is now being supported by business advisers at the North East BIC, through the Social Enterprise Boost Durham programme funded by the UK Government.

Judith Falla, Social Enterprise Business Adviser at the BIC, said: “It has been an absolute pleasure supporting David and the Watling Spaces team and seeing the venue develop. David’s vision is bringing a bit of London theatre to Leadgate and benefiting the local and wider community, so watch this Watling Space.”

For more information about Watling Spaces, visit https://www.watlingspaces.co.uk/

For more information about Social Enterprise Boost Durham, visit https://www.ne-bic.co.uk/social-boost-durham/

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