Every week at PACE we see first-hand how positive creative and cultural experiences can transform social, educational and wellbeing outcomes for young people – particularly to those most disadvantaged. Research shows that young people participating in the arts do better in school and are more likely to gain employment, volunteer and vote. For over 30 years we have worked to bring these benefits to as many young people as possible; to ensure that all, regardless of background, are valued, nurtured and have a voice – and to help create opportunities for them to realise their potential. YTAS studies in 2015 and 2021 show Renfrewshire with the highest levels of engagement in participatory drama activities in Scotland. We think we can build on this to do so much more, and it has never been more needed.

The effects of the pandemic on young people could prove to be one of its most damaging legacies. They have experienced significant disruption to their education and development. They have missed important life events and rites of passage, consuming a substantial proportion of their lives so far. Young people are also struggling with their mental health in increasing numbers. 80% said the pandemic had made their mental health worse and 67% thought it would have a long-term impact.  We think it’s more important than ever to take comprehensive and effective action.

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In 2017, inspired by the ambition of Paisley’s bid for City of Culture, we wanted to help find solutions to problems we had witnessed as a long-standing arts organisation that was passionate about the town’s regeneration. What would support the development and reputation of Paisley as a vibrant cultural destination? How could independent venues and organisations like us contribute to the vision of Future Paisley? How do we help reverse the migration of cultural audiences and workers to Glasgow and beyond? How could we help address the lack of suitable venues for community groups in the area and address the long-standing ambition for a local mid-sized theatre space? What difference could a theatre venue with creative learning and youth engagement as its most important priority make? How could we support more employment in the arts sector? What do young people really want from theatre? How could we profoundly address the practical and attitudinal barriers that prevent young people from participating in the arts? “Theatre-going is a habit – instilled in children early it can last a lifetime. The same goes for not going.” – so how could we bring more young people to theatres: watching, participating, creating, learning, volunteering, working and leading?

The answer for us lay in a disused former dancehall, theatre, telephone exchange and nightclub just across the road from Paisley Gilmour Street station. The Exchange Young People’s Theatre is a first for Scotland: a community-led project with a dual purpose of establishing Scotland’s first theatre designed for and with young people, as well as creating a bold new, environmentally sustainable, community arts hub. It functions in addition to the work PACE is already undertaking in the town and complements the exciting renovation and reinvention of Renfrewshire Council’s other cultural venues.

The project will deliver a unique hub for creative learning, performance and community activity, including: a 300-seat proscenium arch theatre; a flexible 100 seat studio theatre space for regular performances aimed at young people and families; an interactive, sensory creative play space; workshop and learning space; community hub; a family-friendly café with performance and exhibition spaces. It will be fully accessible and autism-friendly. It will produce new work and receive visiting productions for children, young people and families. It will host a vibrant programme of creative learning. It will support local arts organisations and artists as well as the work of key community partners.

A team of young people have been integral to the concept and design process. Those young people have shaped the vision for the venue. Their first and most important priority has been environmental sustainability. Inspired by their vision and ambition, the venue will be one of the UK’s first ‘green’ theatres with 100% LED theatre lighting, designed at every stage to achieve practical environmental sustainability as a key priority.

The project will promote Paisley locally, nationally and internationally as a major hub for children’s theatre, adding to its growing reputation as a vibrant creative place for residents and a cultural destination for visitors. Its central location beside Paisley Gilmour Street rail station will make it highly accessible by public transport, enabling it to draw on the 2.4 million people living within an hour of Paisley town centre.

And we know that this works. Exchange learns from the successful place-focused regeneration brought about by young-people-centred theatre spaces in England and Europe, such as Theatre Hullabaloo in Darlington, Polka Theatre, Half Moon Theatre, Unicorn Theatre and Chickenshed in London and Contact in Manchester.

Regrettably, raising funds for capital arts projects in Scotland right now is really difficult. The closure of Creative Scotland’s Large Capital fund in 2014 has meant there is no one major funder to approach. Instead, we have to try to piece together the £2.5m we need from a variety of trusts, foundations, private donations and government funds. Fortunately, we have had the support of Renfrewshire Council and as a result have raised over £500,000 and have progressed to the final stage of the Scottish Government’s Regeneration Capital Grant Fund for a further large contribution which, if successful, should allow major works to begin early next year. But there’s still a lot to do to complete the project to its full potential.

As digital experiences inevitably occupy more of our future lives, the importance of activities that are intrinsically in-person, such as watching and participating in theatre, will grow. Let’s put Paisley at the forefront of that revolution.

Find out more about Exchange Young People’s Theatre at www.exchangetheatre.org

Grant Mason is Cheif Executive of PACE Theatre and PACE YT