AS the new man in charge of the Blackburn's Thwaites Empire Theatre, Paul Mason is acutely aware of the special postion he is in.

“This is a unique theatre,” he said. “It is a real privilege to be involved in it and to help take it forward and shape it for the future.”

Paul is returning to his first love after a number of years as marketing manager at Blackburn College.

“People in East Lancashire will know me through my college connections,” he said.

“But I have always been involved in the theatre. I have worked at a number of theatres in the past, including Tameside Hippodrome, and studied drama at university.”

Paul is also chairman of Blackburn Drama Club.

It was while at university in Birmingham that Paul became friends with an aspiring comedy songwriter, Victoria Wood.

“We used to be in a double act playing a few gigs in the clubs,” he said.

“I would play the drums for Victoria, who played the piano and sang songs.

“It all came to an end when she gave me the set list for a show one night and I lost it. I hadn’t got a clue what to play so I just sat behind my drums and smoked a pipe, completely upstaging Victoria. We agreed then to call it a day as a double act.

“We still remained friends, though, and I actually drove her to her audition at the TV talent show New Faces. The rest is history.”

Paul’s love of the theatre in general, and for the Thwaites Empire in particular, is obvious.

“Next year the theatre celebrates its 10th anniversary since it reopened. It has come so far from just being a shell of a building and has really captured the hearts of the local community.

“We rely on volunteers who are so committed and that’s what makes it so special.”

Over a million pounds has been raised to transform the former cinema into a theatre and performing arts centre which is home to theatre groups, dance schools and community groups.

One of Paul’s key tasks is, along with mananging director Michael Berry, to oversee the next phase of development of the Capita performing arts centre.

“We’ve had plans approved to put a second-storey on the building to create more rehearsal rooms and also a cafe but we need to raise around £400,000 to achieve this,” said Paul. “It is a lot of money but we’ve done it before.”

One of Paul’s first tasks is to develop the programme of shows for the theatre.

“It’s all about enhancing what we currently do,” he said. “We need to add to the uniqueness of the theatre by bringing shows that people want to see but which also work particularly well in our theatre space.

“It is a marvellous theatre for performers as you are so close to the audience, you feel as though you are talking to them personally.

“We have had so much feedback from artists who have loved playing here.”

With such an active performing arts centre attached to the main theatre, Paul is acuetly aware of the major role the building plays in the local community and the wider area.

“This is what makes it so special,” he said, “and I want to develop this. We need to look at including more young people, whether through workshops to give them an introduction to the theatre or putting on shows that they would want to come to.”

All age groups are welcome at the theatre and another new scheme will appeal to the over-60s.

“There are a lot of talented performers out there who have never really had the chance to appear on a big stage,” said Paul. “So we are going to revive the idea of an over-60s talent contest with a grand final in November.

"Entry forms will be available from next week so we’d encourage anyone interested to get in touch.”

Although only just starting in his role, Paul has very ambitious plans for the theatre.

“In five years' time I’s like to see the theatre’s profile raised to such an extent that it is known nationally.

"I know this sounds ambitious but when you consider where we have come from a derelict shell, it is not impossible.”