Brian Beacom

PETE Sneddon smiles when you describe him as the Victor Frankenstein of the theatre world, a comparison he doesn’t disagree with at all. Sneddon takes dead buildings and fires new theatrical life into them. But he doesn’t create monsters. Over the years he has taken old, expired church buildings in Glasgow’s West End such as Dowanhill Church (now Cottiers) and the gothic Landsdowne Parish Church (Websters Theatre) and transformed them into living, breathing, vibrant arts venues.

Sneddon has the skill set. His partnership with SCENEgineering, a firm that provides custom-made scenery, props and sets for exhibitions, film and TV, offers the technical back up and expertise. But there’s more to his talents. He knows implicitly how to transplant new body parts. And he knows how to attract charitable funding, to tie-in with the likes of the Four Acres Trust to make sure the dead churches have an afterlife.

“That sort of sums up what I do,” he says, grinning through a massive hipster beard that does its best to cover a happy face.

Thirty-eight year-old Sneddon is especially happy at the moment, for several reasons. He has recently added the old Bathgate Cinema to his project laboratory.

“I heard about the liquidation of the venue before it became public knowledge,” he says. "I knew I had to do something about it. My dad, who was a geo-engineer, once helped saved the town of Bathgate from sliding into a giant hole when it was discovered it was built on a mine, and now my task is bring the cinema building to life again.

“The plan is I want to put on the panto in the venue this year and let my charity Reconnect Scotland, a not for profit organisation, take over the running of the building.

“If the panto is successful it will prove that the community are behind the venue. And if that’s successful we will have this charge of community spirit to give the building a new life.”

Not content with venue resurrection in West Lothian, Sneddon has also turned his talents to a project at Loch Fyne. “We have entered into an agreement with the Loch Fyne Estate Trust to turn Ardkinglas into a retreat centre,” he says of the country house and extensive Argyll estate which dates back to the 14th century.

“We want to protect these great, historic buildings in Scotland and at the same time we want to provide a centre that helps people.”

His voice drops a note to become more serious. “It’s a way to help people recover a sense of self through theatre, holistic activity, art, yoga, woodland pursuits, drama – even golf, because any activity that gives people a sense of balance is valid.”

He adds: “What we want to do is help people get rid of some of the noise around them.”

Pete Sneddon knows a great deal about the need to shut out harsh noise. His early life featured a series of traumas. As a schoolboy his family moved to Cornwall, but the travails of being uprooted were the least of his problems. When he was aged seven, his mum had a nervous breakdown. (She later died, a suicide victim.)

The family returned to Glasgow where young Pete found himself alienated, thanks to having an English accent. More difficult times followed; the youngster was stabbed seven times in a random attack and teen life proved problematic.

Sneddon tried several jobs, turned to drink and drugs but gave up illegal substances when he witnessed a friend, who was high, beat up his pregnant girlfriend.

Life improved, however, when he studied music production at college, then landed work as a theatre technician, running events for local authorities and opened his own recording studio.

But his own personal wires were still bare. In 2002, Sneddon had a nervous breakdown. He couldn't function. He lived on a flatmate’s sofa in “the coldest flat I’ve ever been in.” Then one day Pete's flatmate got a call asking if he knew anyone who could operate a mixing desk. The flatmate said, 'Funny enough...'"

Working a music mixing desk led to a meeting with Iain Munro, and the pair would go on to create SCENEgineering. The business proved to be successful and the pair looked to build on this, to take on the challenge of Cottiers, prompted by their love for theatre and music.

Sneddon’s recovery, he explains, has also been aided by counselling, speaking to other people, and working hard at keeping the problems of life in perspective. Satisfying work helps of course, but it seems the big motivator is the idea of putting something back. He firmly believes life should be about making investments, that if you give, you will receive.

He explains how the theory can work; the idea of Frankenstein-ing old buildings has never been easy. A few months back, parts of the Websters roof began falling to the ground and the building had to be closed for three months. Sneddon was wrecked, having come so far in terms of attracting audiences.

“I went to Websters the next day, alone, and it was cold and dark,” he recalls of a very depressing time. “I sat on the floor of the stage above the old altar, pressed my head to the floor and prayed. I asked for guidance and I asked for help to return this grand building to the way it was, a place that was celebrated.”

There was nothing that could be done for Websters at that point so Sneddon took off for a week-long holistic retreat. At the retreat, he tells of feeling “compelled” to make a charity bid of £1,000 for an item he didn’t need. “People spend their life taking,” he offers. “Sometimes you have to give. It’s part of the pay-it-forward sense.”

Sneddon believes his spiritual connection with Websters, and his compulsion to pay forward, somehow paid off. The day after the retreat, Sneddon was having coffee with his brother in Glasgow when he overheard a conversation taking place between two men behind them. They had a seating plan in front of them and were talking about stripping the cinema seats out of the former Odeon Cinema in Glasgow’s Renfield Street.

“I realised the seats were headed for the skip. And at the same time, we needed new seating for Websters [reliant upon old, hard plastic chairs]. I asked if I could have them and they said yes. It’s amazing. These fantastic seats from the Odeon mean bums on our 188 seats at Websters will be comfy.”

He adds, with a pleased smile, “We’ve recently installed a new heating systems so we’ve got a great theatre to be proud of. And as for the old plastic seats? They have gone to a new home in a horseshow arena. Nothing wasted. Everybody wins.”

Not only did Websters have new seats fitted he secured an agreement to have the roof fixed.

“It was a setback, but we dealt with it,” he says of the roof decay. “You have to expect old buildings will develop problems but thanks to the church involvement [which still owns the building] they will carry out the repair work.”

Sneddon’s unreconstructed hippy approach to life seems to be working well for him. He gets to use his technical skills to re-open buildings for use by the community, provides arts venues which, as a former musician and musical theatre writer he loves doing, and all this offers a real sense of achievement.

As we speak, he’s hugely animated about the pantos taking place in Bathgate and at Websters (which was named after the designer of the church’s stained glass, Glasgow artist Alf Webster)

He speaks excitedly about Cottiers, which now caters for schools projects, and local choirs use the space. And he’s also passionate about the Loch Fyne project. “It will give the building a focus because as well as creating a retreat we hope to use it as a wedding venue too, this fabulous place to be enjoyed. And the first retreat has already been organised.”

It’s not hard to see Sneddon’s fascination with rebuilding has helped him rebuild his own life. “I don’t feel I have to fill a void anymore,” he admits. “I’ve come to realise our use of drugs and alcohol is so often a reflection of unresolved trauma. Just look at Scotland’s history; it’s been been one of trauma. And we like to blame someone else for our problems.

“But I’m in the position now I feel I can give. And the retreats have certainly helped me get a different perspective.”

He adds: “It’s about a lack of realising where we are in the world. It’s about being alive to the possibilities of life, about hearing a conversation in a cafe and realising how that can help you. It’s about not disconnecting. And realising happiness is a pursuit that isn’t answered by buying stuff.”

Family life, he says, is great. He and wife Morag and five-year-old Olive live in Uplawmoor in East Renfrewshire. “It’s quiet and really nice. The kids can play on the road outside,” he says. “It’s like living in the Fifties.”

When he speaks, however, there’s a real excitement about the future of his venues. “I’ve been on a great journey these past few years. And life this year is especially interesting.”

He offers a wry smile. “But I’m logging up the miles these days. Sometimes, the idea of putting something back can mean an awful lot of driving.”