FROM the crumbling plasterwork and rickety floorboards to the specks of damp splattered across the alpine domed ceiling, it took heaps of imagination - and a good squint - to picture what could become of the ramshackle Palladium cinema.

Once a repository for culture and the arts in the town, the decrepit (and mostly forsaken) shell in Rodbourne had seen better days when artistic director Dan Rivers popped in for a snoop, in search of a locale for a new art cooperative.

After a mammoth revamp operation, courtesy of Dan, co-directors Sean Cardis and Silvia Fasulo, and a merry band of dedicated volunteers - all on a shoestring - The Bohemian Balcony is nearing completion and, all being well, will fully launch in the New Year.

"This place is about founding something totally unique; the moment you walk in it gets your brain working and heart pumping," says Dan proudly, stroking the wall next to him absent-mindedly.

"It's a place to create, to be inspired, to meet people. I had been looking and searching for so long for a place like this. It's been in my head for 10 years so it's all been carefully considered," he adds, pausing to inspect a particularly tattered spot before pondering out loud about the possibility of using transparent panels to expose the snags in the structure and preserve its character rather than spruce it up for the sake of it.

The project, Dan admits, has been a steep learning curve, not least in the DIY department. Staunch optimism and a knack for improvisation were essential throughout the lengthy renovation to dig up reclaimed material and make every last penny stretch.

The labyrinthine venue is a sight to behold, but the great old lady doesn't give itself up easily. It's a veritable assault course to get to the promised Balcony - which adds a welcome dollop of whimsy to the experience.

First scooch past the pell-mell of assorted sofas, tallboys and retro armchairs, peddled by the furniture store on the ground floor, than up the tapered staircase to your right - to the left in the deepest, darkest bowel of the building are more filing cabinets and an impressive collection of printing presses and contraptions.

Finally the balcony in all its ragtag, diamond-in-the-rough splendour appears; the clandestine journey, an added bonus.

The Bohemian Balcony, which has been set up as a community interest company, is Dan and his close-knit team’s proposition for a united Swindon art scene. A pipe dream for more than a decade, the cooperative became reality last year.

Its aim is simple: to provide an incubator - in the same way the Town Hall once acted as an experimental hub - for students, fledgling and established artists and creatives of all disciplines - from drama and drawing to sculpture and filmmaking.

"When I popped down to see the place in September I knew this was it. Within 24 hours we were in," adds the 32-year-old from Rodbourne, who trained at The Oxford School of Drama ("I lasted two months," he hastens to add) before enrolling at the University of Glamorgan, where he was given free rein to push the boundaries of performance and "explore the unknown".

Back in Swindon, after graduation Dan launched a number of experimental theatre companies, including Danuki Grasshopper. It is then, he began mulling over the concept for the Balcony.

"We were devising new work, starting from nothing, and that's what this place in my mind was about," enthuses the former New College lecturer, who is now a teacher with the White Horse Foundation.

"You’d start with nothing and if you were given that space to take a risk, make mistakes, you could make something happen."

While not due to open until January at the earliest, The Bohemian Balcony enjoyed a pre-launch of sorts when it gave the public a glimpse of the community hub during a spine-chilling in-house production of Lady Palladium - a play inspired by the jilted poltergeist rumoured to haunt the former cinema.

Many community groups, independent artists and theatre troupes have already bought into the venue’s ethos. In fact the team behind Swindon Fringe Festival has already signed the Balcony up as one of its host locations next April.

"When we came to see it, I just fell in love with the idea. It's everything that Swindon needs," says Swindon Fringe organiser Molly Campbell.

“It screams Fringe Festival to me. It's a safe place for artists in Swindon to work together, to celebrate and put on things that are different and exciting. I think it's lovely to have someone step up and say, 'Guys we're all losing each other, let’s go back to our grassroots and collaborate’.

"People don't need to move to Bristol or London to produce work. This venue will prove there's a lot going on in Swindon. Sometimes people need this one place to identify with."

The Experimental Drawing Hub will also run its workshops from the Balcony from next year.

"There's been nothing like this in the town since the 80s," says co-founder Paul Exton.

"This place is not elitist and this matches our philosophy. We want to bring in beginners, open the arts and drawing to new people and to children. This will give us the space to do that."

As well as the large open plan central room, a creative studio nicknamed the Orange Room, will be available to writers and visual artists.

Filmmaker Henry Meredith was one of the first to get on board with the Balcony and spy the potential of an “unrestricted creative space” like the Orange Room for artists finding their feet in the town.

"It's somewhere people can express themselves and learn without restrictions," insists the 25-year-old from Old Town.

"The problem is that we lose a lot of people to Bristol and London. But maybe they would stay if they had somewhere to practise their craft, a place to inspire them.”

Inclusivity and the potential for collaborations was also a huge draw, he adds.

"There are lots of pockets of culture in Swindon but nothing brings them together properly. I think this place can and will do that. This is a place without egos, where you can just grow into the artist you're meant to be."

As well as a space to create and experiment, the Balcony will be available to theatre groups for performances and artists to curate exhibitions.

To begin with, the team will cohabit with the printing, plumbing and furniture businesses which occupy the ground floor. Eventually though the printers will move out.

From the off Dan poured his own savings into the venture. Going forward and to sustain the operation, he will be applying for arts grants and launching a fundraising campaign. Each user will be charged around £10 a month – but no more, Dan insists, to ensure everyone, regardless of their means, can join.

The fee will mainly go towards the cost of the equipment at Bohemian members’ disposal, which will include computers, lighting and cameras among other things.

Money will no doubt be tight but: “Life finds a way, to use a quote from Jurassic Park,” chuckles Dan.

“For now it’s about selling the idea of a place that’s cutting edge. If we kept thinking ‘Oh no, there’s no money’, we would never have got this far. We will find a way.”

To find out more about The Bohemian Balcony go to the venue’s Facebook page or visit