Anna Morrissey on Creating North West

In this blog post, artist Anna Morrissey talks about how she was inspired to create a show on her experience as a student at North Westminster Community School, which has been demolished and is now a site for luxury flats.

Anna Morrissey is a theatre maker, director and movement director who was recently commissioned by CPT to create North West, a headphones-based audio artwork as part of our Outside the Box artist scheme.

Between 1992-1999, I went to North Westminster Community School (NWCS) – a huge comprehensive school lodged between the West Way and the Paddington Basin. Both brilliant and sometimes brutal, it’s an impossible place to describe. I always knew that there was something uniquely interesting and bold about this inner London experiment in liberal education. It was filled with idealism and struggle, harmony and tension. In 2006, NWCS was closed – the reasons why will depend on your point of view but it cannot be denied that the school, along with surrounding council estates, stood in the middle of one of the largest developments sites in Western Europe. Westminster Council wanted to develop the site and they knew how much that land was worth. The Paddington Basin Development swept aside the school and established communities. In their place is Paddington Gardens, where you can buy a flat with a starting price of £1.5m.

It was very strange going towards the end as you could feel the encroachment of the modern glass and steel dream of a shiny new life encroaching on this by now dilapidated squat brutalist building which itself had been filled with dreams at one point. there was upper school looking really solid and a bit down on itself and then behind there were these glass and steel things looking like they were marching towards it which eventually they did come and eventually they did come and run it over

 I’ve lived in London all my life and the last decade it has felt like everyone has an anecdote testifying to the mushrooming of luxury flats. Whilst London is a city that has been in development since Roman times, the last ten years is different and it’s not just our imagination, Rowland Atkinson is Research Chair at Sheffield University of Sheffield and has documented this in his book Alpha City, How London Was Captured By The Super Rich.

North West is and audio artwork that mixes sound design and verbatim testimony of former staff and students of the school, those that lived in the area and those that developed it. It’s a site specific experience to be listened to whilst the audience walk around the former site of the school. My co-creator and sound designer is Tristan Kajanus – also a former student and now DJ and radio producer.

Our starting point was to find a flow of questions that would yield interesting material to work with. We were clear that we wanted people to talk from their own sense memory and their own experience. We put together a call out to former staff and students beyond our friendship groups and started booking in interviews. We’ve conducted over thirty interviews and each is a beautiful and fascinating personal insight. What is so wonderful and rich about the material we are working with is that everyone’s stories and perspectives are different and together they offer an audience a true insight into a complex slice of London life.

With over thirty hours of material to make a forty five minute experience we are necessarily editing out a lot. One of the challenges of working with so much material is simply how to keep track of it all and make sure we can return to and find what will be most useful. I am transcribing each interview with the help of Transcribe App and sending time coded material to Tristan who is editing on Ableton. We are now on our forth draft of the script. For each stage of the script we find the vocal flow and then add sound design. With each stage of the script I am listening to it on site so that we don’t lose sight of its site specific form.

My first site visit was emotional and felt like a gut punch. I walked from Edgware Rd tube, up the West Way and underneath the underpass. So far this was exactly the same as 25 years ago, the subway was just as run down and slightly scary as it always had been, the police station was closed but still there. As I turned down North Wharf Rd. every cell in body expected to see the school gates and instead was met with a wall of construction. Of course I knew it had long gone and that new things were being built in its place but boneless it was a physical shock. With each site visit I get more used to the new landscape and I now turn these corners expecting to see manicured lawns and luxury flats. Each time I have to work harder to remind myself of its previous shape. I’ve had moments of regret in which I’ve questioned starting on this journey as the visits felt like they were taking something personal away from me and maybe I should have left my memories intact. However, these have only been fleeting and my drive to give account and testimony far outweighs this. The school itself educated nearly 40,000 people in its 25 year existence. Not all of those experiences are positive and for some people the reputation of the school was really poor. For many others it was a bold and brilliant – maybe not perfect – but honourable endeavour to comprehensively educate within the community. I’m not interested in answering whether this was a good school or not and North West is not a piece that seeks to lead the audience to one conclusion or another. I am intensely interested in asking important questions about how change happens and who is excluded? Who Gets To Be Part Of Change?