Bush Theatre at W12 Centre, 2009

The W12 Centre in Shepherds Bush now stands in the powerful and glamorous shadow of Westfield, which opened only several feet away a few of years ago. The W12 Centre started off life as a normal local shopping centre, but now is really only comprised of an Argos, a Peacocks, and a Poundland, alongside several empty units that haven’t been able to stand up to the new competition. So what do the little places do when the big guns move in? They seem to get creative.

Over the past few years the attempts by the W12 Centre to stay a float have at times been a little comical. There was the strange dance fashion show that took place on a Monday lunchtime, the fish nibbling pedicure tanks that were set up right next to the make-shift fruit and nut stands and an assortment of strange and jolly decorations that now hang from the ceiling all year round, including a giant plastic trainer with the word Morrisons embroidered along the side.

But outside of these less successful marketing ideas have been some incredibly positive, creative and at times inspiring projects. A unit on the top floor of the centre, which used to be a McDonalds, is now a ‘free books’ project where, to prevent books going to landfill, the organization finds empty spaces and gives out free books to local shoppers. What is even more eclectic about this little outlet is the fact that it shares its space with a second hand furniture show room. How did these two rather different companies find each other? On one side you walk in and are offered a free book, on the other side you’re encouraged to buy a two-seater sofa. But these two companies co-exist happily and make use of a unit that would otherwise be completely idle.

Across the road in beautiful Westfield you move through patterns of shops that shift from clothing stores, to homeware shops, to food and entertainment. In the W12 Centre wherever there’s space and a plausible idea someone seems to have found a way of slotting it in. On the ground floor there’s even a Beauty Salon that uses the space between two units and a large curtain to form its work area.

In 2009 The Bush Theatre, an incredibly successful and respected company, used one of the units in the W12 centre for a unique and controversial promenade theatre piece. The play, Stovepipe, was hosted in the most unglamorous of settings; a disused shop unit next to a working hardware store. The signs from the show can still be seen outside the unit, with posters up for the theatre’s next projects. The use by the Bush Theatre of this unit and The Hightide Festival, who curated the piece, in so many ways highlights the need to be creative when it comes to space in central London. There was no beautiful fronting, no sense of pretention, they found a space that worked for them and they went for it.

There are still several empty units in the centre that have yet to be rented, or possibly never will. But whilst there are people or organisations that want and need to use them surely there should be a way of making this happen. Sometimes that kind of opportunity is the only way to start out and get a project off the ground at all.

Having started my own theatre venture, Love Bites, in a bookshop, with chairs next to shelves and the audience next to the lighting stands, I appreciate the need for spaces to be flexible and never left un-used. Now Love Bites is in a “real theatre” at the Waterloo East, but how would we have got there in the first place if not for the cheap and accessible first step of putting something on in an unusual space, it gave us that chance.

I am as guilty of loving Westfield and its cupcake stands as the next west Londoner, but I don’t think I’ll ever walk through its white corridors and stumble upon an experimental theatre piece or a temporary charity outlet. Yes the W12 Centre can be a little a strange, but it has the potential to help lots of people and projects get their first step on the ladder, and for that reason it has something going for it that the big guns don’t – even if its decorations are at times a little surreal.

Written by Ziella Bryars, Artistic Director of The Love Bites Plays, for the Empty Shops Network’s Pop Up People project

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