Verbal Arts Centre Reading Rooms

Successful UK City of Culture project ventures outside of Derry to Belfast and beyond during Creativity Month, spreading the joys of reading and literary discussion

Like so many things in Northern Ireland, at the heart lies the story. The Reading Rooms project was launched by James Kerr, chief executive of Derry’s Verbal Arts Centre in early 2013. It is now expanding, beyond Derry, into Belfast, and hopefully the whole of Northern Ireland.

'To begin with, we wanted to engage with City of Culture,' says Verbal Arts Centre director of learning and programming, Andrea Doran. 'To get out and inspire, to build a love and joy of reading.'

It is a simple idea. Once a week, one person – a volunteer who receives accredited training at the VAC – reads a short story and a poem to a group. Characters, themes and ideas arising from the literature are then discussed, with the individuals taking the conversation wherever they choose.

It’s not a book club. It’s not about literary merit, although the fiction used is always of high quality – so far Chekhov, Yeats, Christy Brown and Brian Keenan, among many others, have featured. Rather, Reading Rooms is a way of putting the VAC’s belief in the transformational power of story-telling into practice. Stories are taken out into communities, where people engage with them and respond with experiences of their own.

The first Reading Room group consisted of 17 men on a health programme in Skeoge in Derry. Since then, more and more groups have formed, in schools, old people’s homes, youth clubs and community centres. One of the most successful involves inmates at Magilligan Prison.

There is no top-down imposition of processes or procedures. No-one is forced to join a group. No-one is told what they have to talk about. The volunteer-facilitator chooses the literary material, but does so with the needs and character of the group in mind.

'The content is selected to engage with the group,' confirms Doran. 'Through the prism of quality literature, the group members share their own experiences and thoughts.' Dorna has been taken aback by the response. 'It’s a privilege to witness the groups, at times. It can be unbelievably powerful.'

According to Martina Blake, recently appointed as Reading Rooms regional coordinator, many of those in the groups, whether they be pupils, prisoners, or pensioners, have never had the experience of being listened to, have never had their voices heard. Being in one of the groups allows them the chance to speak, knowing their views and ideas will be given respect.

'The set-up gives them confidence and breaks down barriers. The participants are allowed to find their voice in a safe environment. They can then take away that experience of healthy risk and positive change. It’s personal, emotional and healing. The classic story triggers their story.'

Doran takes up the theme. 'There are no right and wrong answers. It’s a holistic project and people can find themselves transformed by the experience. One of the participating prisoners at Magilligan said, “Once a week we have our voices heard. For one hour a week, my views are as important as anyone else’s.” That prisoner’s views were echoed by one of the prison officers. “For that one hour a week, this place becomes a prison without walls.”'

The story is the seed. What grows from it is decided by the dynamic of the group discussion. 'It’s a simple model,' adds Doran. 'Everything is packaged around the literature. That simplicity ensures success, ownership and meaning.

As the project has developed, so more dimensions have been added. The VAC itself runs its own Reading Room for staff every Monday morning. Open Reading Rooms have been launched, including one every Thursday at Easons in Derry, for participants who are keen to get involved but who don’t belong to any community group. Writers such as Brian McGilloway have taken the role of facilitator in groups, as has actor, James Nesbitt, on a recent visit to the city.

The success of the project in Derry has seen Reading Rooms spread to Strabane, Coleraine and Limavady, where dementia cafés were set up, the central story becoming a trigger for recall. Organisations such as Age NI have seen how powerful the sessions have proved, and have pressed for further expansion.

Such demand saw the appointment of extra staff and, in October 2014, the launch of the project in Belfast, which now has its own dedicated project officer. Reading Rooms will begin for fathers and sons at the Holy Cross Primary School in the city, and also at the Duncairn Cultural Centre on the Antrim Road. Groups are also starting at Hydebank Wood Secure College, Newstart Education Centre and Eason’s in the centre of town.

In March 2014, Reading Rooms will provide a series of events during Creativity Month, a celebration of creativity and the creative industries which also includes masterclasses, workshops, festival, conferences and more happening across Northern Ireland.

While three volunteer-facilitators have already been accredited in Belfast, more are sought, as fast expansion is anticipated. The Reading Rooms project has developed a narrative of its own, transforming just as the participants have changed through the experience. But the power of the story will always remain at its core. Everything emerges from that.