Shared Reading in a different costume at West London’s Bush Theatre
We're shining a spotlight on Shared Reading groups in communities right across the UK with an exciting new feature called Group of the Month. And to kick-start this new adventure, a Shared Reading group with a twist at the Bush Theatre in Shepherd's Bush in London.
It's a big year for The Reader as we celebrate our 10th birthday. Over the past decade we've read with thousands of people in all sorts of places across the UK. We've brought Shared Reading everywhere from an oil rig in the North Sea to the top of Snowden, and onto the wards and wings of high-security hospitals and prisons.
It's our ambition to bring Shared Reading to every community, so whoever you are, wherever you are, you can find a group nearby. Our staff and volunteers read great literature aloud every week in very diverse places, but whether you discover Shared Reading in a library, a care home or a workplace, you'll find a warm welcome and friendly group that brings people together and books to life.
At the Bush Theatre in London, bringing words to life is their forte, so it's no surprise that Shared Reading has found a home here but this is a group with a twist. The members meet three times a year, for periods of six weeks, to read the contemporary scripts that are currently in production at the theatre - ending each run with a group outing to see the work acted out on stage.
We spoke to the Bush Theatre's Community Producer, Holly Smith, and to the two volunteer Reader Leaders, Ruksana and Tatjana, who have led the group as part of a collaborative libraries project with Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster.
How did the group start and how did you get involved?
Holly – My role as Community Producer involves organising and delivering all the creative activity for the local community. We admired the Shared Reading groups run by The Reader and were keen to establish a group where we could read plays from the current programme.
As a venue that focuses on new writing, this group gives us an exciting chance to share and talk about our work with members of our local community, and has proved extremely successful. The plays we put on have a certain style to them; they are contemporary, reactionary, thought-provoking and challenging.
We aim to tell stories that aren’t often told, from voices that are more-than-often silenced.
Ruksana - I joined The Reader as a volunteer about two years ago and loved it from the start. I've run several groups in libraries and hospitals in West London, and found it to be a hugely stimulating and rewarding experience.
When The Reader asked for volunteers to help run the reading group at the theatre about a year ago, I jumped at the chance. I enjoy theatre and was curious to see how the Shared Reading model would work with contemporary, new plays.
Tatjana – I joined the group a little later, after another group I was running came to an end. Ruksana and I did our training together, so I was really glad to work with a friendly face. The idea of reading plays also appealed to me; I had read An Inspector Calls with another group and it had worked really well – we shared the lines out and were different characters each week.
What kinds of people come to the group?
Holly - As a community-orientated theatre, all our activity is open to anyone living in West London, focused on residents of Shepherd's Bush, and the Hammersmith and Fulham borough. The Shared Reading group, like many of our programmes, attracts a wide variety of people, from different ages, genders, backgrounds and interests, as well as a diverse mix of experience, which adds a real richness to the discussions.
Some have previously attended our monthly community theatre groups, or other groups run by The Reader. And we've had writers and theatre producers attend the group, alongside community members, who enjoy reading in their spare time and have come along just for fun.
What do you think people get from Shared Reading at the Bush?
Holly - People come to the group expecting different things, but they get to know quite quickly if it’s right for them. At the start of each six-week session, we may get one or two people who come expecting to ‘analyse’ the plays in an academic way, or people who want to make contacts with the theatre because they have an idea for a play. Generally the people who come, and stay for the term, have a passion for theatre that they’d like to deepen, explore and share with other people.
Ruksana - Many group members love the discussion and exchange of views that are brought to life when we read new, and often challenging, plays. One reader said “the most exhilarating aspects of our meetings is the exchange of views". I think this has something to do with the contemporary nature of the plays.
Tatjana - There are many things readers gain from the group that are no different to any other community. One person said “it gives me a reason for getting out of my flat” and provides “company, ‘food for thought’ and it’s free". Another said that she finds “reading for pleasure a solitary experience, but group reading has offered a social aspect". A new member to the group said it was great for “combating isolation”.
Group members enjoy the whole process of reading the play and watching it being performed afterwards. Unlike reading a story, we get to hear and see the play in different forms, from page to stage. Many readers have commented on this: “I have enjoyed hearing the plays being read out loud, in the group, then comparing the experience with how the play sounds and is performed in a live performance".
Paying such close attention, not only to the text but to each other as we read, really gives us all the opportunity to sit more comfortably with our feelings and, sometimes, to change our minds.
Is Shared Reading at the Bush different from other community Shared Reading groups?
Ruksana - This is a good question! It's similar in that the Shared Reading model we use for all our groups is at the heart of our sessions.
As group members arrive we have a chat and catch up with each other over tea, coffee and biscuits provided by the theatre. We share the reading slowly and stop to think about passages, and read a poem at the end of each session. We stay with the text and don’t get into the technical bits about play-writing, unless it feels important to someone.
Just like in our other groups, as we get to know each other better, readers are not afraid to share personal experiences.
The anticipation of watching the play being performed at the end brings a new dimension to the Shared Reading experience.
We are aware that the play is currently being rehearsed as we read it, that lines we're reading might not even be in the final script. We're also aware that the playwright might be somewhere in the theatre.
On one occasion, we did meet the playwright Chris Thompson while we were in the middle of reading his play Of Kith and Kin, a play about a gay couple whose friend acts as a surrogate mother. We hesitated before approaching him - Shared Reading isn't about any one interpretation of the text, not even the author's, but the experiences of the readers - if we talked to him, would it influence our reading?
He told us he'd written the play because he felt that the homosexual experience wasn't valued in itself, but only in relation to heterosexual lives. In the group we'd talked about the role of women in the play, dysfunctional families and power struggles between long-term partners, but this was a new idea we hadn't touched on.
Finally, we watch the play being performed live, which gives another interpretation - and we found we needed the space to discuss that too - so we've introduced a post-performance session directly after the show just to ask the question “what did you think of that?”.
What have the highlights been for you?
Holly – It's been inspiring to hear the variety of people’s experiences and perspectives, and how they spill into interpretations of the writing. The discussions are often lively and impassioned.
The bond of the group is also a highlight for me. After four terms, members have become close friends and set up time to get together in the breaks. My overall highlight of this project was when one of our older members told me that the group was an antidote to the loneliness she often experiences. That for me is at the heart of what a community theatre is.
It’s a place for people to explore their own creativity, but it’s more than that, it’s also, sometimes, a lifeline.
Ruksana - I’ve enjoyed how the action of sharing is present in so many different ways.
There’s the Shared Reading, of course, group members sharing their views and their own stories, and the sharing of physical things like the coffee pot and the room we occupy.
There’s also a sense of sharing something important with Tatjana, my co-facilitator.
And I've found myself bumping into group members in and around Shepherd's Bush and stopping for a chat. We are literally sharing physical spaces with each other. In the past weeks, I chatted to a reader on the bus, someone else walking on a local street. I also attended another community group the Bush Theatre ran and saw many familiar faces.
It’s lovely to know that we are part of a community in more ways than one.
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If you'd like to find out more about the Bush Theatre group please visit their website for upcoming dates.
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