When searching for an English expert, we tried to think a bit outside the box. We wanted someone who really had a passion for the language and had taken it somewhere different. As soon as we started chatting to Sarah Butcher we knew we’d found the right person. As one sixth of interactive performance group non zero one, Sarah writes and produces theatre that explores shared and personal experiences with innovative use of space and technology.
It’s hard to explain what a non zero one performance is like as it’s such a departure from traditional theatre but they’ve had critics raving about them, award nominations all over the place and were even described as ‘cool’ by Elle magazine (which means they must be very cool). The group have used everything from mp3 players to hidden cameras in their work but what really brings it to life is the language and inventive scriptwriting which comes together to give participants a unique experience each time that they’ll always remember.
Sarah says that her English classes at school ignited her passion for theatre so we caught her in a break from developing non zero one’s latest theatrical marvel to chat about how she turned that interest into a career.
What is it about the English language that enchanted you from such a young age?
I’ve always loved reading and found myself the most engaged at school when in English classes. We studied lots of different play texts, from Shakespeare to more modern plays, and had passionate group discussions about their characters, motivation and context. I remember having the distinct feeling that literature, the words that I was reading on the page, somehow connected to my life, however seemingly far that stretch might be. There was something in the language that resonated, that I felt I could relate to.
How did that start in life affect the work you make today?
I think books taught me that experience is what art is about - and that making art relies on experience, I’ve had a whole host of experiences in my 26 years of life and there’s a whole lot more to come and all of those experiences are what I draw on when I set out to make a piece of work. I went on to study Drama and Theatre Studies at degree level at Royal Holloway University, where I met my colleagues who now form theatre company non zero one.
What else inspires your work?
I’m constantly inspired by other people, If I really think about it and had to choose then I think it’s really been down to my teachers mainly, for their enthusiasm for English and theatre. They brought the language alive in the classroom, which is actually really difficult when you think that a play text is supposed to be performed and not necessarily read isolated, out of performance context, in a classroom.
Do you have a favourite playwright?
I loved and still love Alan Bennett’s plays for their comment on family life and social histories, but then you can find that in all theatre. For me, the power of theatre is that it talks about humans and the human situation which is endlessly fascinating.
How important is language in your work with non zero one?
non zero one make interactive theatre and so language is vital to that experience. Our work is a dialogue between us (the makers) and the audience (you, who are really participants as you take part and form an integral part in the piece). The name non zero one comes from the idea that experience can’t always be summed up in words, that experience is sometimes unable to be defined with the finite accuracy that we want language to give us – that things just aren’t able to be described as just zero or just one, there’s all the points in between. So language for us offers the framework for the experience to be created upon.
What challenges do you face when scriptwriting?
We’re dealing with interactive work, so the language has to be an invitation for a genuine conversation with the audience. Often our scripts have a lot of blank spaces purposefully written into them for audiences to respond to. We have to write a dialogue, for which we can only contribute to one side of, and the rest is up to the audience. This is different to a more traditional play text where you’re writing all of the characters and their situation with the intention for it to be the same every night. Just as the latter is a comment on human experience the former, our work, is the same, though in our work the character of the individual, the person taking part is unwritten, but still there.
Do you think it's possible for non-native English speakers to write for the English stage as credibly as born and bred Brits?
For me writing is about documenting and evoking experience, fictional or real, it’s interpretive and evolving so there is no reason that we should be limited to writing in our native language. There is a musicality to language that is able to honed in on, studied and replicated, just like the violin is able to be learnt and practised. When Arthur Miller wrote his play, A View from the Bridge, he spent a lot of time listening to the conversations happening in the Brooklyn Shipyards to be able to represent those voices accurately in his work.
What do you most enjoy about working in theatre?
The platform to have a conversation with what’s going on in the world and everyday life, with what makes us human, I suppose. Theatre is a little bit of everything, it’s still history, science and art class in so many ways, i’m constantly learning and having to pick up a book on the science of sight or the history of the vikings. It’s also an industry where people work really hard with a lot of passion, so the people you meet are constantly inspiring.
What's the least fun part of your work?
Maybe the hours – it can be all consuming, but at the same time there is a real satisfaction in getting to the end of a long run of a show or rehearsal period. Sometimes you get writers block and you get stuck with a show and that’s frustrating but it’s part of the bigger process of trying, failing and making something better.
What's in the pipeline for you over the next year?
We’re working on a couple of commissions to make some site-specific work, a couple of installations for art galleries and we’re writing a new show which will open in London at the end of the year before going on tour nationally and internationally.
If you’re inspired and want to follow in Sarah’s footsteps, you can choose from a range of English courses. Some focus on language and it’s use, while others look at English literature.