We're all digging

11 April 2020

Selwin Hulme-Teague, writer of NSDF-selected show Potatoes, reflects on the creation of his show

I started writing Potatoes in my first term at uni, around the time where that big 2030 climate change headline was going around. It made me think a lot about how we now have an arbitrary point in time where it will be too late to save the planet, a limit to the way we as humans live today. I started thinking about how I’d react if we’d got to 2030 and it had all gone tits up and thought I’d probably go home to my parents’ farm in Devon because we could probably be able to grow food there and survive on our own for a bit. 

Oh, and I’d bring my boyfriend.

And that was it. I started to make up a story about two guys sometime, in the future, who decided to spend the rest of their lives together in the middle of nowhere, growing their own food in a really tough climate. I thought about what would still grow then and potatoes were a no brainer, so I decided to roll with as a motif, something that the characters could joke about and the audience would understand, but also something that could show how things deteriorate.

I think a lot of myself and how I interact with my boyfriend influenced what I wrote, which made the words quite personal to me, but not in a way that was exposing or uncomfortable, it just helped everything feel truthful and unique. I had two things in mind that I wanted to do, to use the early scenes to explore the characters’ history as a couple, and then mess everything up at the end. I wanted to do something that would ruffle the audience’s feathers, because climate change is serious, and a light situation can’t come out of this unless we change the way we live. What that ending would be though, I had no idea. 

I sent the script to my friend Rebecca (my co-artistic director at White Noise Theatre), thinking she’d be perfect to direct it. She read it and some of the options for the final scene, and we decided that it would be more interesting if the audience chose what happened at the end each night, which was a really cool surprise and worked into the narrative quite well. Rebecca and I spent a few weeks reading the scenes aloud together, feeling the emotions and unlocking the naturalism to the words, doing a rewrite here and there. Then we got some money from a society at our uni to buy some potatoes, and we were good to go.

I left it to Rebecca and the actors, Tom, Charlie and Imogen, to figure out the rest. They bossed it really. Their input completely reshaped the show and turned it into something far more brilliant than I could ever have envisioned.

They started the rehearsal process with a lot of focus on fleshing out the history of the characters before they worked on the text, using improvisation to discover key moments in the timeline of the main couple’s relationship. Rebecca also used a lot of exercises to help Tom and Charlie feel familiar with each other both physically and as acting partners, helping to craft the dynamic between their characters as well as just giving them space to play and become used to offering and accepting from one another. 

Movement rehearsals with our choreographer, Jana, helped with this because lots of the techniques we used helped figure out the exact rhythm and internal tempo of the characters and their relationship. It gave the actors a physical language to express what words can’t, which ended up coming into a lot of the movement transitions between scenes. We knew that we wanted the audience to fall in love with the couple’s relationship, and so these moments of movement allowed us to really express their love and heighten their emotions. Then when the third character turned up towards the end of the play, Imogen brought an incredible coldness and mystery that made the atmosphere in the room feel sinister, like all of this love and emotion is in danger.

There’s one bit of the show where there are five or six quick scenes, one after the other, to show time passing. I remember the rehearsals slowly edging towards this bit, building up a lot of anticipation about how we’d stage it. When the rehearsal finally came, I remember saying hi to everyone at the start, then leaving the room to write an essay for an hour, before  coming back at the end to watch what they’d come up with. Rebecca put on some nostalgic music, Jana had added some moves between the scenes, Tom and Charlie were completely in their characters, I remember feeling sick because they’d done such a beautiful thing with my writing. It was a really magical moment.

We really enjoyed making Potatoes, and it’s been great to revisit it for NSDF and see what we could improve, despite not being able to perform it to everyone in the end! I think Potatoes is more relevant now than ever, not only because things feel quite isolated and dystopian in Coronavirus lockdown, but also because it’s now ten years until 2030; time is running out to change how we live to protect the planet and the people we love.

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Photograph: Tara Noonan