“We’re completely an NSDF baby, really – if they ever want an example of how the Festival can find and grow and nurture a new company, that’s us.”
It’s only on reading back the transcript of my conversation with Selwin Hulme-Teague that I realise how much horticultural vocabulary we both use throughout. Here, evidently, is a shared territory between plants and emerging theatre companies: both need nurturing and a space to grow, and are concerned the business of development, germination, and reacting to the environment around them. Selwin is the Artistic Director of White Noise Theatre and director of Plant Gays, a new show which, like the greenery of its title, has already grown and changed in its short lifetime.
It’s a sunny Bank Holiday Saturday when he joins me for a video call, a good month after White Noise took Plant Gays to NSDF’s day in Leicester. I find myself in the already strange position of interviewing Selwin having not seen his show, but the more we talk about it, the more elusive the play actually becomes. “It’s a play that explores the beautiful, strange, meaningful, sentimental, empathetic ways that queer people connect with nature,” he tells me, but it’s also an unfixed, ever-changing thing. White Noise works exclusively with actor-writers, and each production of Plant Gays so far has used a different cast who each wrote their own material: “I couldn't bring myself to get somebody else to perform someone else's writing,” Selwin tells me, “so the second show was something very new – we don’t know whether it’s a rotating show yet, but so far it’s brought new perspectives every time we’ve done it.”
Selwin describes his role in the process as “kind of like a showrunner in TV, but for theatre”. He gives his cast of queer people a series of exercises and prompts which encourage them to reflect on their relationship with nature, then oversees the development process from a series of devised speeches into a production. “When we put together our shows they’re never perfect, never clean – they’re always flawed, always awkward,” he tells me. “But they’re also textured and authentic, with a strong sense of ensemble, which I think creates a very interesting identity for our work.”
He traces the seed of the idea for Plant Gays (sorry) back to 2021: “I knew that I wanted a show about the relationship between queerness and nature, and I wanted to bring on lots of different voices, so we entered into an R&D process. In the first instance, we figured out a structure of three performers who each have a moment to shine – a soliloquy, poem, monologue or song that they do on their own. Those were linked by interactions or vignettes between characters.
“For NSDF, I focused heavily on those moments for each writer, so our big starting point was: what are you most interested in in this subject? How do you relate to being a plant gay?” Selwin recounts how one actor wanted to talk about femininity and female desire within nature, while another focused on the fragility of queer love through the metaphor of a greenhouse. “Queerness is very precarious,” he adds, “at any point someone could take away your rights or something could go wrong.” Another actor brought up what Selwin describes as “loneliness and finding company in nature, getting lost in the woods and finding something out about yourself.”
The more Selwin talks about the Plant Gays process, the more obvious his passion for this topic becomes: “I was thinking a lot about how queer people have existed from forever. I read some theories about how queerness has been as an evolutionary benefit to humanity, and how anomalies are needed in nature, because human existence isn't as straightforward as reproduction. I found that really interesting, and I began to think that that there is something that connects queer people with nature. And then there was this whole TikTok trend about the ‘plant gay’, and I thought, okay, this could be a really funny, light-hearted, silly play, but also with real meaning underneath.”
This idea of a “silly” piece of theatre is particularly important to Selwin. “Where's the joy in queer stories?” he asks. “So many of our stories are about heartbreak or cheating, or else they’re heavily censored. In our show, when everything an actor says was also written by them, it brings uncensored queer narratives into our culture.”
NSDF isn’t the final stop for Plant Gays; this summer, the show is visiting 96 Festival, a celebration of queer work at the Omnibus Theatre on 23rd – 24th June, as well as at the Greenhouse Theatre’s on 24th – 25th June. “We’re doing an eco-friendly festival and a queer festival,” Selwin says, “which is really exciting.” Plant Gays will then visit the South West, stopping at Chapel Barn on 29th June and Exeter Phoenix on 30th June – 1st July.