EVOLUTION: Peter Nachtrieb studied biology along with playwrighting.
Playwright Peter Nachtrieb is on a collision course with destiny
By David Templeton
Peter Nachtrieb is about to destroy the world again, and for the playwright and actor, this particular apocalypse is turning out to be a pretty smart career move. Boom, Nachtrieb's intelligent, three-actor play opening this week at the Marin Theatre Company, is the story of a very bad blind date that just happens to coincide with a meteor smacking into the earth. Evidenced by the fact that Boom has been produced, to mostly rave reviews, by six different theater companies over the last four months and is slated to be produced eight more times between now and May by companies stretching from Arizona to Alaska, it would seem that Nachtrieb's darkly comic end-of-the-world scenario has blasted him into a whole new phase of an already accelerating career.
"It feels pretty great," Nachtrieb says by phone from his home in San Francisco. "I'm definitely enjoying myself. I'm pinching myself all the time. Well, not all the time—once a day, tops."
The Mill Valley native first dabbled in theater in middle school, but it was while attending Marin Academy in San Rafael that Nachtrieb became more intensely entwined with the world of theater, taking his first tentative stabs at writing. After high school, he attended Brown University, where he majored in both theater and biology, a combination Nachtrieb believes has been crucial to his unique playwriting perspective. At Brown, where he further tested his playwriting skills, he was cast as Biff in a production of West Side Story, and after realizing that all of the other Jets were gay, accepted that he, also, had long been part of that particular gang.
Upon returning to Northern California, he earned his MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State, and began churning out deliriously original scripts (Meaningless, Multiplex, Self Help) and collecting playwriting awards. In 2006, his play Hunter Gatherers, about a dinner party gone terribly wrong, was staged by S.F.'s Killing My Lobster sketch troupe, and by the end of the play's sold-out three-month run, Nachtrieb was on his way.
He's been very busy in the three years since, working on a number of commissions and world premieres with such notable companies as Southern California's South Coast Repertory and D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. But with Boom, Nachtrieb is now exploring a whole new level of success. For one thing, he's finally seeing one of his plays produced in his hometown. Though his plays have been produced all across the country, the latest staging of Boom marks Nachtrieb's first production in Marin County.
"I actually think <>Boom is a perfect play for Marin Theatre Company, and a good match for Marin County," Nachtrieb allows. Laughing, he adds, "It's kind of a weird play." Asked to elaborate, Nachtrieb mentions Boom's play-within-a-play structure. "How that works is one of the discoveries of the play as you go though it," he says. "There are these two characters, Joe and Jules, a gay marine biologist and a female journalism student, in this basement biology classroom just before the comet hits the earth. And then there's a third character named Barbara, who is on the outskirts of the play, but who seems to have influence on it. As the play goes on, you learn more and more about Barbara, and what her relationship is to the main story that you're watching. That makes it a little weird, I guess."
The characters of Joe and Jules first emerged in Nachtrieb's mind while he was in grad school, knowing only that these two people would end up dealing with some sort of natural disaster, and would serve to describe some of Nachtrieb's own scientific observations about life.
"I've always been interested in biology," Nachtrieb says, "always thinking about human beings in a biological context, how we are all part of this large, natural system, and even if we think we are outside of that sometimes, we are very much a part of that. I'd always wanted to write a play that looks at how that works. Science and biology definitely influence my worldview, and that's a big part of this play.
"On a certain level, this is my play about evolution and what influences it. I'm asking the question, how much of evolution is, you know, that something survives because it was the most fit to survive? And how much of evolution is really just chance and randomness, being in the right place at the right time? I've read that a lot of the most rapid changes in evolution occurred after big cataclysmic events—comets hitting the earth, etcetera.
"Scientifically, every time a comet has hit the planet, there has been an amazing expansion of new species. In our own lives, change doesn't usually happen at a rapid pace; it's very gradual. But, of course, things can happen at any moment that could cause a radical shift in another direction, taking your life to unexpected new places. That's what Boom is about, on one level, for all three characters in the play."
And what's it about on the other level?
"On the other level," he says, laughing again, "it's about the worst blind date possible, one that all of a sudden has no end, because they are trapped in this lab after the surface of the planet has been made uninhabitable."
Clearly, Nachtrieb has struck a chord with this play, which explains why so many theater companies are snapping up the rights to produce it.
"Obviously, the theme has intrigued people," he agrees. "And the fact that it's a three-person play set in a single location makes Boom very producible, which is maybe part of why it's gotten as many productions as it has. On the other hand, I've been in contact with most of the companies doing it, and there just seems to be something about it. The directors and actors who've done it or are doing it have a really strong connection to it. That's a real honor for me, because, let's face it, it's not the most straightforward play. It's certainly a little bizarre—as am I. That so many people are finding something in the play that makes them want to produce it is an incredible joy and an honor, and I'm not about to question their judgment."
Admittedly, Nachtrieb's plays take a slightly sideways look at life, and he populates his stories with characters who are definitely on the fringe of their respective worlds.
"I'm interested in people who are off the main train and are a little 'particular,'" he says. "My sense of humor can be a little bit on the absurdist side but is still always rooted, I hope, in some kind of logic and reality. There is a lot of absurdity in our everyday lives. There are all these absurd, ridiculous things we all do all the time that we accept as being totally normal. My plays are my way of toying around with that."
It's been three years since Nachtrieb could afford to support himself solely as a playwright, a situation he is careful not to take for granted."
Being a full-time writer is certainly something I'd always planned to do," he says, "but I always knew how hard it would be to get there. I still sometimes have a hard time believing I'm actually doing it. There's still a hand-to-mouth feeling about it, thinking things like, 'OK, if I'm careful and don't spend too much, I'm good through March.' I feel like I need to keep writing, and that I need to keep writing really good plays, to give them all great care.
"I'm at the point in my career," he continues, "where I know I can't stop and I can't get lazy, and I can't let myself produce anything that isn't the best it can be. My plan right now is to just keep going, to build on the success I've had so I can create a career that I'm proud of and that keeps giving me new opportunities."
'Boom' runs Tuesday–Sunday through Dec. 6. Tuesday, Thursday–Saturday at 8pm; Wednesday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 2pm and 7pm. $20–$51; Tuesday, pay what you will. Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 415.388.5208.
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