BWW Interview: Playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb Talks BOOM At Theatre503
San Francisco-born Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's hit doomsday comedy Boom, about a biology lab meet-cute with major evolutionary consequences, premiered at the Ars Nova Theatre in New York in 2008. This August, it comes to Theatre503.
When did you realise you wanted to become a playwright?
I've been doing theatre ever since I was a kid and I've tried to do everything, especially acting. Then through college and high school I got an interest in writing and directing too.
Writing for theatre was the most challenging for me, and I've always been obsessed with comedy and the engagement with the audience you get by writing a certain kind of pieces. That's how I became a playwright: it came from a love of theatre. Then I fell in love with the challenge of writing for voices, trying to understand what silence is doing in a play, what the visual world can do. So I keep doing it.
You're an actor too - do you prefer acting or writing?
I like creating something that exists out of my body and I love being part of the whole journey, and the writing part allows me to do that. It's an interesting concept because for the first chunk of time you're on your own and then suddenly you're in a room with other collaborators.
When I'm workshopping a new play is when my mind comes alive and works ten times faster than it usually does. I love that two-part journey of getting a play up and I love seeing what people think about what I write and what they see in the plays I've written, and finding out things that maybe I wasn't even thinking about.
Do you have a process when you're writing a new piece?
It definitely starts with a theme, a question, and characters. From those then the story begins to grow as I start writing. I also like to give myself a limitation at the start, for example a number of characters, or challenge myself to write a play that takes place in a single room and battle with that.
How does having that limitation help the process?
It's something about having a technical requirement I need to fulfil that focus myself - it gives me some structure, broadens the scope, and helps my mind organise itself and how I'm going to tell the story.
Did you have a theatrical upbringing and a theatre-based training?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and my parents started taking me to plays when I was a little kid. They were also into taking improv classes, and my dad was a lawyer but also a tuba player in a vaudeville washboard-and-banjo trio, so I was always around a certain type of environment. There was something about being up on stage and being goofy that was very appealing to me.
We loved comedy as a family and used to spend our nights watching Monty Python's Flying Circus on PBS. As I got older I started to see more and more theatre and I fell in love very quickly. I started being in shows and writing for sketch comedy groups in high school. Then I went to Brown College, where I was a theatre and biology major.
Where did Boom come from?
Boom is the convergence of my college experience. I don't have the patience to be a biologist, but it sure colours my worldview, and it's my lens to see the world.
I thought for a long time how I could write a play on evolution and biology in a weird and tangential way. There was alway that desire, but that insecurity on its execution.
I was fascinated by how much is random in our lives and how external influences are controlled and affect our and the world's journey. So why not write a show on that grand scale, but keep it intimate? I knew that putting an epic story next to an intimate one was what I wanted to do.
Did you expect it to become such a success in the US?
It was definitely a surprise. It's one of the early plays in my career and it's slightly weird. I think it's also its nature: it's a contained story with a giant theme, so I made it easy for people to put up. It was very gratifying to see a story that's very personal and revealing about the way I see the world resonate with so many people.
Do you think UK audiences are going to have a different reaction?
Probably, I'm really curious about it. It's a blend of thinking and feeling, so I think it's going to be engaging for overseas audiences.
Has it changes since it first premiered?
I kept working on the script for four productions until it was published. Then I got to a point where I felt like I could keep changing it but I wasn't going to make it any better or worse, so at that point I let it go. We made a few tiny tweaks for this production, just as far as references to shops that don't exist in the UK or other things that are not that common.
Why do you think people should see it?
I hope it gives the chance to take a different perspective on where we fit in everything, a chance to explore how our individual stories matter as well as this grand story of life. Even though they're on such different scales they both hold important weight for us, and it's a fun way to ask the questions on how we fit in that and to point out how being a small part of a ginormous story is interesting and shouldn't require an existential crisis.
How do you decide if an idea is worth pursuing?
You need to trust your gut and you need to have a nagging compulsion to keep working on something. You also need to have a little bit of faith in the fact that you're working towards something. For me, things are a mess for a while - you need to feel like you're scratching towards something interesting. Don't shut it off too soon and deem it stupid straightaway.
Which writers have most influenced you?
I like an eclectic group of people with different writing styles. Among older writers who were adventurous in their time there is Thornton Wilder, Beckett in his silences, Stoppard's humour, Oscar Wilde. A lot of stand-up comedians too: the intelligent absurdity of someone like Steve Martin, or Monty Python.
Any advice for budding playwrights?
Be open, joyful, impulsive, and rigorous. Don't be precious and keep looking forward. The more pragmatic advice is to find people you love working with, people you trust, find friends who are actors, get them in a room to read your work to hear it. It's valuable and crucial to do that. Don't feel alone as a playwright - find a community who can help bring your work to life.